Monday, February 01, 2016

Extinction Event

When I was a young man working on honing my writing skills, I had the good fortune of
meeting a lot of the old pulp writers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the world of the "pulps", they were magazines printed on low-quality paper, often featuring garish covers to attract readers. There were, during the great days of the pulps, hundreds of these magazines on the newsstands. And then...slowly at first and then more rapidly...they died off. It was like a vast extinction event.

When I was speak with these old veterans of the prose world they would tell me of how they could make a good living simply sitting at home with their typewriters churning out one story after another, or one novel after another, and selling them to the pulp magazines of the day. Most of these guys would tell me how they'd sold the first story they ever sent out! It wasn't that they had started out with such great skill, it was just that there were so very many fiction markets that they had a treasure-trove of editors from which to choose.

Pulps at that time were similar in many ways to the comic book markets of that industry's great days. There were groups of pulps for every kind of interest and sub-interest you can imagine. Crime stories. Cop stories. Murder mysteries. Fantasy mags. Horror titles. Horse fiction. Publications about hunters. Romance tales. Kinky romance tales. Aviation magazines. Dog stories. Cat stories. Mainstream yarns. If you could think of a title and purpose for a magazine, then it likely existed.

A lot of the guys I had met and spoken with had written for western pulps and science fiction pulps. And each of them would tell me how they could pay the bills just writing short stories. Screw the novels--they didn't need to do that. All they had to do was sit down and write a respectable, competent, fun short story and it was money for groceries and housing and clothes and maybe a trip to the beach with the family.

And by one...the magazines began to close down. The newsstands changed (and vanished). The fiction publications dwindled and faded until there was no way to earn a living writing short stories anymore. The most talented of the lot adapted and learned to write and sell novels, news articles, what-have-you. Most of them just stopped and went to work in the shops and factories or wherever they could labor for a living.

When I would ask them why--what was it that had killed off the goose that laid those wonderful eggs, they would each and every one of them respond with the same answer:


Like some extinction events in the world of biology, it was this one huge thing that slammed into the landscape and changed everything forever. The television was the giant asteroid for the pulp magazines. It created the enormous, dead boundary that killed off an entire way of life. Before the popular availability of television one can examine a rich and varied fossil record of amazing pulp fiction. After...almost nothing remained.

I began to think of these old guys and the world in which they worked because of something that happened to me this year. For Christmas I got one of those USB devices that allows you access to a limitless number of movies and episodic video. I can watch pretty much any damned thing I feel like watching.

Normally I read about two or three books a week. Since I got that damned little TV device on December 25, 2015 I have books. That's right. Not one freaking book. I haven't read any books and I haven't purchased any books.

Shit. And I know better.

The old dudes were spot on the money.


Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

I got an RCA Viking Pro Android tablet for Christmas -- and I finally read TWO books and a short story, including your last book for THE COALITION (loved the ending, by the way). At least now I can get this backlog of Kindle books out of the way.

James Robert Smith said...

Thanks, Roy!

I have downloaded hundreds and hundreds of classic novels to my Kindle (which is working again). So I suppose I can no longer say that I've read every books I own.