By Katie Manko
Skidmore English Professor Janet Casey spoke last Thursday in the Nott Memorial about the history of pulp fiction. The speech corresponded with “Pulp Fiction Paintings,” a selection from the Robert Lesser art collection on display in the Mandeville Gallery through Sunday, September 25. The paintings are borrowed from Lesser’s collection from the New Britain Museum of American Art. Each painting is a cover from one of the pulp fiction novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In her talk, Casey explained her concentration on “special modern American fiction outside mainstream college level” and cited the Saturday Evening Post and Fortune magazine as popular news sources frequently featuring pulp fiction work.
Initially, the definition of “pulp fiction” referred to fiction printed on pulpy, poor quality paper for a lowbrow audience. This characteristic differed from the glossy magazine pages read by middle and upperclass folks. Today, the term refers to a particular type of literature, which can be described as having lots of images and advertisements.
Pulp fiction originated in the 19th century when dialogues were produced for civil war soldiers to carry with them. These pocket-sized novels were 100 pages long and published by Beetle and Adams to generate revenue from newsstands. They were released on a monthly basis through the 1970’s. Later on, half-dime novels were written for younger audiences and included images of detectives and western heroes. The format and depiction of male heroes alternated back and forth between magazines and novels.
With regard to frontier stories, Casey remarked that “what it did was identify a niche market…people simply wanted more fiction than The Post.” Given that there were no subscriptions to pulp fiction work, Casey expressed that it was very impressive how much interest consumers showed in purchasing the work each week.
Several common themes recur throughout pulp fiction history, as featured in the multifaceted 1920s piece, Black Mask. Likewise, pulp fiction imagery was incredibly imaginative. Often focusing on superheroes, science fiction. detectives, heroes from the World Wars, and ravishing female victims, creative pictures graced the covers of these works.Later on, comic books came to replaced pulp fiction and continued to emphasize the singular hero characters and stereotypical female roles that existed in former pulp fiction pieces.
Interestingly, there is a traditional dichotomy between fiction material and middle-ground magazines. Vanity Fair criticized the pulp fiction audience as “those who move their lips when they read.”
Such a statement seems to reflect the sentiment that the readers of pulp fiction were thought to be either young or not well educated, and were captivated by the rhetoric of male heterosexuality and aggressiveness.Over time, readership changed from lowbrow to middlebrow, with author Ray Chandler later writing novels incorporating the pulp fiction style.
The art display in the Nott Memorial reflects a rare collection of oil paintings used as covers for pulp fiction works over last century. To this day, pulp fiction is difficult to find and exists only because occasional collectors saved old magazines that have since been donated after the owner died.
In Lesser’s case, he collected the pieces because he felt that “for these little ten-cent pulps, they had magnificent oil paintings for the cover art. I was amazed how great some of it was, how well trained these artists were.”