I’ve been writing a lot lately about what we can learn from the old pulp magazines, about grabbing your readers in the first paragraph, and lots of stuff about action and adopting an active writing style. And now I’ve started to worry that it might seem as though I’m encouraging, if not demanding, that everyone write to some seventy year old formula and obsess over new and creative ways for characters to kill each other, blow stuff up, and otherwise charge through stories like Conan, to the exclusion of all else.

I have, kinda, said that.

But I’ve also tried to make it clear that if I invoke Lester Dent’s “different murder method” or encourage you to punch your readers in the face, that we broaden those definitions—the definition of the word action, in particular—out just as far as they can go.

You have to read this.

You have to read this.

I do love the old pulp stories, especially the so-called “golden age” of science fiction. I have a very small collection of pulp magazines myself, and a very large collection of Ace Science Fiction Doubles that I read, love, and cherish . . . and learn from, believe me.

I also have a huge library of lots of other sorts of books. I’ve encouraged everyone to read a lot, and to read outside your chosen genre, and I do that—all the time, actually. I’m always reading at least one book that isn’t strictly in the SF or fantasy genres. I subscribe to the New Yorker.

I adore pulp SF, fantasy, and horror in particular and I write science fiction, fantasy, and horror almost exclusively. I also write (non-genre) poetry, “literary” (no way to use that, even with quotes, without squirming a bit at the pretense, but . . .) short stories, and continue to slowly research a planned historical novel.

Though I always stay in close orbit to SF and fantasy, the genres I have always and will always love, I also tend to gravitate out to what I see as the farthest edges of those genres. As much as I adore pulp authors like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, my lists of favorite SF and fantasy books also include literary masterpieces like The Stolen Child, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Last Dragon—“fantasy” novels that have no discernable connection to the pulp tradition. As much as I love a great adventure story with lots of unique murder methods and action set pieces, I also adore the immersion in the voice of a writer like Haruki Murakami or Mark Z. Danielewski, both of whom seem entirely unconcerned with whether or not you “get it,” or if there might be a Hollywood movie deal at the end of it.

But all that’s not to say that you have to choose one or the other.

You don’t have to decide, “I’m going to be a literary author,” then ignore the pulps both old and new and denigrate plot and set yourself above it all. Neither must you decide, “I’m an entertainer,” and force out formulaic thrillers that unimaginatively hit every unexpected groovy plot twist in the hopes of a huge payday.

You have to read this, too.

You have to read this, too.

There is art in Conan. There is action and suspense in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

There is a richly realized future world in David Starr, Space Ranger, as there is in 1984.

I will admit that my tendency to pull to the edges means I’m not as up on the “mainstream” as I sometimes feel I ought to be. But I gotta be honest, I’ve read quest fantasies or first contact alien invasion SF novels before and loved them, but now they leave me asking, “And . . . ?”

As a reader, I want to be surprised.

I want to be surprised by a wild plot twist and a creative fight scene.

I want to be surprised by a sentence that is somehow gifted by the gods with a poetry that makes me want to run around reading it aloud to people while secretly wishing I had written it.

And I think we should all, always, be striving for a mixture of the two.

Entertain me and make me think. No one, reader and writer alike, should be forced to choose between one or the other.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  2. Sean Durity says:

    I recently realized that I had been reading (or trying to read) too much only in the fantasy genre (and not the popular, dark stuff). I decided to break out and expand my reading, too. Right now I am enjoying the Pulitzer prize winner, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. This is probably what some folks would call “literary” (or historical) fiction, set in World War II. What I see so far is “nuanced suspense” and a great tale back and forth between two main characters. And, some of those great sentences and metaphors, like you mentioned. It is good to expand the reading circle.

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