Interview with Lurton Blassingame

by Keith Deutsh

Reprinted from Cover One, Issue #0 1977
Reprinted by permission of the author

1977 -- We visited the offices of Mr. Lurton Blassingame recently at 60 E. 4294 St. in the old Lincoln Building near Grand Central Station. Mr. Blassingame has been a literary agent and confidante to authors since the '20s. During the early '30s when the pulp magazine was as vital an entertainment medium as radio or the movies - if not more influential - he wrote articles for Writer's Digest giving advice on the various fiction markets. Eventually his advertisements for his literary agency appeared more frequently than his articles and he has remained influential in publishing for almost half a century.

Mr. Blassingame, distinguished looking and articulate, remembers all the popular writers of the '30s and '40s. In fact, he wrote his master's thesis at Columbia on the history of pulp fiction.

"Back in those old pulp days," he recalled, "what counted was telling a well constructed story and telling as many of them as possible. You had to be prolific to survive." He told me anecdotes about various pulp authors and editors. Because I edited, in 1974, the last issue of Black Mask, the great pulp magazine that introduced the hardboiled detective to American literature through the earliest work of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner and their followers, I was particularly interested to hear stories about Captain Shaw, that magazine's greatest editor. Famous for Perry Mason, Gardner wrote more books that sold more than two million copies than any other writer. Captain Shaw prided himself and the magazine for presenting stories told in the real language of real men who had worked and traveled in America. He wrote many an editorial congratulating his authors (and particularly Gardner) for the authenticity of their language.

Mr. Blassingame was charmed by the Captain but found him a naive fellow who let a lot of risqué dialogue slip through because he didn't know the meaning of the lingo. Mr. Blassingame relates that Ted Tinsley, a regular contributor, delighted in slipping whorehouse argot past the good Captain and that many a trick got turned without Shaw being the wiser.

I asked Mr. Blassingame why the pulps died. "The 25-cent novel had a lot to do with it," he told me. "It was generally thicker than a pulp. And it seemed to offer better writing. In general there were better authors represented in the 25-cent novel. Originally the size of these novels was only a bit smaller in height and width than the pulps and then they came out as 'pocket books' for their own racks. At first it was genre fiction, mostly detective, that dominated the 25-cent novel, and suddenly the paperback industry of the early '50s was born."

But the 25-cent novel was only the first competition. ''The advent of television gave the pulps the final blow," Mr. Blassingame commented. "You had to exert a certain effort to read. You could just sit back and watch television. I had friends who would always ask me to bring them some western pulps cause they knew I could get them for free through my business. By the early 50's none of those friends were asking for Western pulps any more. They were watching the 'Lone Ranger' on television."

I asked him how he explained the popularity of the paperback book in the face of the terrible power of the TV tube.

"Well, you're right," he said, they're selling more paperbacks than ever in history. Of course our population has grown considerably in the last twenty to thirty years and there is less illiteracy too."

I recalled a story I had heard of how literary agent Scott Meredith had called all his major magazine fiction authors in the late '40s or early '50s to tell them that the 10,000 to 25,000 word short story was now a dead market and that they should extend all their stories to at least 100,000 words or give up writing. The age of the fast paperback novel was about to dawn. Why did paperback become entrenched so fast? For one thing, he said, there was the blending of books with TV so that both mediums sold each other. "And you get to read stories about things you can't get or can't get enough of on television, like science fiction.

"One of my clients, Frank Herbert, has a book, Children of Dune (Berkley, $1.95) on three bestseller lists including the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly. Over one million copies of that book are in print and two million copies of the Dune trilogy have been sold since 1965."

Now that's what I call mass marketing. I was surprised and delighted. I had come to interview Mr. Blassingame about pulp writing and he had proven to me that the old pulp tradition was as vital a part of popular culture as I have always felt. Interestingly, Mr. Blassingame is also the agent for Robert Heinlein, the classic science fiction author whose Stranger in a Strange Land was a national sensation in the '60s and the first pure science fiction novel to make the bestseller lists