Pohl and the pulpsters
Along with the sixteen volumes of the Richard Francis Burton translation of the Arabian Nights, my other great find at this year’s Newberry Library Book Fair is the memoir The Way The Future Was by Frederik Pohl. While he never achieved the same degree of mainstream recognition as many of his contemporaries, Pohl arguably embodied more aspects of science fiction than any other figure of the golden age: he was a novelist, short story writer, essayist, literary agent to the likes of Isaac Asimov, and acclaimed editor of magazines like Galaxy and If. He made his first professional sale in 1937 and continued writing up to his death two years ago, in a career that spanned eight decades, which reminds me of Bernstein’s sad, wonderful line from Citizen Kane: “I was there before the beginning, and now it’s after the end.” Pohl’s memoir is chatty, loaded with memorable gossip, and full of valuable advice—I’ve already posted the words of wisdom that he gleaned from the editor John W. Campbell. And it’s an essential read for anyone trying to make a mark in science fiction, or indeed any kind of writing, with its chronicle of the ups and downs of a freelance author’s career. (As both writer and editor, Pohl knew how the system worked from both sides, and he’s especially eloquent on the challenges of running a magazine on a limited budget.)
The meat of the book focuses on the height of the pulp era, which saw new magazines popping up seemingly every day for fans of westerns, mysteries, adventure, true confessions, and science fiction and fantasy itself. Pohl, who became a professional editor at the age of nineteen, estimates that there were five hundred titles in all, with annual sales of about a hundred million copies—a number that seems inconceivable today, when the number of widely circulated fiction magazines, literary or otherwise, can be counted on two hands. The pulps represented one extreme of a culture that simply read more for entertainment than we do now, with the high end occupied by the likes of The Saturday Evening Post, which paid writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald thousands of dollars for a single story. (Annualized for inflation, that’s more than most mainstream publishers pay on average for an entire novel.) Readership was especially high in the sticks, where movie houses were harder to find and demand was high for a cheap, disposable diversion. They all flourished for a decade or two, and then, abruptly, they were gone, finished off first by the paper shortages of the Second World War and then by television and paperbacks. And the fact that they vanished so utterly is less surprising than the fact that a handful of titles, like Analog, have stuck around at all.
As with the heyday of paperback porn, it’s easy to romanticize the lost world of the pulps: as Theodore Sturgeon would later note, ninety percent of everything is crud, and the percentage for pulp fiction was probably higher. (Pohl says drily: “It was not all trash. But trash was the way to bet it.”) Given the pathetic rates on the low end of the scale—a penny a word at best—it’s not surprising that the good writers either got out of the pulps as soon as they could or avoided them entirely. Still, for those of us who see writing as a job like any other, it’s hard not to be enticed by the life that Pohl describes:
If you want to think of a successful pulp writer in the late thirties, imagine a man with a forty-dollar typewriter on a kitchen table. By his right hand is an ashtray with a cigarette burning in it and a cup of coffee or bottle of beer within easy reach. Stacked just past his typewriter are white sheets, carbons, and second sheets. Stacked to his left are finished pages, complete with carbon copies. he has taught himself to type reasonably neatly because he can’t afford a stenographer, and above all he has taught himself to type fast. A prolific pulpster could keep up a steady forty or fifty words a minute for long periods; there were a few writers who wrote ten thousand words a day and kept it up for years on end.
And for those who survived, the pulps were a remarkable training ground. Pohl believes that all it takes to be published are “luck, determination, and a few monkey tricks of style and plot,” and writers who made it out alive emerged with a bag of monkey tricks that no other school could offer. Pair those tricks with a good idea and a little curiosity about human life, and they were unstoppable. And although self-publishing, particularly in digital form, has revived certain aspects of that lifestyle, we’re still missing the structure that turned aspiring pulpsters into real writers, as embodied by editors like Campbell and Pohl. Editors, as Pohl notes, often took an active hand in shaping a story, either by nurturing problematic work into a publishable form or pitching ideas to authors, and even when they only served as gatekeepers, it was that sieve—or refinery—that forced their writers to grow. Pohl quotes James Blish’s observation that more than half of the major science-fiction writers of the last century were born within a year or two of 1920, which implies that it was tied to a particular event. Blish doesn’t know what this event was, and Pohl hypothesizes that it had something to do with the “social confusion and experimentation” of the thirties, but I suspect that the real answer is closer to home. The pulps were the pressure cooker that produced the popular fiction that dominated the next eighty years, and if we want to reproduce those conditions, it isn’t hard to see the limiting factor. The world already has plenty of writers; what it needs is a few hundred more paying magazines, and the editors who made them run.