Author JD Cowan confirms a long-running culture critic meme:
While looking up the big magazines back in the day I came to the conclusion that 1940 is a really HARD cutoff to where the best material ended. There were some good stories, but it stopped becoming common after that very specific year.
Argosy eventually dropped pulp after running less and less of it, Weird Tales changed editors and aimed away from novels and sword and sorcery, Campbell had finally shaken off the last of the red-blooded action adventure writers from Astounding, Amazing and Fantastic shrunk and ran smaller and smaller stories, and most every other magazine followed suit. This correlates with the change in content as well as the less imaginative titles and covers the magazines sported. Oh, and the same small pool of writers began showing up everywhere while others just vanished around the same time. The field only shrunk in the 40s so it was no mystery why magazines had completely died by the 50s.
The only magazines that seemed to hold on were Planet Stories and Startling Stories, somehow living in a decade where the bigger magazines disowned their style of adventure stories. And they were looked down on as trash.
So, yeah: don’t read anything after 1940!
Now, if this is the first time you’ve heard of this, you are going to have a powerful desire to dismiss this is being merely a product of evolution, changes in technology, progress, and/or utterly predictable changes in fashion and style. You’d take for granted that the publishing industry merely adapted however it could in order to maximize their bottom lines. And you’d also be wrong. Because the same thing that you are witnessing happening to both Marvel Comics and Star Wars right now happened to short science fiction and fantasy back then.
Author Brian Neimier explains it this way:
The short story’s demise is by design. The Campbellians and Futurians took over the big anthologies and magazines decades ago. Find me an SF fan who religiously read Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Asimov’s since the 70s (or before in the first two cases), and I’ll show you a fan who’s since cancelled his subscription.
The SF short story market collapsed because the gatekeepers deliberately banished escapism, heroism, and action from the format. They tried to murder novels, too, and they almost got away with it. Amazon has been the science fiction genre’s saving grace. The tradpub gatekeepers didn’t see it coming, which tells you how little they know their own industry.
Since at least the 1940s, the sciffy literati have been working to purge any trace of masculinity from the genre. They purposefully strove to replace the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Conan with Kickass Strong Female Characters™ , Scalzified soyboy snarkitrons, and androgyne sideshow attractions. Men responded by abandoning print sci-fi in droves at the reader, author, and editor levels. They were supposed to have nowhere to run.
Now, you might object that the old style of story wasn’t actively suppressed. You might point out that several of the best authors from the bad old days are still in print. If you’d like a look at the sort of person that holds sway over the print industry for the past few decades, just look at the sort of nudniks they tap to write the introductions to these works.
Author Jim Fear has a typical example:
I’m reading this biography of Robert E. Howard called Blood and Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you’re interested in the man’s life), and in the introduction Joe R. Lansdale has the absolute unmitigated gall to say, and I quote, “The twelve year old male was perhaps his most obvious mark, being open to all the repressed desires that Howard displays, but readers of all ages have fallen under his spell.”
This might seem innocuous to you, but it lights a fire under the [bottom] of someone like me. This belies an attitude of unvarnished, feigned superiority. An air of “I’m better than you because I don’t enjoy what twelve year old boys enjoy.” And in the interest of poking into the very base of these suppositions that people like Lansdale obviously hold so close as to throw around in such a cavalier manner, what in the absolute hell, precisely, is wrong with what twelve year old boys enjoy?
Hey I get it, not everyone likes the same sort of thing. That’s fair. If you’re on the same page as Joe R. Lansdale and really want to have some wide open, totally realistic, grown-up oriented fantasy, then E. Reagan Wright has just the thing for you: Modern Fantasy from Dark Horse Comics!
I’m not even going to provide the link. It’s just another stale-ass relationship webcomic dressed up in D&D garb and slapped with a Dark Horse logo and felated by a fawning press to make it seem legit. From what I hear at the D5D tables down to the local friendly nerdery, it’s a pretty good approximation of the latest version of D&D. Most of what I see these days are people LARPing as tabletop RPG gamers – it’s like the Inception-pocalypse out there, people.
Now, some of you are going to read these posts and… I really get it, your spirit is going to be vexed. You’re going to recall your favorite hard science fiction classics. You’re going to think of all the cases where realism contributed to the story. You’re going to tune up whatever smart remark about John Carter getting with a big breasted Martian woman that lays an egg for him and all that. Truly, you are the spiritual heir to the weenies that wrote in very angry letters to Planet Stories back in the forties. You are a truly discerning person and I’m sure you have a point!
Nevertheless, you need to chill. There is a particularly noxious attitude that justifies itself by making appeals to realism but which has an almost Gollum-like hatred for a great many things that are real.
Richard Curtis put it this way:
“If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it’s called searingly realistic, even though it’s never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you’re accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”
I want to tell you to do yourself a favor and get these godawful killjoys off your shelf and out of your to-read pile… but the fact is… you walked away from these losers decades ago without even realizing it. And Marvel and Disney are watching entire of legions of people do the same thing right now now that they’ve made it clear that they can’t create stories with unvarnished depictions of the heroic.
It’s 1940 all over again.