What Is Pulp Fiction?

Pulp Fiction is widely regarded as the collection of early 20th century American literature, most known for its escapism, action-adventure based plotlines, serialization, and vividly illustrated covers. The genre’s name itself comes from the cheap wood pulp paper that many of these magazines were printed on. These materials allowed for widespread mass-publication on levels relatively unseen throughout American history. The inexpensive nature of the publication materials also allowed for pulp novels to be sold for unusually low costs, often attributing to their slightly synonymous title as ‘dime novels’1 (with British versions often called Penny Dreadfuls). Pulp is often attributed as being the early foundations of American (and later Westernized) popular fiction, with the worlds of mystery, adventure and science fiction arising from these early origins. We can even chase prominent inspirations for the rise of classic American comic books to the pulp genre. The genre was popularized by writers such as Bradbury, Burroughs, Farmer, Heinlein, McCulley, Hubbard (yes, the scientology Hubbard), Lovecraft, and Daly to name just a few. Within pulp lies a vast array of primary genres: adventure, hard-boiled detective/noir/mystery, science fiction, western, horror and even aviation. Spanning such a wide collection of early literature, pulp sits at the birthplace of American popular fiction, creating many of the tropes, archetypes, plotlines, and narrative structures that we’ve come to live on as writers and consumers of media today.

In this modern day and age, it’s important we move forward with an understanding of the pulp genre alongside its historical context. While many of these novels can be studied within the historiography of their age, it’s important we recognize how our policies on social equity and inclusion have changed over the years. 1900s pulp was ripe with roaring levels of racism, misogyny, orientalism2, homophobia, and exploitative tendencies that should not be condoned in today’s media. The genre, however, isn’t all just problematic ideas of another age. After all, no genre (or subject for that matter) is a monolith. You see, when a genre like pulp is considered ‘low-bar literature’ by society, many great writers that would otherwise be shooed away from ‘high-brow literature’ of a time period were able to find a living writing pulp, making the genre somewhat a facilitator of early diversity in authorship. Thus, many great writers had their works ‘pulped’ because they were minorities. While I’m certainly no expert on the matter, we must not forget the pioneering minority authors who staked out territory for other writer’s like them within the pulp genre (Donald Goins, Indra Soundar Rajan, and C.L. Moore to name just a few). Black pulp gave rise to genres like Black Science Fiction and even holds ties to Afrofuturism. Writers in Tamil Nadu cultivated their own unique hardboiled detective pulp. In fact, the idea of ‘pulp literature’ as popular fiction spans internationally, as almost every culture has their own unique idea of pulp independent of western fiction. Pulp has always represented a struggle between classism and elitism in our culture, but remains dedicated to the notion that anyone with enough willingness and hard work can become an author if they want to, and that ‘highbrow’ writing is often dismissive of the American general public. And lest we not forget that pulp saw the birthplace of American queer fiction, bringing to life extensive collection of Gay and Lesbian writing alongside the development of the LGBTQIA+ community that was often pulped because of early 20th century homophobic sentiments. Female pulp writers even helped forward early notions of protofeminism. In fact, it would be somewhat impossible to truly know just how many pulp writers would have been considered as minorities because of how vastly used the pen name was as a means of allowing POC, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and female writers to become authors in this genre.

Because pulp was a genre written prominently for the American Public, the themes that are expressed during each era are often closely reflective of the period’s cultural zeitgeist.

So why choose this literary world? Why pulp? That’s truly the right question to be asking. Personally, pulp has been a passion of mine since before knowing what it was (cue 3rd grade Mac cross-dressing as Indiana Jones for Halloween). Its action-adventure and historical complexities serve as a fulfilling world waiting to be explored by today’s generation. By setting the standard for action and adventure fiction in American media, a deep analysis of pulp can provide us with a history of why narratives play out the way they do in modern fiction. If we’re to tell diverse stories filled with the same soul-soaring highs and bone-chilling lows of pulp stories that have brought on the media of today, we need to understand where our literary structures came from and why archetypes are built the way they are. A proponent of analysis-driven stories and narratology, I think the future of media as we know it is based in a better understanding of our literary origins. As a mathematics student, I’m fascinated by formula and function; decimals and their derivations. Pulp defines these formulas of contemporary storytelling. So if we’re going to create new and exciting stories, then proper analysis of our origins is where the great ideas of tomorrow are going to come from. How do we improve from our past? How do we tell new, diverse stories that serve the escapist desires of a multifaceted American public? And what aspects of classic narrative and tradition do we continue to revive? So many good questions that I hope we all can tackle together through analysis and discourse. Endlessly, I invite you to join me on this literary excursion through worlds past, pulped, and present. So much exists to uncover- and I can’t wait to get started!

(1) Dime novels and Pulp novels, while often used interchangeably as titles, are not always the same thing. There are discrete differences yet also strong similarities between the two.

(2) As defined in Edward Said’s book Orientalism, this is the notion of how Western media has the tendencies to look down on in scorn at Eastern tendencies, while still practicing culturally appropriative theft of non-western ideology. This is often tangential to the notion of ‘exoticism’.

(3) Footnote: I’m aware that the photo above has classic novels that are not considered pulp fiction, but I strive to use my own photos on this site and I just loved the pulp-y style of these traditional novels! Encouraging pulp in the mainstream world is what I’m interested in doing…so isn’t it fascinating to see mainstream gone pulp sometimes?

UPDATED: [05/25/2023]

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