BLOG: Pulp Friction

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Pulp Friction
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”.

Why?

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.

Comments

  1. Chad Rohrbacher says:

    You, sir, are a philosopher and a gentleman, which is way better that a pulp writing jerk.

    Seriously, well said. For your next installment, I would be interested in your take on “Noir”

  2. You know what, Ray? I almost wrote something similar as a guest post for Heath Lowrance, but recanted myself at the last minute. Not sure why, but I did. The word has been dragged through the mud and it’s a sad thing, because back in the pulp heyday, reading wasn’t only for glasses wearing intellectual masturbators who have jealousy issues towards Jonathan Franzen. Everybody read back then, because it was democratic. There was literature for everybody. There were none of this “guilty pleasure” bullshit. You liked romance? There was a stack of novels with guys barechested under pirate shirts for you. You liked sci-fi? There was a stack of novels with zappers and bizarre monsters on the cover for you. Same with noir, crime, fantasy, etc.

    Literature became like Rocky Balboa, at the start of Rocky 3. It lost contact with its roots. It’s a medium that is supposed to unite people and create communities. I understand what pulp means and I like the idea, like you said of fast, cheap, sexy and out of control. Season 5 of LOST was great pulp. I just think the word has to go. What’s wrong with “action” lit?

  3. Kent Gowran says:

    Good piece, Ray. I don’t think it irks me quite the way it does you, but I get what you’re saying. One of the things that has bugged me about the use of the word pulp for awhile now is how many folks seemingly decided pulp = crime fiction which is just plain silly. If someone tells me they are a pulp writer, I’m really not sure what they want me to think.

  4. Tony Bulmer says:

    Deep breaths Ray, some people will never understand, though there are many of us out here who do! Great piece, I look forward to further seething critiques in the future. Speaking of the greats, Ross MacDonald is a man to look out for—now there was a smart literary guy, even W H Auden (one of his teachers) thought so, but many would consider MacDonald a ‘pulp’ writer too. Fuck ’em… Ross gave Chandler and Hammett a dash for their dollar and a good many other writers too. Uncork the office bottle and swill one down Crimeziner it’s five o’clock somewhere.

  5. Will Holmes says:

    Poor you. Reviews aren’t as well written as you would like them to be.

    How about leaving the writing to the writers and the reviewing to the reviewers. Why care about the language used, concentrate on the fact someone has bothered to take the time talk about a book they did or did not enjoy.

    Most people who review aren’t being paid by John Locke to provide it.

    • Liam José Liam José says:

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding reviews to a certain standard, much the same way that reviewers are holding authors to a certain standard.

    • Ray Banks says:

      Ah, my first snarky comment. A red letter day indeed. Allow me to retort.

      Actually, my gripe is with professional critics who are paid to know better. I don’t hold amateur reviewers to the same standards, but I respect their opinion more if they meet them. Why shouldn’t I care about language? Why shouldn’t a reviewer? Why shouldn’t we aspire to a better standard? Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, of course, but those people who can communicate that opinion effectively and without recourse to lazy, clichéd language are the ones who provide the most valuable critical discourse, yes? Or are we that fucking bereft of readers that we need to applaud every last one who manages to get through a book, even if all they have to offer is braying of their ass?*

      I get your main point of “who gives a fuck?”, though. It’s not worth it. Trouble is, if I didn’t give a fuck, I wouldn’t have anything to write blog posts about. You see my dilemma.

      *see that? WORDPLAY, BITCHES! That’s why they pay me the BIG pennies.

