The Past and Future of Pulp Fiction

In the 1850’s, as so many literary trends have, pulp fiction began in New York. It was an outgrowth of the many magazine and newspaper empires that bragged of readerships west to the frontier and east to the European continent. The best of these was a publication called The New York Ledger. Its owner, publisher, and editor was a flamboyant marketer by the name of Robert Bonner. He firmly believed in giving his readership what they wanted (imagine that). What they wanted was “escape.”

He gave them that in the form of serialized stories filled with excitement and adventure in far-away places. These were written by some of the biggest named writers of the era—Harriet Beecher Stowe and Charles Dickens for example.

As soon as Bonner’s competitors saw the success of this model, they of course began to copy it. Soon serialized stories were everywhere. In the 1860, a natural follow-on to these gave rise as the Dime Novel. Irwin Beadle & Company advertised them as a dollar book sold for a dime. The frontier, the Civil War, and increased literacy rates among the young provided plenty of material and a ready readership of these highly romanticized novels.

As a historical performer of the historical character Buffalo Bill Cody, I learned that Ned Buntline turned Cody’s real life and imagined episodes of frontier derring-do into quite the money mill of dime novels. So much so, that Buntline recruited Cody and some of his Indian Scout friends to act in a stage production based on these dime novels to great success and the beginning of Buffalo Bill’s incredible career as a showman.

Dime novels sold at news stands and dry-goods stores. Their primary market segments were young blue-collar workers and juveniles. At their height, there were fourteen publishers who were cranking these easy to read, adventurous, and romantic low-cost books. The run was a long one—fifty years. It took a major postal rate increase and silent films to put an end to them. Long before it ended, however, an ex-telegraph operator, Frank Andrew Munsey, stepped up in 1882 to suggest a unique philosophy.

Departing from the magazine norm of printing on slick, glossy paper, Munsey stated, “The story is more important than the paper it’s printed on.” Thus began pulp paper magazines with the introduction of Munsey’s weekly, The Argosy. Continuing the theme of entertainment first, last, and always, other pulp magazines soon sprang up. Several began to specialize in developing genres such as mysteries, sci-fi, hard-boiled detective stories, western, adventures, and romance. The big difference was their target market segment—adults. After all, these grownups had been raised on serials and dime novels. Why not provide them more of the same, although with somewhat more sophisticated fare? This trend lasted even longer than the dime novels—seventy years. At its zenith, over thirty million American read the pulps monthly. That’s some major numbers.

Which brings us up to today. Remember the roots of commercial fiction was to provide easy to read escapes. With the stresses of modern society, the stage is set for a resurgence of similar literature. My wife, Barbara (the walking eidetic memory of where all our bookstore books are located), first noticed an emerging trend last summer. More adults were purchasing Young Adult books to read for themselves. She believes that the large YA books such as the Harry Potter series and Eragon exposed many adults to the excitement contained in books targeted for a much younger audience. They soon realized they could find much more of the same in much shorter books so popular with pre-teens and teens. They were exciting. They were written in a manner to keep the reader’s attention focused and titillated. Chapters were short—1-3 pages. Each chapter ending created a need to learn what happens next. The language was relatively simple and yet was entertaining. Bingo!!! Instant escapism for people with little time on their hands or for people who didn’t want a challenging read, just an entertaining one.

Here lies a potentially huge trend—a modern day equivalent of the dime novel and pulp fiction. We’re already seeing it with the sudden adult interest in teen themes such as vampires mixed with romance. Lines between genres and markets are becoming blurred. I’m not saying this direction will replace all adult writing. What I am suggesting is that this has the potential to become a major money-making trend. Time will tell, but it’s worth considering. A few major authors have been catching on to it as the first have entered the YA field and then began using some of the YA techniques in their adult writing—Patterson for one. Dan Brown and James Rollins for others. The Scientologists have revived a number of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp fiction stories as pulp books and cheap audio book versions. I have also stumbled across a number of pulp afficiandos discussing the golden age of the pulps and attempting to write them as well on the internet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.


This is a cross-posting from
Bob Spear‘s Book Trends Blog.

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