What We Talk About When We Talk About Pulp

Pulp Heroes I

Pulp Heroes I (Photo credit: Terry McCombs)

I get asked this question a lot, especially when I’m telling someone about my neo-pulp novel Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights.  “It’s a throwback to 1930s pulp,” I’ll say, “like the Shadow or the Spider.  You’ll love it!”

Some people get it, some don’t—but even the ones who get it often ask, “Yeah, but what does that even mean?  What is pulp fiction?  Other than a movie by Quentin Tarantino?”

We can certainly discuss what it really means, in a historical context—but if we’re going to do that, we should also probably discuss what ‘pulp’ means as a descriptor in a modern context, too.  So, in the interest of installing a definitive answer here on the blog site (or, even better, inspiring spirited debate), let’s bat this question around until we get an answer.

Just what the heck is pulp fiction?

Per wikipedia:

Pulp magazines (often referred to as “the pulps”) are inexpensive fiction magazines published from 1896 through the 1950s. The term pulp derives from the cheap wood pulp paper on which the magazines were printed. Pulps were the successor to the penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and short fiction magazines of the 19th century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories and sensational cover art.

Note the key words in that paragraph: cheap, lurid, exploitive, sensational.  Generally speaking, that’s the reputation that fiction labeled ‘pulp’ has retained: cheap and sensational.  We really shouldn’t be surprised that such an assumption still sticks to fiction published in magazines with titles like Spicy Detective Stories and Snappy.  But is the best pulp fiction of that era really so cheap and sensational that it’s ultimately disposable?  I’d argue not.

Consider that some of the twentieth century’s most popular writers got their start in the pulps: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Elmore Leonard, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft… While many of these writers aren’t household names, and while some still fail to carry weight with the literary establishment, the fact is that a powerful minority of them remain not only popular, but influential.  In some cases—Hammett, Chandler, Heinlein and Lovecraft stand out—their stature and appeal beyond the realms of the merely ‘popular’ is indisputable.  Even writers of hero pulps like Lester Dent (who created Doc Savage) and Walter Gibson (who created the Shadow) continue to exert a powerful unseen influence on modern pop culture.  Twenty-first century America is obsessed with superheroes, after all, and superheroes were arguably born in the pulps.  These are great, indelible, embraceable writers of vital and bracing popular fiction—and they all hailed from the cheap, lurid, exploitive, sensational ghetto of the pulps.

As a matter of fact, I would argue that it’s the free-wheeling, off-the-map nature of the ‘pulp ghetto’ that made it such an ideal place for writers with distinct voices and world-views to develop their craft and hawk their wares.  In this sense, the pulp ghetto was not unlike the theoretical construct at the heart of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Hypothesis.  Turner’s theory suggests, essentially, that American democracy was born not of European political theory and philosophical tradition, but of the everyday exigencies and dynamic tensions of life on an ever-moving, ever-evolving frontier.  Likewise, the realm of pulp fiction in the 1930s and 40s constituted a frontier of sorts: a place where writers working with edgy ideas and experimental modes of storytelling could let their freak flags fly, so long as they delivered compelling prose on a deadline.

Like any frontier, the pulp ghetto was a crucible in which tired and outmoded story forms could be incinerated, mad experiments could be undertaken, and wondrous new forms (such as the hard-boiled detective story or sword & sorcery, both born in the pulps) could be seeded and bloom.  Just as Turner argued that frontiers—both real and conceptual—are necessary for the evolution and growth of cultures, so I would argue that fiction, in order to remain both vital and transformative, must have a frontier of its own to evolve in.  And that frontier, once upon a time, was the ‘pulp ghetto’, where the literary establishment held no sway, where the only exigencies were narrative and imagination, and where the primary dynamic tensions were between a writer’s ambition and a reader’s attention span.  This, I would argue, is what made the cheap, lurid, exploitive and sensational world of pulp fiction a garden of delights, rather than a den of iniquity: it was in that ghetto, on that marginalized frontier, that a new generation of first-rate American prose stylists and storytellers found their voices and their audiences.

