Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: Pulpwood Days: Editors You Want to Know

Volume One: Editors You Want to Know
Edited by John Locke
Off-Trail Publications, 2007

PULPWOOD DAYS is a collection of articles from writer's magazines from the Golden Age of pulp magazines. Most of the articles are interviews done between 1926 and 1930 and are of editors from many of the famous pulp magazines that sold tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies every week. Yet many of these editors are not well-known, as they have always taken a back seat to the writers whose stories have appeared on the pages of their magazines.

But just because they are not as famous as their counterparts doesn't mean that their work is any less valuable. On the contrary: these editors as a whole were the foundation of the pulp industry. In addition, throw out any notions you may have that these editors were drones who did nothing but sit at a desk and take pleasure in destroying writers' egos. Practically each one of them had colorful backgrounds and were also very opinionated about their jobs and what they expected from writers. In addition, they took great pleasure in mentoring new writers and helping those that were sincerely trying to better their craft.

There are two series included; "Meeting the Editors in Person," originally ran in The Author and Journalist in 1926 and is reprinted here in its entirety. All were written by Albert W. Stone. Editors interviewed include Frank Blackwell, Alice Strope, Harry Maule, A.H. Bittner, Anthony Rud and Harold Hersey. The second series, "Editors You Want to Know," also appeared in The Author and Journalist. Some of the editors include Daisy Bacon and Farnsworth Wright. At least two of the editors, Harry Maule and A.H. Bittner, also appeared in the "Meeting the Editors in Person" series, so you are seeing them here twice, but it doesn't detract from the information they provide in the interviews.

Down to the individual, these people were enormously dedicated, hard-working, and interested in the promotion of young talented writers - when they could find them. But they first had to plow through the tons of manuscripts that arrived on their desk every year. Arthur E. Scott, editor of TOP NOTCH, said "Judging by the mass of manuscripts that come to my desk every morning, and considering that every editor I have met has a similar quantity, I have come to the conclusion that at least seventy-five per cent of the people of the United States are trying to write fiction."

What makes the "Editors You Want to Know" series very special is that many of the writers of these articles are famous pulp writers on their own, like William MacLeod Raine and E. Hoffmann Price. The latter interviews Farnsworth Wright, the legendary editor of WEIRD TALES and is worth the price of admission in itself.

Besides these two series, there are several articles that appeared originally in Writer's Digest as well as in The Author and Journalist.

PULPWOOD DAYS is fascinating because it provides an insiders look at the pulp industry, but it's also still very relevant, because it is full of advice that many writers nowadays could find useful, especially those who write in the popular genres like mystery, western and romance. While most of the editors differed somewhat in how manuscripts were submitted to them, it seemed that a common denominator with all of them was one word: volume. They wanted writers who could churn out the words on a regular basis, who could develop a following.

Now, it's easy to assume that writers had it fairly easy: as long as they could type and keep the drivel going, they'd get published. Not so fast. Editors very strongly advocated strong stories, even if it meant heavy copyediting. In an interview with Frank Blackwell, who was an editing machine in charge of DETECTIVE STORY, WESTERN STORY and FAR WEST ILLUSTRATED, Stone recounts:

"One writer named by Mr. Blackwell-the one who drew down the $42,900 for his fiction last year-lives in England and turns out fiction with almost the undiminished constancy of water coming out of a hose. His copy, I was told, is hardly a model for literary typists to follow. It requires considerable editing, and when it reaches the linotype machines it looks something like the cub reporter's first story.

But it has all the elements of real fiction - action, atmosphere, alacrity of movement, characterization, virility. The characters are alive. The stories are compact, closely-knit. And this author is not, I was told, a young man any more. He is a veteran whose real name never appears over his work. So prolific is he that he employs three noms de plume. He receives three cents a word, straight, for everything he sells. And he sells everything he turns out."

I especially loved the interview with Harold Hersey. Hersey is a legend, an editor who churned out some of the most spectacular failures in the history of pulp magazines. So it was good to learn a little about him from another person's perspective. Albert Stone's interview shows him as a boisterous friendly man, highly intelligent, and a risk taker who couldn't wait for the next adventure. And not only do we have this interview, but we also have a first person essay by Hersey as well.

Locke has done all pulp fiction enthusiasts, historians and collectors a tremendous favor by putting this collection together. If you fall into any of those categories, or if you are in the editorial profession, or if you simply want to know more about what it was like during the Golden Age of Pulps, PULPWOOD DAYS should be on your shelf.


Barry Traylor said...

Thanks for your review of this fine book edited by John Locke (when are we getting volume two John?) I have long been interested in what went on behind the scenes in the world of pulps. Too bad all those old fellows that worked at the printers are long gone. Be fun to pick their memories. But I am sure it was just a job to them and would not recall anything to speak of. When I began working in the trade it was all hot metal so I have an idea what it looked like down in the trenches.
Have you reviewed Pulp Fictioneers? Another excellent job by John Locke.

Charles Gramlich said...

Those interviews would certainly be interesting. I love reading about writers and what they have to say.

Evan Lewis said...

I've seen this offered online and so far resisted it. Guess I should stop.

Laurie said...

thanks for the compliments, everyone. No I haven't read Pulp Fictioneers - but I did order a copy of Gang Pulp and that's next on my list.