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One of the most painful truths in American publishing is that genre
fiction is better than literary fiction. There are two basic reasons for this. One is the
market angle: detective stories outsell quality novels at an exponential rate.
The second is tougher to defend, but its the truth. The writings just better.
Genre fiction, by providing a steady diet of sex, violence and adventure, and little or
nothing more, serves the reader in a way that so-called quality literature
cant approach. No short story in Harpers
or The Atlantic could ever be described as
gripping or a page-turner. And since all storytelling rests on the
inherent fascination of the tale, not the finesse with which its told, it can
finally be stated here: Raymond Chandler is a better writer than John Updike.
Peter Haining addresses the hidden history of magazine fiction in this excellent book, which is simultaneously a history and a defense of the pulp magazines which flourished between World Wars I and II. Haining goes beyond discussion of the stories and focuses his attention on the men who published the magazines, and what they thought of their work. Particularly interesting is the story of H.L. Menckens love-hate relationship with Black Mask, which he published because it enabled him to subsidize his other, better-regarded but much less profitable venture, The Smart Set. Haining admits being a lifetime pulp-fiction fan and collector, but he recognizes the inherent artistic limitations of the pulps, and that keeps the book from devolving into mere fanboy worship. A gentle sense of humor permeates the text, particularly when commenting on the lurid cover illustrations which often had little or nothing to do with the adventure stories contained within.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this book is the scope of Hainings reading and research. Many horror, mystery and science-fiction fans know the names of a few of the old pulp magazines; Black Mask and Weird Tales are often cited, as they gave early starts to writers like Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and John D. MacDonald. But how many people know about tiny, forgotten pulps like Thrilling Detective, Ace G-Man Stories, or Famous Fantastic Mysteries? Theyre here; Haining even reproduces the cover of the only published issue of 10 Story Fantasy. This is a detailed, and lavishly illustrated history of the low-rent, lowest-common-denominator (not that either of those is a bad thing) magazines that published some of the most interesting writing in American history. Literary magazines have always been around, and will always linger as long as there are university writing programs to provide wan, enervated stories of suburban anomie. But the era of the hard-boiled pulps is gone, and thats too bad. Peter Hainings book provides a fantastically entertaining look back at this lost, and underrated, genre of writing.