Research & Publishing

From the issue dated July 28, 2000


'Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines'

by Nina C. Ayoub

Erin A. Smith says she's heard the question over and over: "What's a nice girl like you doing in a genre like this?" Ths genre? The pulps. Hard-boiled fiction published from the 1920's through the 1940's in magazines nicknamed for their rough, untrimmed wood-pulp paper.

She begins Hard-Boiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines (Temple University Press) by describing how she discovered pulp detective fiction through feminist rewritings of the genre from the 1980's. The scholar fell hard for Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Nebel, and the other tough-guy writers of the original pulps. Their impatience with the pretensions of English mystery authors, she says, paralleled her own impatience with certain kinds of academic discourse.

"The dense, theoretical prose of some academic texts has its perfect opposite in the terse, stripped-down dialogue of hard-boiled crime stories," writes Ms. Smith, who teaches American studies and literature at the University of Texas at Dallas.

But what did pulp magazines mean to their original, mostly white, male working-class readership?

For one thing, in common with many of their readers, pulp writers did piecework. They were paid by the word. "I am a fiction factory," declared Erle Stanley Gardner, who each day recorded the number of words he'd produced and his total pay. The convoluted but fast-paced plots also reflected the Taylorist flow of the modern factory.

Working-class readers found echoes of their lives in tales of private investigators who took flak from employers, worked in seedy neighborhoods, had problems with women, and struggled for autonomy on the job.

The pulps emerged in an era of deep struggle over the pace and methods of industrial production and anxiety over the growing female presence in the work force. While reflecting that reality, "hard-boiled detective fiction nostalgically re-created the fading artisanal world and the appropriately subordinate women that went with it," Ms Smith writes. At the same time, pulp magazines offered new ways of negotiating consumer culture.

Lined with ads for bodybuilding programs, correspondence schools, and other avenues for self-improvement, the pulps could be read as conduct munuals for manly demeanor, she argues. Readers met heroes who knew how to fight, talk, and — not incidentally — dress appropriately in any situation, outsmarting mobsters and millionaires alike.