Attending a recent lecture on pulp fiction led me to a fascinating article in the February 1939 American Mercury about a long-dead breed of writers known as Million-Word-a-Year Men.
Like human writing machines, these men wrote on the average of 3,000 words a day, every day, 365 days a year. They turned out genre detective stories, westerns, romance, high-seas stories, adventure stories, horror stories, and war narratives—all of them to feed America’s love of pulp fiction during the “roaring 20s.”
Rather than try to summarize this fascinating portrait, I’ll simply quote from the article:
A composite picture of the typical million-word-a-year man in action was about like the following: he usually typed all his stuff, writing automatically, “in the groove.” His typewriter was electric, with a power-driven keyboard like a linotype machine, bolted to a heavy steel platform to keep it from jumping. It required the merest touch to operate: at the end of each line, the touch of a key automatically returned the carriage and double-spaced; still another indented the proper space for a paragraph [i.e., the tab key], and others made lines of dots or asterisks zip automatically across the page.
According to the article, many of these writers had some kind of base knowledge that they could tap into—one high-seas writer could have spent time on a sailing vessel, for example; another might have been a soldier in the first world war; still another might have done police-work for a time. Additional research was done on the fly, with the writer referring to file cabinets loaded with other stories that described (for example) the parts of an airplane or the layout of a boat.
To satisfy his editors and maximize his profits, the Million-Word-A-Year Man needed to turn out stories every week and sometimes every day. This was long before the Internet, and there was no index to keep track of the proliferation of the pulp magazines. Corners were therefore frequently cut to meet quotas:
One such pulp artist instantly capitalized… by re-writing his subsequent stories five times, changing only the names of the characters and the locale—and usually sold all five versions. Another had his wife rewrite his stuff in Cockney dialect and re-sold them to English magazines.
Even with so many ways to create efficiency, though, the demands were still excruciating. Many of the writers became burned out and some committed suicide. (The lecturer mentioned that one well-known writer shot himself halfway through a new story entitled, “Highway to Hell.”) Interestingly, these wealthy writer-kings tried to live their lives to the fullest nevertheless:
He therefore often turned into a coffee-bibbing, wenching psychopath, whose most usual release was to spend his $100,000 a year in travel agencies.
One million-worder had the habit of shuttling back and forth across the continent, writing in Pullman drawing rooms.
Another habitually turned out his stories aboard transatlantic liners, buying a return ticket on the same boat if he reached one shore before the book was finished.
Still another whirled across the country and back in a magnificent chromebound trailer–which he called his “escape mechanism”–with a sun-porch, followed by two blonde secretaries in a slightly less magnificent trailer.
One more, famous for his moral tales for boys, voyaged like the Flying Dutchman among West Indian ports on the schooner-yacht that was his only home.
Another bought two houses in Paris, one in California and one in New York, announcing with each purchase that he meant to make the place a permanent home, but selling each after four months at most, and doing his writing in one of the smaller New York hotels, in which he lingered for a few weeks before moving to another.
Never mind the two blonde secretaries–$100,000 per year sounds pretty good even by today’s standards! But when adjusted for inflation using 1929 as the year, this works out to a princely income of $1,339,789 per year. So these pulp fiction writers did very well for themselves, their pulp art fueled by a general love for reading and escapism among the American masses at the time.
Though pulp fiction gained steadily in popularity through the 1910s and 1920s, the peak was 1929 with a general decline during the depression. Though it bounced back for a time after World War II, the million-worder was not part of this resurrection; the pulp magazines took advantage of new talent for even lower wages than before and many of the best writers had already moved into “the slicks” i.e. color magazines.
Is the MIllion-Word-A-Year Man my new hero?
As for the existence of Million-Word-A-Year women, the article doesn’t mention them. But I’m sure they existed; historically, it seems, women have done many of the same things as men…. they just never got the credit.