By Ray Banks
Sometimes I get cranky when I read reviews. Not because they’re necessarily bad (you’re entitled to your opinion if it’s well-reasoned; otherwise you can experience my cackling scorn and fuck off while you’re doing it), but because they rely on lazy language. Certain review buzzwords have a way of making my top lip twitch, you see.
“Pageturner”, for instance, for its implication that the best thing a book can be is over quickly (see also that utter gobshite of a word, “unputdownable”). Then there’s “masterpiece”, a word – like “awesome” and “genius” – which has lost any power it once had through overuse, and which apparently no longer means magnum opus or the defining work of an artist’s career, but just something that’s really good. “Literary” (and its bastard movie counterpart, “cinematic”) when it’s just another way of saying “of books” – “Dan Brown’s literary masterpiece” as opposed to his rock climbing masterpiece or dog reaming masterpiece, for instance. While we’re at it, the Hollywood pitch is a particularly annoying trend (“it’s like Guy Ritchie meets Andrei Tarkovsky …”), especially when you modify it with drug/alcohol abuse (“… on Wild Turkey and PCP!”). Just because the movie is the dominant art form, doesn’t mean we have to shoehorn its vocabulary into our reading experience.
But in recent months, I’ve found a new word to add to the litany of shame – “pulp”.
Well, to quote that famous Spanish philosopher: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
See, for me, the word “pulp” is used to describe the (primarily fiction) magazines of the early-to-mid 20th Century. These magazines frequently had titles that went ADJECTIVE GENRE! and featured short stories and serials written quickly for pennies and printed on wood pulp paper, hence the name. There’s a part of me that resists the extrapolation into the cheap paperbacks published by Ace, Dell, Gold Medal and Lion of the 50s and 60s, but I’m willing to concede that a number of those pulp writers went into the cheap novel industry. So in terms of a physical form at least we have a crop of names we could call “pulp” – names like Chester Himes, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Horace McCoy, David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson and even Donald Westlake, yes?
Well, no, not exactly. Because if we’re defining pulp by the cheap and chatty quality of publication, then none of those authors fit comfortably. Hammett, Cain and Chandler were all published in hardcover by Knopf, Cornell Woolrich’s first crime novel The Bride Wore Black and Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? were both Simon and Schuster hardcovers, Chester Himes’ If He Hollers, Let Him Go was a Doubleday hardcover, David Goodis’ Retreat From Oblivion was an E.P. Dutton & Co. hardcover and Donald Westlake’s The Mercenaries first came out as a hardcover from Random House. Even that dime store Dostoevsky Jim Thompson was originally published in a Harper hardcover (Nothing More Than Murder). Yes, some of these authors dabbled in the early pulp magazines, some of them published later paperbacks. It could also be argued that a majority of them were first published in hardcover because the paperbacks didn’t really exist yet. But then if we’re looking solely at inclusion in cheap magazines and paperback originals as a defining characteristic of pulp writing, then we’d need to accept Jack London, Kurt Vonnegut, Upton Sinclair, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain into the canon, too.
Okay, well, if it isn’t the type of publication, it must be the content, right? At least we can agree on content. Pulp fiction is fast, cheap and out of control. It’s violent and sexy and sensational. With “pulp” we talk about stock characters – the two-fisted hero, the femme fatale, the inscrutable, dastardly villain – singular in motivation and enslaved by a rollercoaster narrative. But just as that description sits uneasily with the work of most of the authors mentioned above, it feels more descriptive of modern airport thrillers (apart from the “fast” bit – I read one recently where it took a hero two pages to run down a corridor). And I don’t think there’s anything the matter with cheap, fast, by-the-numbers thriller writing, per se, but I don’t think a majority of the better-known noir novelists were doing it, either.
So what are we left with, prolificacy? Are we really going to use that as our chief characteristic, on the assumption that any author with a sizeable bibliography lacks merit and thereby consign the likes of Simenon, Balzac and Kraszewski to the flames? It’s nonsense to suggest that quality requires a lack of quantity, and beware of any blinkered individual who tells you otherwise – they’re normally trying to cover up for their own spotty publication history.
Okay, smartarse, I hear you cry, what is pulp?
These days, I’d argue that the word “pulp” is more judgement than genre. It conjures up images of sweaty, cheap writers churning out – always “churning out” – sweaty, cheap prose. The word is frequently used in reviews of ebooks which, like the paperbacks of the ’50s and ’60s, are more often than not defined by their bad writing and derivative stories. When it’s used in a self-description, it means little more than gun-gams-and-gumshoe pastiche, with all the lasting social relevance that such pastiche typically offers. “Pulp” is, for want of a better expression, a byword for “vintage-flavoured derivative shit”, a word that comes across as either pejorative or patronising, depending on its context.
And so I’m done with it. It’s dead to me. I happen to be proud of my influences and refuse to have them defaced by what amounts to gross cultural ignorance. Yes, there were many, many writers in the heyday of pulp who turned out derivative shit, but to slap the word onto those who didn’t is disingenuous at best. These noir authors aimed for something beyond cheap entertainment. They aimed for personal expression. Some of them aimed to make the modernist novel attractive to the mainstream. That’s right, some of them, those poor, deluded sons of bitches, even aimed for art. And while they may not have achieved it very often, some of them achieved it often enough to remain relevant over the years. Bad literature doesn’t tend to hold up after sixty years – or in the case of Hammett, Cain and McCoy, almost eighty years – and so I think it’s about time “pulp” was dropped as a descriptor. The authors deserve better, and so do we.