The thing to remember about those pulp magazines of the 1920s and ’30s is that, with a few exceptions, the stories behind the lurid covers didn’t have to be any good. Not in any literary sense, at least — the average story in a pulp magazine was about as mindless as daytime television, if not more so. (Daytime TV at least provides weather reports and stock quotations.)
Curiously, however, in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, pulp editors were supposed to be almost as irreproachable as the New York Times, and actually came fairly close. Better than the average American college graduate, anyway. Even the writers, on average, were reasonably good at such matters., though the actual stories they framed in these grammatical and well spelled terms came about as close to mindless as any literature ever can.
You will remember, though, that I mentioned honorable exceptions to the rule of pure trash, and there were some. One was the crime pulp Black Mask, edited by Ken White from the cubicle next to my own.
Well, let’s slow down a moment here so I can paint you a word picture. The entire suite of Popular Publications’ offices on the top, or 20th, floor of the structure called the Bartholomew Building was in the approximate shape of a capital letter T, which someone had pushed over so it was lying on its side. The down stroke of the T, which now ran east and west, was shortened, leaving on one side just room for three small offices and on the other side the wall that kept visitors penned in the waiting room until our receptionist-switchboard girl, Ethel Klock, said they could go on in. The cross-stroke of the T, now running north and south and thus paralleling the nearby East River, housed all the rest of Popular’s employees except for the two on the (former) downstroke, which is to say Ken White, with his Black Mask, and me. (I believe a deceased pulp called Railroad Stories had once been edited from the now-vacant third of those downstroke offices.)
Although Ken White was my nearest neighbor, we seldom spoke. He was rarely in his office, apparently doing most of his work at home. He was, I believe, the magazine’s third working editor, and he was charged with keeping the magazine as outstanding for quality and innovation as it had been made by his predecessors. That was no light responsibility. Black Mask had been started by the team of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan as publishers, and they had turned it over to “Cap” Joseph Shaw to edit. Shaw had done wonders, recruiting writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler to reinvent the crime story for him. Unfortunately for Ken White, those two were no longer pounding the typewriter keys to fill the pulps, so it was a tough assignment.
White and I had the only offices in use on that abbreviated leg of the lazy-T. Everything else was on the T’s crossbar. Backtracking to where the crossbar of the T sat on the stumpy vertical, there was the office of Jane Littell, who edited Popular’s love pulps.
Janie had a background she didn’t much care to talk about, including a stint — before she began to put on the pounds — as a circus performer. She would never get explicit about it but I formed the opinion that she had been an equestrienne, one of those fearless young women who circled the ring standing on the back of a galloping horse.
Janie’s magazines were of no interest to me, except as sources of small checks for the odd Valentine’s-day greeting-card sort of poetry that I seemed capable of knocking out in quantity. The pay wasn’t great — generally 25 cents a line — but it was easy money, especially after I figured out how to double my average check.
I had begun, you see, mostly by writing in long lines —
“You never knew I waited for your footsteps in the spring,
And counted fifty at your door before I dared to ring —”
Adding up, as you see, to fifty cents worth of poetry, but easily converted to a whole dollar’s worth by the simple expedient ofcutting each line in half:
“You never knew I waited for
Your footsteps in the spring,
And counted fifty at your door
Before I dared to ring —”
Fiction was somewhat more profitable than even doubled-up verse, especially when it was in the form of science-fiction stories that I could buy from myself for my own magazines. I had formed the habit of staying in the office for an extra hour or two after closing hours to write them, and that’s how I came to be friends with Janie. She spent most evenings doing the same things for her own magazines, because, she said, sorrowfully, darn it, she just couldn’t find enough good stories among the submissions from the freelancers and thus was forced to write about half of the contents of her magazines herself. And, of course, to buy them from herself, thus (I would estimate) roughly doubling her income from the magazines.
Like almost all Popular’s editors, Jane separated the incoming manuscripts into two heaps, one for submissions by writers whom she recognized as already published, either in her own magazines or someone else’s. Everything else went into the “slush pile,” or, more politely, the “unrush.”
Unrush is what they were. The mss from pros got read and reported on fairly quickly. The unrush did not. In Jane’s case, the slush was stacked on the floor behind her desk, several hundred unopened manuscript envelopes in each pile, probably totaling a three- or four-month accumulation. When Jane saw me eyeing the evidence of her neglect she asked me a bit sharply how long it took for me to read the average submission. When I said, truthfully, “Two days,” she began to look at me in a quite different way.
“Then,” she said seductively, “would you be willing to give a hand with some of these?”
I let her talk me into it, not so much out of neighborly good feeling as to investigate the chance that there was a hungry market here for my own work. I learned quickly that there wasn’t. Writing that sort of thing was entirely beyond my capacities. I not only couldn’t write it, I was nearly incapable of reading it. When I agreed to lug a couple hundred pieces of Jane’s slush from her office to mine I had warned her that I didn’t know what, exactly, to look for in a possible buy.
Jane shook her head. “Don’t worry about details,” she said. “If you find a story that you can read all the way through, I want to see it.” And, sure enough, I found very few of those, and none of the handful I did pick out made it with Jane. When I brought back the rejects for Jane to send away I politely excused myself from reading anymore “for the time being.”
No other time ever came.
More pulp makers to come.