But pulp fiction died out long ago, didn’t it? 

So what happened to that ghetto?  Why don’t we still have pulp magazines in the modern era, where a new generation of untried wordsmiths can cut their teeth and hone their storytelling skills?  History tells us that the ‘Golden Era of the Pulps’ ended post-WWII, when war-time paper shortages, followed by a post-war explosion in cheap media alternatives spelled the death knell of the pulps.  But, I would argue, all was not lost: the spirit of adventure and the sense of immediacy born of the pulps lived on in two of the pulps’ most well-known inheritors—the comic book and the mass market paperback.  It was there, in the ten cent, six color adventures of superheroes and gangbusters and the pocket-sized novels plucked from pharmacy or bus station racks that the spirit of the pulps survived.

I would argue that this is where I and my fellow Gen X-ers first encountered ‘pulp fiction’—even though we neither knew it nor recognized it by that name.  When we were kids, comic books were still cheap entertainment (versus the $4 per issue investments they’ve become) and were readily available at the local 7-11 or newsstand (as opposed to only being available in specialized comic book shops that are often hostile to idle browsing by ‘outsiders’).  Likewise, the Ace or DAW or Signet paperbacks that many of us devoured were only a couple bucks, and could be found everywhere, from the corner Walgreen’s to the Waldenbooks at the local mall.  It was in those comic books that we shared the pulp dreams of a new generation of hero writers, from Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neal and Chris Clairmont to Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.  And it was in those paperbacks that we discovered not only the pulp writers of yore—visionaries like Heinlein, Asimov, Lovecraft and Howard—but also a new generation of sensational writers who flew their freak flags proudly and sought to give their ‘ghetto’ new philosophical depth and narrative heft—writers like Michael Moorcock, Robert Adams, C. J. Cherryh, Piers Anthony and Brian Lumley.  By the 70s and 80s—when we grew up—pulp magazines were already mothballed to the bins of memory and nostalgia, but pulp fiction—fiction that dared to dream out loud, fiction that took you places and showed you things you hadn’t previously dared to imagine, fiction that, above all, sought to engage and entertain you… well, pulp fiction hadn’t gone anywhere at all.  It was, in fact, flourishing.

Okay, fine—that’s what it was.  You still haven’t told me what it is

Which brings me to the present.  It’s true that brick-and-mortar book stores are dying daily, but in those stores and on those shelves, we still find mass market fiction delineated into genre ghettoes that cultivate large numbers of loyal fans.  Today’s pulp fiction includes Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, the mysteries of Nora Roberts and the gloriously pulpy tech thrillers of James Rollins.  These authors may be selling truck-loads of mass market books priced at $7.99 a pop, but the fact remains that they are the heirs to the pulp mantle, writing the modern equivalent of yesteryear’s pulp fiction—and they and their readers aren’t suffering for it.  Beyond these obvious, bestselling examples, there are literally thousands of authors producing new work every week in the pulp tradition, and delivering it to readers via traditionally published books or via bottled lightning as e-books on Kindles and Nooks across the country.  The pulp magazine is dead—but pulp fiction—fiction that is gloriously, aggressively, unapologetically vivid, sensational, and entertaining—lives on.

Hell, it thrives.

So, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about pulp fiction.  I’m talking about pure, unadulterated entertainment; I’m talking about glorious flights of fancy and terrifying plunges into human depravity; I’m talking about hard-boiled detectives, combat magicians, scientists with loaded guns and globe-trotting, femme-baiting international men of mystery.  I’m talking about fiction painted in primary colors that’s not trying to impress me or depress me, but simply to engage me, to enrage me, to thrill me, to chill me; not fiction as tasteful meditation or somber prayer, but fiction as freakshow, fiction as mainline addiction.  If mainstream lit is the classical guitarist in the Ivory Tower, pulp fiction is the hard-working busker in the street.

That’s pulp fiction: cheap, lurid, exploitive, and sensational, but also skillful, vivid, fearless, immediate.

And still very much alive.