beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

The Pulpwood Poetry of Harold Hersey

Having seen it mentioned in a number of places, I'm reading Pulpwood Editor: The Fabulous World of the Thriller Magazines Revealed by a Veteran Editor and Publisher by Harold Brainerd Hersey (Frederick A. Stokes, 1937). Though it's been reprinted in a couple editions over the decades, I've checked the 1937 original out of a library. Its yellowed, rough-edged pages help me imagine Hersey's voice speaking from another era, though I'm sure they are a much better grade of paper than the pages of his magazines were.

Hersey may not have been one of the great editors, but he'd worked at many pulp-magazine publishers, eventually starting his own company. This experience is distilled into a breezy book. He explains how a magazine gets started. He talks about cash flow. He talks about distribution. He talks about commissioning cover art. He talks about the care and feeding of writers. He talks about advertising.

Now and then one finds a poignant passage that offers a glimpse of a pulpwood editor's inner life.

It is this fiction reader,
first and last,
who makes the final decision;
this abiogenetic monster
of the natural-born editor's imagination,
but who only comes to life
by a slow, painful process
in the average editorial brain.

if he stays in the profession,
the editor
constructs the entire character of his reader
much as a paleontologist reconstructs
a prehistoric animal
from fossilized remains.
He reads a sermon from every letter.
He observes the relative popularity
of succeeding issues,
featuring those writers
who appeared in the ones
that gained the greatest response from the public;
that is,
if some other editor
doesn't steal his stars away from him
in the meanwhile.

Groping, fumbling,
and with no mother to guide him,
he finally gets
the wobbly,
reconstructed creature known as The Average Reader
to his feet.
In some secret, unexpected moment
it breathes and moves.

The danger now
is that it may become a Frankenstein monster.
It lumbers after him
from then on
wherever he goes,
haunting his sleep
and whining its endless, monotonous criticism
of everything
he does.

(Hersey's prose is typeset like prose. I take the liberty of changing that.)

Another example:

Ever the monster sits at my elbow--
the reader,
whom I must please.
I never forgot for an instant
I was dealing with a pinch-penny psychology.
If you have ever gazed upon the average citizen of the republic
as he fumbles uncertainly for money
in his jeans
or in a pocketbook equipped with metal clasps and compartments,
the while you wondered
if he would buy your magazine
or the other fellow's,
you would appreciate
the oafish, stubborn resistance
that must be overcome.
And when you watched him walk away,
after having read a story,
and leaving dirty fingerprints
on the pages that he flipped over free of charge,
his tiny soul
to the gay riot of color on the newsstand,
you wonder why you work so hard to please him.
It is at such moments as these
that one has to exert will-power
to keep from becoming
a confirmed drunkard.

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