Pulp in the Wind: On Writing to The Masses

Updated: Jan 4, 2019

Writing literature requires a heightened level of narcissism bordering on a god-complex. One cannot build a world in poetry or fiction without this sentiment blending fiction with fact. And the desire of all gods is to impact all sentient creatures. Yet, this desire, undefined in most writers, leads to mediocrity and inanity.

Manifested today, this desires takes the form of writing to “everyone.” How a writer conceives of his audience will shape every piece of the writing. Implicitly, for instance, a writer is writing to the literate “everyone.” Yet we know that what is considered Literate changes. The ability to read a newspaper is categorically different than the ability to read Chaucer.

Like all cultural change, there are numerous if not dozens of causes. What is considered Literate in our society is no different. For our purposes, we will focus on one cause, Pulp. Pulp refers to a soft mass of fibers derived from rags of woods used in paper-making. Pulp magazines exploded in popularity in the 1910s and 20s. They were so ephemeral in nature the only way to make a profit on their short shelf lives was to sell them cheaply to the masses. Thus The Mass Market was born. (Hence later, The Mass Market Paperback.)

This was a profound shift in literary writing, for better and for worse.

Throughout the history of the written word, writing had been aimed at a select few elites in a given society. What’s more, genre literature such as Children’s Lit, did not exist.

Children’s literature was an invention of the late 18th century. To the extent that children had read or been read to they had heard the works of great literary authors, who had intended their work for the best adults in society. Even the fairy-tale writers, The Grimm’s Brothers, did not initially intend their tales for children.

The Brothers Grimm—Jacob and Wilhelm—were philologists. They sent their students into the country side in order to gather popular folk stories from peasant grandmothers. The Brothers then carefully unified these stories under a single language—German. This German work was adopted by the first universal education system in the history of the world: The Prussian System. The Grimm’s Brothers’ purpose was to unite Germany under a singular Language. In this they succeeded.

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey accomplished the same unification of the dozens of Hellenistic tribes into a Greek nation. Chaucer and Shakespeare in English. Dante in Italian. Cervantes in Spanish. Their use of language united all despite aiming their work at the elite.

The term Pulp in writing is considered to be writing that is “sensational and of poor quality.” This is true, because the aim was “everyone;” meaning, all literate men and women, meanwhile, Literate fell into the gutter.

This effected more than merely the quality of the language, but the structure of story too. Jules Vernes’ editor asked him to alter the ending of Around the World in 80 Days to have a happy rather than tragic denouement. The magazine Le Temps (“The Times”) was aimed at the French Family, both parents and their children. Thus altering the ending was designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. Indeed, in the 1870s, when Verne was published in Le Temps, their circulation grew rapidly.

Imagine, however, the impact to the finale of Gone with the Wind were Rhett and Scarlett and daughter to be happily sitting on their porch as the Carpetbaggers continue to invade the New South. Or in The Tell-Tale Heart the protagonist were to escape justice


This is not to say Vernes’ editor was mistaken. Instead, it is to indicate a difference in focus. The focus during The Mass Media era was on the "literate" masses rather than the artwork itself.

Mass no longer exists. At least not at this moment. (I fear what it could mean were mass to re-emerge). The most popular TV shows today (television being the ultimate in Mass) reach a fraction of what Seinfeld reached at its peak in the mid 90’s. When we say “everyone watched Game of Thrones last night,” we mean “everyone like me.” When people said in 1983 everyone watched the M*A*S*H finale last night” this was almost literally true.

What is true is this: Everyone owns a television. Everyone owns an advanced mobile communication device; that is, a TV, a newspaper, a recording station, a magazine, a radio, a movie theatre—in their pockets.

This is good for writers.

Rather than appealing to “literate" readers capable of nothing more than the deciphering of labels on their antidepressants, writers can hone their craft for the intellectual elite. That is, the elite, non-academic, who chooses to heighten their senses, their conceptual framework, their integrating faculty and their knowledge of humanity.

Elitism need not be pejorative. It has always meant the best in society. The great tragedy of humanity is that while historically men had been barred from rising to the elite in society by force and economic circumstances, today men and women are barred from rising to the elite, by their own choosing. During the dawn and dusk of the 20th century, our literary institutions did not demand that men rise, but instead lowered every realm of the mind to the garbage heap.

Whereas elite had been a locked door, we must transform it into a stairway.