I know I’ve been talking about pulp a lot lately, but bear with me. I’m in the middle of teaching a two-session Pulp Fiction Workshop, with the second session coming this Saturday. Students have been sending me their stories and I’ve sent them mine. And mine also happens to be the pulp jungle story I talked about in terms of character bullet points, which will be published under Pro Se’s Signature Series in the fall. So, yeah, pulp and new pulp have been on my mind a bit.
I don’t want anyone to think that now I’ve become Phil, Master of Pulp and that there’s some exclusive Oath of Allegiance that I’ve taken or that I’m asking you to take. I’ve said before that I’ve always, personally, been drawn to the opposite ends of the genres I love, with an equal interest in the most literary or avant garde (authors like J.M. McDermott and Harlan Ellison) on one end and the adventure-heavy pulps (Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs) on the other end. The middle ground, or “mainstream,” I can usually kind of take or leave.
So what can pulp teach you if you’re writing either in the middle, or the mainstream of the genre, or aspire to be one of the few authors who push the genres into uncharted new territories?
I think it can teach you a lot.
But first, let’s run through a couple things that might have people keeping pulp a bit at arm’s length.
Though a lot of the most significant genre authors, especially science fiction authors, got their start in the pulps we tend to think of the best as having started there and progressed out of it, and anyway the SF pulps tended to be a bit more brainy than the rest of the pack. But either way, the heyday of the pulp fiction magazines ran more or less from the mid-20s to the early 50s, and there were two social conventions at play during those times that are difficult for a lot of contemporary readers to get past: institutionalized racism and violent sexism. It’s hard to look at magazine covers like this:
. . . or this:
. . . and not wonder what the hell is going on. But what was going on was a segregated America, the era of Jim Crow, and a time when the Women’s Movement was, pardon the pun, barely moving. The stories inside those purposefully lurid covers were often just as racist and sexist as the covers themselves, and I’m not trying to offer any apologies for that, or tell you that was okay, much less encourage you to adopt those “principles” in your own writing.
But think in terms of learning from the pulp storytelling tradition. What I teach in that workshop, and practice in my own writing, is to look at the pulp plot structure, then build on that structure from our more enlightened, contemporary point of view. This is what we mean when we say “new pulp.”
Take my jungle story, for instance. The original jungle pulps tended to be overt knockoffs of Tarzan, and almost exclusively featured white heroes rescuing white women (and in the pulps women came in one of two forms: victim or villain) from black savages. I can’t write that story in 2014, and not because I want to but no one will let me, but being a child of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, I just don’t know how. Those old stereotypes just ring false to me.
So in my pulp jungle story, the role of Tarzan is played by a black woman who is more than capable of taking care of her own society, thank you very much, without the “civilizing influence” of some white guy. Instead, the white guy becomes my POV character serving double duty as fish-out-of-water victim (ala Tarzan’s Jane) in occasional need of rescue, and as a narrator just like Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes: a sidekick observing the master at work.
But I think I have a fun story, and that’s what’s really important, and what we can all learn from pulp. I’ve written before about how I think science fiction novels have stopped being fun, to the clear detriment of sales. What I also hope to combat is this notion that reading always has to be difficult, and that going in with the primary purpose to entertain is somehow bad.
So what the pulp story structure—and I use Lester Dent’s famous “formula” as a starting point—teaches us can be applied to anything: any genre, any approach. All Mr. Dent really does is remind us to tell a story, and that a story at its heart is characters in conflict. What I told my students, and have tried to bring to my own writing, is that when Lester Dent says things like “murder method” and “kill the villain,” we don’t have to take that literally. He wrote that “formula” to cover hardboiled detective stories, but if you replace “kill” with “defeat” and “villain” with “antagonist,” and so on, you can see that there’s a common thread for any genre, and any approach.
It’s about making your story readable, entertaining, and focused. I just will not accept that any of those three things are bad, and that a story is better for not having all three of those elements, no matter how heavy a message you’re intending to convey, or the infinite variety of word choice, worldbuilding, etc. that goes into making your story completely original, Lester Dent or anyone else be damned.
I think every single writer should take Lester Dent’s “formula” and try one short story using it as a guide. What’s the worst that can happen? After all, there is no Spicy Western Stories to sell it to anymore, and you’re under no obligation to write to their racist cover art.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!
P.S. If you want to read some real vintage pulp magazines, you can find a bunch of them, and their offensive covers, here.