The literary giants of pulp fiction

Raymond Chandler had the reputation of writing hard-boiled pulp fiction. But his words were the stuff of poetry.

As far as the literary elite was concerned – and they all considered themselves to be members of the literary elite – it was a grand time to be a writer in a glorious era of publishing.

They fought and feuded, tried to out drink each other, and launched another party anytime they walked into a room where liquor was being served.

They produced great novels and their names became synonymous with unforgettable works of literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. S. Lawrence, and Thornton Wilder.

They were the best wordsmiths around.

They believed it.

The critics believed it.

I’m not so sure they were right.

It just may be that the greatest pure writing of the era was being produced in the pages of pulp fiction magazines, all of them printed on cheap, yellowed paper with ragged and untrimmed edges.

The short stories were called lurid and exploitative.

The cover art was sensational.

The magazines were known as Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Marvel Tales, Weird Tales, Unknown, and Argosy. And from their pages came such heroic characters as The Shadow, The Phantom, and Doc Savage.

The first honest-to-god hard-boiled private eye made his appearance in the June 1, 1923 issue of The Black Mask in a story by Carroll John Daly. The detective’s name was Race Williams, who said in one of the pulp fiction yarns: “I shot him five times. Five times in the stomach before he could even squeeze the trigger. Surprised? He was amazed.”

Now that’s great writing.

In Daly’s The Snarl of the Beast, Race Williams said: “I’m what you might call a middleman – just a halfway house between the cops and the crooks. I do a little honest shooting once in a while – just in the way of business, but I never bumped off a guy who didn’t need it. The papers are always either roasting me for shooting down some minor criminals or praising me for gunning out the big shots. But when you’re hunting the top guy, you have to kick aside – or shoot aside – the gunmen he hires. You can’t make a hamburger without grinding up a little meat.”

Race Williams was also quoted as saying: “It’s the point of view in life that counts. For an ordinary man to get a bullet through his hat as he walked home at night would be something to talk about for years. Now, with me, it’s just the price of a new hat – nothing more. The only surprise would be for the lad who fired the gun. He and his relatives would come in for a slow ride, with a shovel-full of dirt at the end of it.”

That’s as close to pure literature as you can get.

How good was Carroll John Daly? Whenever Race Williams had his name on the cover of a magazine, sales were boosted by as much as twenty percent.

The literary giants wrote great literature perhaps. And the critics wined, dined, and praised them.

But word for word, they were no match with pulp fiction.

Dashiell Hammett

Just consider the impact of Dashiell Hammett’s writing:

  • I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”
  • The face she made at me was probably meant for a smile. Whatever it was, it beat me. I was afraid she would do it again, so I surrendered.
  • “Who shot him?” I asked.

The grey man scratched the back of his neck and said: “Somebody with a gun.”

  • He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him see the works.

Raymond Chandler had the reputation of writing hard-boiled pulp fiction. But his words were the stuff of poetry:

  • There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.
  • From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.
  • I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars.
  • I needed a drink. I needed life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.
  • The streets were dark with something more than night.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was best known for his pulp fiction stories and his novels about Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.

But he could write prose with the best of any of the literary giants:

  • It is a characteristic of the weak and criminal to attribute to others the misfortunes that are the result of their own wickedness.
  • I do not believe that I am made of stuff which constitutes heroes, because in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later.
  • The time has arrived when patience becomes a crime and mayhem appears garbed in a manner of virtue.
  • In that little party there was not one who would desert another; yet we were of different countries, different colours, different races, different religions – and one of us was of a different world.
  • There was but a single forlorn hope, and I took it.

You may say, well, that’s pretty fair writing, but pulp fiction will never fall into the same class with such great literary works as the fiction of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Agathie Christie, Arthur C. Clark, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, C. S. Forester, H. Rider Haggard, Robert A. Heinlein, H. G. Wells, Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, or Tennessee Williams.

Maybe not.

Then again, you might be surprised to learn that these famous authors all began their careers writing pulp fiction, too.

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