Friday, June 15, 2007

Pulp Fiction

Jon Zech and I sat in his family room, our bones settling into the cushion, our minds into mush.

"I'm trying to work on something. I want to try writing pulp."

Jon, who loves all things Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, half-turned toward me. "Yeah?"

"How would you define it? Pulp, I mean. What are the primary characteristics of it?"

He reached out and fingered a copy of a Mickey Spillane novel on the tv tray in front of him. "Well," he said, "I suppose it's mostly action oriented."

"And the character's are archtypes. I mean, the authors don't do a lot of character development. It's pretty much plot driven, wouldn't you say?"

Jon nodded and we started naming off authors who we thought would be good examples. "Mickey Spillane," I offered. He nodded.

"Robert Howard, the author of Conan. What about Lovecraft?"

I shook my head. "I don't consider him pulp. He's written some stories that fall into that vein, but I wouldn't call him pulp."

"What about the Doc Savage stuff? The Shadow?"

"Would you consider pulp as stuff written for children?" I asked.

"No. I mean, not today. Not all of it. Maybe some."

"Some romance literature is pulp. Especially the harlequin romance sort. We think of pulp as the province of manly men but women read a tremendous amount of it."

Hunger, real or imagined, drives away most intellectual dialogues. We went out to dinner and left the discussion in the family room. Still...the nature of pulp in literature brings me in and I find myself returning to a lantern jawed character in a leather jacket, sitting in front of a fire in a Hooversville, looking up as the government agents approach him to once again play the role of the reluctant hero.


SQT said...

Hmmm, would James Bond fit into the pulp category? There's definitely a lot of action and the women's names seem, a little, uh, suited to the genre. But we do see some character development of James over time.

I haven't read a romance in years but I think they would fit into the pulp definition for sure. Basically they exist for the sole purpose of fulfilling a romantic fantasy-- no real content other than that.

Charles Gramlich said...

A discussion right down my alley. I love pulp-style literature and there are ways in which it is superior to literature-literature. When I was growing up, "literature" was about everyday people doing everyday things. Strangely enough, I was an everyday person doing everyday things, and I certainly didn't want to read about myself. The characters from pulp fiction, with their archetypal natures, had much more of a profound impact on my development than all the literary figures you could name. And I believe I'm the better for it.

As for Lovecraft, I'm not sure where you're coming from there considering that all of his stuff during his lifetime was published in the pulp magazines. He was, quite literally, a pulp writer.

Jon said...

I think I've got it.

Pulp covers a wide variety of genre, right? And you can't say there is a lack of description. On thinking back over all of the pulp I've read or viewed, there's always a fair amount of description. And character developement? Yes, plenty of that. In fact everything that's found in mainstream and literary fiction is present in pulp. So what's the difference?
Cliche and lack of originality. Pulp is just full of cliche and shop worn phrases. Even the style is cookie-cutter. You know exactly what to expect from one scene to the next; how the protagonist will react, how the crime scene will be described, even how the dialog will scan.
And I think that accounts for pulp's popularity...its readers want the same flavor, story after story. Yes, even Lovecraft. He created his mold and poured words into it, each tale varying only in detail.

gugon said...

I don't know if this is accurate or not, but I've always considered Edgar Rice Burroughs as the godfather of pulp.

To me, pulp is literary junk food. You don't expect to be enlightened by it, it's not going to bring you any new insights. It's just fun. Like an amusement park ride. Check your brain at the door and enjoy the ride.

Even though Lovecraft was brought to the world through pulp channels, I don't consider him pulp. I guess it's mainly because I feel he had a bit more on his mind than simple pleasures. His style is definitely not mainstream - and most readers would consider him an uphill climb. But for those who connect with him, he can have a profound influence. Many of his stories have an essence that is more than the sum of their parts - his writing can change the way you look at the world. For that reason alone, I think he rises above pulp.

