It may seem a bit peculiar to write an article about the decline in reading for a site that has done so much to promote the works of writers past and present. Most assuredly, regular visitors to this site are readers. Unfortunately, they are the exception and not the rule in the present day.
During the pulp era, writers were sometimes referred to disparagingly as the Penny-a-Word Brigade. Flash forward to the end of the second decade of the 21st Century and you’ll find far too many pulp writers who would salivate at the thought of earning a penny a word for their efforts. Far too many receive no financial compensation at all, some do not even receive comp copies of their own titles.
The purpose of this article isn’t to disparage small presses that are labors of love for publishers who regularly soldier on year after year failing to turn a profit. When you are a small operation, economies of scale aren’t even a concern. You could publish two dozen titles a year and still lose money. Paying writers or artists is not always possible for those who are in it for something other than financial return.
So what happened? Why is the market for pulp fiction so much worse than it was during the Great Depression? Why do you have to be a Stephen King or J. K. Rowling or Tom Clancy to find it easy to raise a family and live in the suburbs and not have to suffer through the drudgery of a day job with your passion relegated to a hobby at best?
The simple answer is books are going the way of radio drama. They still exist, but they are not what the masses look to for entertainment. I cannot recall a single evening my Mom wasn’t reading Agatha Christie or Mary Roberts Rinehart. She was born in 1942 and passed away when I was 10 years old just days before her fortieth birthday. I’m now 48 years old and doubt very much I would fall asleep nearly every night reading a book without her example. Why isn’t this the norm for everyone?
Leisure activities come and go. Radio drama co-existed comfortably with movies, but television eventually did the “theatre of the mind” in. A generation who lives every second of their lives, even when attending concerts, on their Smartphone will never be a generation who read books despite the best efforts of Kindle.
The passing of time is all around us. The greying of fanbases at pulp conventions is another sign since pulp cons were not ripe for usurpation the same way comic book conventions were by people that love comic book films and cosplay, but don’t necessarily read comic books. Millions mourned the loss of Stan Lee a few months back. One wonders just how many of those under the age of forty have actually read a comic book written by Stan Lee. They loved him as an elder statesman creator who made amusing cameos. Their attraction is to the senses-shattering, CGI-heavy, big budget spectacles and not to the simple four color comic books printed on thin paper that sold for a dime or a quarter in decades past.
It is the same with the used bookstore. That gateway to the lost treasures of the past that lined every small town and big city are now an endangered species and not one the government sees fit to protect from extinction. Much of their inventory moved online while used book prices climbed, but sadly, plenty of their stock was junked. No one cared enough to keep the Mom and Pops in business. The masses weren’t reading for entertainment any longer.
Charles Edward Pogue recently summarized it perfectly in an online exchange where he remarked, “In the age of comic book super-heroes; the charms of Tarzan and [H. Rider] Haggard and the swashbuckling swordsmen of [Rafael] Sabatini or the diabolical tortures of Fu-Manchu seem rather quaint. Plus wading through Victorian prose can prove daunting to the uninitiated.”
That really says it all, books are records of the past and their value in our changing world has decreased dramatically because they are mired in the past. A work colleague who is also hovering near the half-century mark recently said of Rudyard Kipling, “we really shouldn’t be allowed to read things like that anymore” in reference to the fact that Kipling, a Progressive in his day wasn’t progressive enough to forgive the context in which he expressed certain ideas.
I was a kid when Star Wars and Indiana Jones debuted, but I was still old enough to be inspired to read what inspired George Lucas. Of course even then, I was not common for my generation. Everyone my age loved the myths of the 1970s and early 1980s, but they didn’t see Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien films in the same light I did. They weren’t interested in tracking down newspaper strips and comic books from before their parents were born or listening to Old Time Radio or reading novels from the 19th Century.
In a politically correct CGI world of the present, there’s even less of a connection to the past. The uncommonly interested Star Wars geek of today is more apt to read Joseph Campbell and pass by fiction with a slower pace than they are accustomed to from film and television. Today, I spend more time seeking theosophical roots to my fiction. I’ll alternate Edgar Wallace’s Sanders and Bones books and E. C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre collections while delving into “The Golden Bough” and “The White Goddess” for meatier fare.
A decade ago, I attended my first pulp convention and promptly met and befriended on the same day the aforementioned Charles Edward Pogue (several of whose scripts I had at home and whose online postings I had read with interest in the first decade of the internet) as well as Will Murray (whose various writings inspired me as a child as much as they do today now that I’m also a grumpy old man). That day in 2009, I felt like the cyclone had just set my monochrome Kansas farmhouse safely down and I just opened the door into a Technicolor world of fantasy.
I felt the exact same way when I first discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in the 1970s and Sax Rohmer in the 1980s and much later in life, H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, and Harold Lamb. I didn’t need Ian Fleming and John Gardner’s 007 after I first encountered Nayland Smith at age fourteen. I dreamed then I would one day chronicle Smith’s exploits and miraculously achieved that dream before I was forty. Star Wars couldn’t hold a candle to Flash Gordon in Alex Raymond’s hands or Al Williamson’s or even the Filmation Saturday morning cartoon that captured me at age eight.
My reading and viewing and listening appetites became a quest to find all the branches of this remarkably expansive creative family tree. It was the Tree of Life that mattered most to me and it lies in a Garden of Eden I still retreat to each day, if only for a short while, before sleep claims me and returns me to the drudgery of work the next morning.
My concept of Heaven is being able to have all the time to devote to everything I wish to read, watch, and listen to once more or for the first time. That’s the same promise of Eternal Life I find in reading writers like H. Rider Haggard for the first time. That’s the same promise that keeps me coming back to the road my fellow Travelers walk.
There are less of us on the road each year. There aren’t enough youthful travelers to replace us. One day soon, the road will be overgrown with vegetation and forgotten. For now, it is enough to forget the ugliness of politics and the anger of the anonymous online bully and escape into the fantasy worlds of the past and live in Utopia once more.
William Patrick Maynard is the licensed continuation author of the Fu Manchu series for the Sax Rohmer literary estate. His third book, the long-anticipated Triumph of Fu Manchu, is coming soon from Black Coat Press.