The New Pulp Mentality

The pulp genre has reemerged. While a modern emulation of the pulp voice is compelling, the idea of a mass market book sold cheaply once again is more so. What might be sacrificed in its more hurried composition is gained in accessibility.

Some suggest that expanding markets for independently published books heralds the collapse of literary civilization. Indeed, there are so many people wanting to be writers out there as well as a deluge of degree programs titivating their appetites (for a fee), that the editor's slush piles need to be shoveled not read these days.

The original incarnation of pulp entailed terse, clichéd, adjective and adverb laden prose describing high stakes adventures rife with guns, booze and torn nylon stockings. Well, as that essentially describes civilization in a nutshell, we only need to ask: Can we write as fast and as well as they did?

The original adventure magazines had been driven by a reader’s market, demanding of the writer that lots of words be churned out on a regular schedule. These folks were paid by the word and on acceptance. Their stories were relentlessly written and void of literary pretense, targeting younger working class readers. Pulp writing defined an industry, and that era is long over. Even in the 1940s, adventure writers were already referring to the “good old days,” when publishers were perceived as human and more importantly, gave them work that they needed, even if that did mean writing 8000 words a day, seven days a week, fifty weeks a year.

Today's writers strive to make a living doing what they love just as they did in the past. Marketing concerns have shifted with the surge of visual media although readers in the early twentieth century had attention spans as short as internet surfers do today.

Publishers then and now have been aware that books, all books, serve as entertainment. Robert DeGraff, who started Pocket Books, the first American mass market paperback line, was a high-school dropout. He was not a reader but a businessman with a marketing idea. His ad in the Times read: “These new Pocket Books are designed to fit both the tempo of our times and the needs of New Yorkers They’re as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio and as good looking.”

I worked on several pipe laying barges in the early eighties. These contraptions housed about two hundred men. As there was not much to do when we weren’t working, certainly no TV or internet, a fair amount of reading went on. On McDermott’s L.B 25, the medic served as the barge librarian. In his office was a bookshelf supporting forty or fifty paperbacks donated by crew members; the rule being, to take a book, you had to leave one. Westerns, crime novels and non-fiction accounts of military operations were the most popular genres. I read my first Louis Lamour novel, Hondo, fifty miles off the Yucatan Peninsula:

“He rolled his cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare.”

I had come on board pompously hauling twenty extra pounds of Dostoyevsky, Malcolm Lowry and F Scott Fitzgerald at the bottom of my duffle bag, and was shortly transformed into the mangy literary dog I am today, wanting to eat nothing but pork scratchings. Their books carried me, and I came to appreciate that the adventure writers were skilled professionals who had taught themselves to craft a good story. Incidentally, I submitted several of the massive classics to the barge’s bookshelf. During my eleven month tenure, only Crime and Punishment was swapped. The diver chose it because my Signet copy was five hundred and sixty pages thick, just right to place under his head while he sunbathed.

My editorial opinion favors a view of reading, all reading, as entertainment. Entertainment could be construed as an exquisitely composed narrative describing the life of an English butler or, an explanation of how to solve a differential equation, replace a heart valve or, a tale of a hungover detective investigating a prostitute’s gruesome murder. Edification may or may not take place through the act of reading. We occupy ourselves with whatever intrigues us in the course of a lifetime then simply and poignantly, we die. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is entertainment as much as is Louis Lamour’s Hondo. Joyce took seventeen years to compose his book. Lamour could write three or four in a year. Toni Morrison notes:

“Sometimes Joyce is hilarious. I read Finnegans Wake after graduate school and I had the great good fortune of reading it without any help. I don’t know if I read it right, but it was hilarious! I laughed constantly! I didn’t know what was going on for whole blocks, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going to be graded on it. I think the reason why everyone still has so much fun with Shakespeare is that he didn’t have any literary critic. He was just doing it, and there were no reviews except for people throwing stuff on stage. He could just do it.”The recording industry is well aware of jazz aficionados and classical listeners, yet rock remains their highest grossing musical genre. People who understand the nuance of Charlie Parker or Liszt or Rachmaninoff will listen to those musicians; for others, this might prove too arduous, and their omission may not be a case of laziness but one of exposure and means. Nietzsche would still toss the contents of his chamber pot out the window at the beer drinkers below. Yeats’ tower remains half dead at the top. Nothing has changed. We already know where we’re all going (in a handbasket), and we all should be at least dimly aware that electronic media is driven by a new species of technology mogul trying to make a buck through their inventions but not necessarily envisioning improvement in world literacy rates. The paperback was a great idea but created under the pretense of convenience to put money into the pocket of its creator.

In 1978, the Gallup poll noted 42 percent of adults in the United States had read 11 books or more in the past year. Currently, the Pew survey documented 28 percent managed 11.

So we have The Big Sleep beginning with Marlowe visiting rich old General Sternwood:

The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted, and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men.

In other words, what more do you want? So the challenge of the revitalized pulp mentality to my mind seems to be: get more people to read (again). If it’s up to standard (and that’s the caveat, sports fans), so what if your hard-boiled adventure story is red flagged by the editing software and you break a few writing school rules. By selling it for less than a buck, you are making books accessible. The responsibility rests on the writer’s shoulder’s however to maintain the necessary integrity which means developing your own critical eye and understanding of what the hell you’re doing. Those old adventure writers weren’t slouches and I’m sure would say, “easier said than done.”