I'm not quite sure how I would define pulp. How about this for a simple, pulp-minded definition:

Pulp is fiction where cool stuff happens just because it's cool.

or this:

In pulp, the story advances for the purpose of getting to the good parts.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, regarding Bond...I'll quote Charles...right up my alley. No, I don't consider Bond to be pulp. While there is tremendous action and a certain amount of archetype, Bond's character goes through much introspection and some development in the series. He is a reluctant hero, torn by his own actions, hating himself and trying to find something that separates himself from those he are sent out to kill.

I think you have something there, Charles. Growing up with pulp meant growing up with strong examples of right and wrong and clear moral lessons. Comic books, before the sixties--when they decided to be relevant--had that same moral compass.

Jon, I must disagree on one thing: character development. I can't remember any real character development in pulp. I think the conflict is external and remains that way (which is why I am so loathe to place Bond in that category). I think, too, that the timeworn phrases and cliches were meant to make it available to a broader audience. No one should ever have had to stop and struggle through what he was reading.

I like what Charles wrote about pulp being good for was. I think one element of pulp which works is the black and white of it, the idea that good and bad exists and that good should be chosen over bad.

Gugon, I think along with Charles that there is a well thought out statement there: the action progresses to get you to the good parts. I also told Jon at our sit down that I felt pulp writers followed the Elmore Leonard rule and put in nothing but the good parts.

Sidney said...

It's all up my alley too, where there are conspirators waiting to stuff me into a bag and drag me away on an adventure laden with peril and escapes.

I think pulp covers a lot of ground and genres, and sometimes the writers transcended the trappings.

But even just the trappings-bound stories were marvelous.

I love Doc Savage, by the way. I went through a period of reading quite a few a couple of years back then hit a weaker one, "The Midas Man," I think and slacked off.

Charles Gramlich said...

If that's jon's definition of pulp then I'd have to argue that Robert E. Howard isn't pulp.

Phrases like: "...and survivors were panting in flight toward the white walls..." or "the mailed hawks," or "In the dim and misty pageantry of phantoms..." are more poetry than cliche.

You have to be very careful not to confuse Howard's actual work with the overlay of pastiche that was added by later writers like De Camp and Carter. If you've read the "Ace" Conans for example then much of what you've read is NOT Howard.

Lucas Pederson said...

I wonder if I can create a pulp yarn? Perhaps I'll give it a shot. Ka-Pow!

Okay, that was dumb.

Thought provoking post, m'man. Catch ya later.

ShadowFalcon said...

The shadow was soooo pulp

Carl V. said...

I'd love to see some really enjoyable pulp from contemporary authors. I love the work of Howard, which is, I think, a great example of pulp. And maybe there is some work out there today that measures up to this and I just don't know about it. I would certainly like to see a resurgence of this type of literature that also points back to the old pulp classics.

Vwriter said...

Mr. Stewart, sometimes you have the coolest topics.

I once heard the Bronte sisters described as pulp writers, but it was by a man who was not sure which year Shirley and Stonewall Jackson were married.

Fu Manchu was one of my favorite pulps. Do you consider Perry Mason by Earl Stanley Gardner to be a pulp series? Mr. Gardiner once wrote that the reason it took so man shots for his characters to be killed was because he was paid by the word.

Sidney said...

Hey, I got tagged to play an eight questions about yourself game - I know you did something like that a while back but if you want to play the details are on my blog.

Yankee Doodle said...

Hi, Mr. Sternberg, I would like your comment on my June 18's post.

Sphinx Ink said...

Stewart, you do know how to stimulate interesting discussions. I must speak up on behalf of romance fiction. Yes, if pulp is defined as being formulaic, stereotypical, and repetitive, romance fiction can be pulp. Yet I've read many romances that had great depth, character development, and insight into the human condition. What made those books romance novels was their focus on the development of a relationship between two people who love each other, and its satisfactory denouement (happy ending).

Like every other type of genre fiction, romance exists to fulfill certain fantasies of the readers. The better work in each genre goes beyond pulp and into literature.

By the way, Stewart, I'm tagging you to take part in a "meme." If you'd like to participate, go to my blog entry for June 19 to learn more. It was fun. (And I see Sidney tagged you before me, so if you decide to participate, you can kill two tags with one meme.)

Jon said...

Character development in pulp?
We are told next to nothing about Mike Hammer, but we know everything about him.