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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Is web content the new pulp fiction? Content debate sounds familiar...

If you're a writer willing to produce content for the web at reasonable per word rates, you're likely to have a few other wordsmiths look down upon you from time to time. Occasionally, you even read a participant's lament.

One cheap fiction writer said:

"I have wrenched from my victims their last agonized cries, watched expressions of incredulity spread across their tortured faces. I have killed all these men in all these places -- for a penny a word... This diabolical career was entered upon willingly ten years ago, yet it is difficult to decide at whose door the blame should be placed."

Probably sounds like a familiar bit of self-pity to those of us who write for online markets. We hear it from our cronies who feel like they are "settling for less" or "selling out" all the time. Like the author of the quote above, many feel as if their foray into web content has decreased their ability to write true "masterpieces."

But for every writer who feels that way, there is someone willing to churn out 25,000 words per day. There is someone out there working on his or her non-commercial poetry in the mornings and spending the rest of the day banging the keyboard to pay the bills.

It was that way in 1936, too. That's when that quotation was written by an anonymous pulp fiction writer. While he (at least one student of the era believes Anthony M. Rud wrote the piece) seemed more than a little disgruntled with his lot in the literary world, a guy named H. Bedford Jones was creating 25,000 word novelettes from top to bottom in the course of a day and saying things like:

"Some writers have plenty of money and do not need pay for their work. But most of us must earn our living, and what better way for an author than by writing? Let the young writers write to sell; get themselves firmly established in 'hack writing,' or whatever you chose to call it. Then, if they feel the urge to turn out masterpieces they at least will not starve."

Meanwhile Frederick Faust, who wrote under around twenty different pseudonyms was becoming America's most prolific writer and selling ninety-nine percent of his work. Poetry was his passion, but his prose paid the bills--and then some. Some readers might recognize Faust as "Max Brand," the name he used for hundreds of western novels. Over the course of his 500+ published novels and stories, Faust created characters remembered today, including Dr. Kildare and Destry of Destry Rides Again fame.

As Duane Spurlock says:

"He supported his family by publishing the bulk of his work printed on rough pulp paper in popular fiction magazines disdained by the literati; yet he peopled his stories with the same sort of heroic figures and conflicts that filled myths, legends, and romances of the Western canon. (That's Western as in Western Civilization.)"

The arguments seem familiar and there is a strong connection between the era of cheap pulps and today's web economy. That commonality is a seemingly insatiable appetite for content. Back then it was for tales of romance, monsters, detectives and cowboys. Today, that appetite seems to be for accurate and effectively-delivered information.

Anthony Rud may have been ashamed to work on the cheap. H.L. Mencken, whose American Mercury published Rud's ruminations, had a known disdain for the workhorse writers and their output. Frederick Faust seemed to see it as a matter of economic reality and means to use his unique skills to fund his less successful efforts to become a recognized poet.

Today, you'll hear web content writers saying they hate the fact that they don't earn a dollar per word like those who spend their days querying the slicks who are ashamed to take in their nickel per word. You'll see others turn up their noses at the idea of putting a finger on a keyboard for less than a buck. Others will take the jobs, do the work, keep the buyers happy, interest the public, and will cash their checks without complaint--whether they love the business or not. Then, you have folks like me who agree with the aforementioned H. Bedford-Jones, who once said:

"That old admonition to write and keep on writing still holds true. Write at every opportunity. And don't mind the taunts against 'commercialism.' Remember, we may be too proud to fight -- but we can't be too proud to write!"

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