    • A review of this comment
      (by Jimmy Callaway)
      Well, what started as a real pageturner quickly turned into a very pulpy reaction to someone forwarding the notion that (God forbid) we try at all to raise (or even simply hold to) the standards of an art-form. While I can certainly sympathize with the author’s sense of gratitude towards those who write reviews and general sense of fair-play towards all, his seemingly casual attitude towards language causes me to doubt the soundness of any opinion he may have on the subject. Why care about the language used? Perhaps because Mr. Banks is a writer and his very stock-in-trade is language? And then subsequently, perhaps he cares more about language than people “taking their time” to crowd the cultural conversation with their half-baked and futile opinions? After all, it’s been my personal experience that people have little trouble at all with taking time out of their busy day to blow hot air around about what they do or do not like. If they took a little more time and actually thought about what they were saying first, maybe they would be taken a bit more seriously and not just given polite recognition for having read an entire book without any help. If that’s all they’re after, then more power to them. In the meantime, however, it would be very considerate of them to take that shit down the street and let the grown-ups talk.

      All in all, this comment is certainly the commenter’s masterpiece.

  6. K. A. Laity says:

    that utter gobshite of a word, “unputdownable” — and its television analogue, “unmissable” which generally means I’ll take great pains to miss the program. It’s a pity the overuse/misuse of pulp has spread it so thin, because for many of us it’s a real badge of a certain kind of style and artistry when wielded by the best. As a comics writer, I’ve always bristled at the similar use of “comic book” as a way to indicate scorn.

  7. “Pulp,” like “noir,” has become an almost meaningless term, although — okay, okay — they’re both terms I use occasionally in my own reviews. But I have very specific ideas of what they mean, and that meaning is not always positive, nor in any way aligned with the current common usage co-opted by “alleged” reviewers, Hollywood hype flingers and self-styled pulpsters who wouldn’t know “pulp” if they were run over by a truck. First of all, how many of these fawning Amazon asskissers who dole out the word have ever actually read — or even seen — a pulp magazine from the 20s, 30s or 40s?

    There’s a reason the same stories by the “pulp” authors are reprinted over and over in anthologies and collections, while thousands of pulp stories by other authors will never ever see the light of day again.

    Sure, Bradbury, Chandler, Christie, Hammett, Cain and that lot were all writing at various times for pulps, but a quick glance at almost any pulp mag — in any genre — would soon reveal that, once you slip past the big names, most stories in the pulps simply weren’t that good, but were plagued with the sort of literary ineptitude, sloppy plotting, flimsy characterization and ridiculousness that wouldn’t be seen again until the recent digital self-publishing boom. Sure, some of these fillers had (or have) a narrative drive that steamrollers over any number of literary sins and implausibilities, but just as many were/are self-indulgent, merit-free turds trying to roll uphill. And, predictably, going nowhere.

    So, gather round, all you would-be critics (and self-pubbing self-reviewing sock puppets), and give a listen: call something “pulp” if you must, but let us know whether you mean “an engaging, quick, fast genre read” or “an eye-watering pile of cliche-speckled excrement pushed out to make a deadline for a penny or so a word.”

    By the way, I’m re-reading Ray’s Cal Innes books, and they’re just fucking unputdownable masterpieces. the guy’s like, a genius, or something…

  8. Cary Watson says:

    Excellent piece. The term “pulp” has become meaningless thanks to overuse. It’s become a shorthand way of saying that you shouldn’t take this seriously, it’s just rough and ready fun. Once upon a time it referred strictly to pulp novel magazines produced in North America in the 1920s up to the ’40s. I think at some point the use of “pulp” to describe a novel became a North American equivalent for the English term “ripping yarn.” And I think we can all blame Quentin Tarantino for bringing “pulp” into popular misuse. My own blatherings about pulp (of the teen variety) can be found here:

    http://www.jettisoncocoon.com/2012/09/pulp-teen-fiction.html

  9. silver price says:

    Then there’s Chuck Wendig . Some would be satisfied just to be the author of Dinocalypse Now – but not Wendig. The American author has built on his growing cult following with the crowd-funded and self-published Atlanta Burns novellas, and the outstanding urban fantasy novel Blackbirds from UK publisher Angry Robot. Wendig’s books, which blend noir and urban fantasy tropes with the gritty reality of contemporary America in a unique trailer-trash gothic style, are proof positive that pulp need not lack depth, emotion or originality. He’s also a prolific blogger; an essential criteria for today’s ambitious pulp fictioneer, when your readership are only ever a tweet away.