Monday, April 25, 2011

Quentin Reynolds, The Fiction Factory

The year was 1955, the 100th anniversary of magazine publisher Street & Smith. I’m guessing some corporate head or figurehead there decided a history of the company was needed. So a writer was hired, and the end result is this curious book.

Since self-published company histories are a fiction genre of their own, it’s hard to know what to take as fact and what’s been left out. Corporate lore is sustained by word of mouth and selective memory. Fact checking seldom plays a role. As written, Fiction Factory is an entertaining and fascinating story, but you keep wondering.

We can be fairly certain that Street & Smith began as two men by that name in pre-Civil War New York on the staff of a weekly newspaper, The New York Weekly Dispatch. As the story goes, they eventually became its owners. Street was the brains behind marketing and sales. Smith masterminded the editorial content. Together they turned the modest newspaper into the publishing powerhouse, Street & Smith.

Mulberry Street, New York City, c1900
Street died in 1883 and Smith’s descendants, who took over when he died in 1887, turned it into an empire. You can tell it’s a company history because it praises the wisdom of the founders, and so much of the book is about the success (and occasional failure) of their business decisions.

On the one hand, there were the promotional and operational innovations that kept them a step ahead of competitors. On the other were the editorial practices that lured the best writers into the fold and got them writing what a vast audience of readers wanted to read.

Ormond Smith (son of founder Francis Smith) is portrayed as a man of refined taste who nevertheless had an instinct for lowest common denominator storytelling. By Reynolds’ account, he was instrumental in defining the popular genres of detective fiction, romance, sea stories, adventure, and westerns. An early movie magazine, Picture-Play, was also his inspiration.

Horatio Alger, Jr., 1832-1899
Meanwhile, the pages of the company’s publications gave birth to the careers of many masters of popular fiction, including Zane Grey, Horatio Alger, and Max Brand, plus a host of unknowns like Bertha M. Clay who developed massive followings. It did not matter that single authors wrote under many names – mostly devised by Smith – or that a single name might be used for the work of several writers.

Occasionally, the names of literary notables turn up in the roster of authors, including O. Henry, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London. A drama review of a Barrymore play by the young Dorothy Parker is a delightfully wry inclusion. The most prolific writers seem to have been well paid for their efforts. Some “graduated” to higher-brow (“slick”) magazines where they got both better pay and greater respectability.

Ned Buntline, 1813-1886
Among the stories told in the book (keeping the salt shaker handy) is the account of Ned Buntline, the pen name of Edward Judson. His meeting with Bill Cody while adventuring in the West led to the publication in 1869 of the first Buffalo Bill stories in Street and Smith’s New York Weekly. Buffalo Bill yarns were still being spun 50 years later in the company’s Western Story Magazine, introduced in 1919.

Most fun to read is the story of Frederick Schiller Faust, better known as Max Brand. A poet with an alleged love of far more sophisticated pursuits, he churned out a staggering number of stories for Western Story Magazine, starting in 1921. Reynolds describes the feverish pace in which Brand, who’d never been West, produced western novels.

Another adventurer, he was able to contribute with some credibility to several of the popular genres, and under numerous names. He apparently made a handsome living. A look at reveals that scores of his stories were adapted into films. He was killed in Italy at the age of 51 while working as a war correspondent during WWII.

Frank Merriwell story, 28 April 1906
The stories of popular fictional characters also get told, including Frank Merriwell and Nick Carter. Then there are the stories of iconic magazines themselves, Detective Story Magazine and The Shadow. However, I was disappointed to find only a single paragraph devoted to Doc Savage Magazine.

The intent of a company biography becomes more obvious in the closing chapters, which could be titled “Street & Smith’s Ascent to Respectability.” There's a serious discussion of 1950s science fiction, in which Astounding Stories sadly gets only a brief mention. Meanwhile, the long account devoted to Mademoiselle magazine is interesting chiefly for what it chooses to reveal of early modern marketing techniques.

Begun in 1935, as the story goes, Mademoiselle was invented to target a niche market of educated young women interested in careers and affordable fashion. For pulp fiction fans, this story is not nearly so interesting as it wants to be – especially as it congratulates the editors for printing fiction of more “literary” merit.

The more colorful characterizations of the early founders of the company give way to bland portraits of its current corporate officers. The prose here bears the mark of company boilerplate and press releases. I wonder if Reynolds even wrote it.

A glance at wikipedia reveals that Street & Smith lasted only another four years and was purchased in 1959 by Condé Nast. Once a vast publishing empire, it is remembered today chiefly among the fans of pulp fiction. I’m sure that would tickle the likes of the two business partners who got it all started back in 1855.

Fiction Factory is currently available at amazon, AbeBooks, and Powell's Books.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Video, "Read the Book"


  1. I've always appreciated the work of Ned Buntline and Max Brand. Fascinating history, Ron. I would enjoy this book even if it is somewhat fabricated.

  2. One of the major complaints about this book is that it is almost a sort of vanity press effort. Evidently Reynolds was commissioned to write the "history" and had no real knowledge of dime novels or pulps.

    A few years ago, an elderly man moved next door to me and when I visited him I noticed to my amazement that he had two cover paintings that were used on WESTERN STORY in the 1930's. It turns out he was the son of the man who ran Street & Smith in the 1940's, a man by the name of Grammer. He gave the order to kill the pulp line in 1949 and concentrate on the women's slick magazines. ASTOUNDING SF was the only survivor.

    When he died, he evidently left the two paintings to his son. Eventually, my next door neighbor sold the paintings to me and I still have one hanging on the wall in my family room.

    What's the odds of this happening, a billion to one?

    1. As a long-time betting man, that estimate is right on the money!

  3. David, as a late-comer to the pulp blogs, I'm still getting around to Brand. I have collections of his stories coming and a novel that was made into a Mickey Rooney film, MY OUTLAW BROTHER, which is at Internet Archive. I'm looking forward to putting them together in a post here.

    Walker, thanks for the great story; I'd love to see that cover painting. Allen Grammer gets this brief mention in the book: "He was made president of Street & Smith in 1938, the first time in eighty-three years that the firm was headed by someone not a member of the family."

  4. Wow, thanks for this interesting history, Ron. Seems like everyone had at least one pen name then.