Thursday, March 22, 2018

Literary Pulp -- The Roundtable



Several of my fellow writers have asked to be able to chime in on the discussion about blending literary fiction and pulp fiction, so this new writer roundtable will be that very topic.

Robert B. Parker
Can the two be mixed together, or does a literary story with too much fast-paced action or a pulp story with too much literary technique cease to be the thing it was created to be? Where does one draw the line?

Bill Craig: Why does one have to draw the line? Literary stories can contain mystery and romance and action. Pulp stories can tell literary tales of redemption and self-discovery. The only real difference that I have ever found is in the eyes of the reader. Lord Jim, literary fiction, but it also has elements of pulp to it. Some people refer to the collected works of the late Robert B. Parker as literary fiction where I've always considered them to be hard-boiled pulp mystery fiction.

PJ Lozito: Distinctions are made up. My friend told me in Italy, the common folk go to the opera, know all the words and sing along!

Robby Hilliard: Yes they can be mixed. Does it change what they are? I don't know. I'm sure someone will claim it does.

Stuart Hopen: I think it is mostly an arbitrary distinction. You might want to write the kind of spy novels that appeals more to fans of John LeCarre than those of Ian Fleming, but both authors have a mix of literary and pulpy elements. I mean, Anthony Burgess listed Goldfinger as one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century, along with Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow. A great deal of really classic literature has pure pulp elements. Poe for certain. Melville. Hawthorne. H.G. Welles. Shakespeare. I mean, what is Macbeth if not a horror story? Yeah, Melville could have picked up the pace by deleting the cetology chapters (many abridged versions do) but then he wouldn't have created a bible of the whaling industry, which was part of his vision as well. You might think of the slogan they used to sell the pulps initially -- all action and no philosophy. But you also can express philosophy in terms of action. Robert E. Howard did. Or you can stop the action and have someone give a speech, but that's also the hallmark of sloppy writing whether you're in the literary aisle or the pulp aisle. But it worked for Ayn Rand, whose work has deep pulp roots.

Ayn Rand
Gordon Dymowski: I think that there's a false dichotomy between "literary" writing and "pulp" writing. Dashiell Hammett is a great example: his prose influenced both Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway. Jim Thompson's novels have as much creativity in its prose as it does "pulpiness". Modern authors like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Kellerman, and Sara Paretsky have as much "pulp" in them as they do "literacy". (And there's something very literary about how Emile C. Teppermann uses the "retrospective-on-alternate-history" approach in his Operator 5 Purple Invasion novels)

Yes, I'll get in trouble with many authors for lumping those three in the same category.

I think the line comes when the writer is focused more on "art" than on writing. There's more literary content in a Mickey Spillane novel (and let's be honest - this was a guy who believed that literature was "anything that sells") than in any flavor-of-the-month literary honor. Every writer has only one job: to be honest in their writing. Tell the story and tell it the best way you can. Don't worry about posterity -- it will take care of itself. Just tell the damn story.

(And remember what Groucho Marx once asked - "What has posterity ever done for me?")

Lucy Blue: I think the line between literary fiction and pulp fiction is getting thinner and more transparent all the time, at least for readers. I mean, the winner of this year's National Book Award for novels, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is an incredibly artful, clear-eyed, brilliant literary novel - which also happens to be one hell of a horror story. The winner the year before, The Underground Railroad, has strong elements of dystopian science fiction. And if you look at contemporary pulp, you find some of the most word-drunk writers alive -- if you're going to stand out and show pulp readers a world they haven't seen before, you have to get poetic and creative while staying focused, and you have to be madly in love with the language--all keystones of real literary fiction. I think all of us, pulp and literary writers and publishers alike, have been hornswoggled into believing that "literary fiction" is the stuff that happens when people with other sources of income get graduate fellowships in fiction and get their MFA thesis published by their mom's college roommate who now heads up Blah Blah Division of Scribner & Random Penguins, Inc. (a division of Big Corporate Everything) and genre/pulp fiction is everything else. And it doesn't have to be that way. It ISN'T that way for anybody but people actually in publishing; readers couldn't care less.

Raymond Chandler
Nikki Nelson-Hicks: I've been fighting with this very question. I know a woman who only reads novels that have won Pulitzer's. Even if she hates the book, she will spend months reading it. I asked her why? You're 70 years old. You don't have time to wade through shit that doesn't sing for you. Ugh. She is blinded by branded. And I think that's a big problem: Blinded by Branding. A good story is a good story is a good story. And that's what a writer should be focused on. A good story tells an entertaining tale. A great story tells an entertaining tale but also has a deeper meaning IF you are of the mind to find it. But, in the end, the story has to be ENTERTAINING. Look at Aesop. His stories have lasted for millennia. Why? Because they masquerade as children's tales but are actually life lessons for those that can see it. The same goes for Pulp/Literary or whatever you want to call it. Tell a story, make it good, leave branding to damn marketers.

What are your favorite "art" techniques for decorating the bare bones structure of your pulp prose?

Gordon Dymowski: One of my best creative "arty" tools is Oblique Strategies (Google it) - musician Brian Eno would utilize a series of cards to jump-start creativity. I use an online version to give me a sudden flash of inspiration, and that usually helps me take the story in a unique direction.

When I'm writing, I also try to express complicated emotions and situations in a simple, straightforward manner. I think too many writers (myself included) aim for being "clever" rather than being "honest." (See, there's that word again!). It's easy to think that creating stories gives us superhuman powers and authority...but it doesn't. At the end of the day, we're working hard at writing stories that people will read.

(And if you ever need an additional dose of humility -- try copywriting for a living. Cranking out boilerplate, commercial text has helped me not only develop an appreciation for the work, but also the awareness that there's a difference between straightforward prose and trying to tell a story. Plus, cranking out marketing/web copy/blog text that doesn't emotionally engage people? Soul crushing. And that's what I try to do - engage emotionally as well as intellectually).

H.P. Lovecraft
Lucy Blue: For me, I don't know if this counts as an "art" technique, but in writing genre and pulp fiction, I still try to make the story relevant to real time and place and experience, to have something to say beyond a curiosity or freak show or roller coaster ride. And in fiction I intend to be literary, I always make sure to have enough curiosity, freak show, and/or roller coaster to make it a good read -- I've lost all patience for navel-gazing, my own or anybody else's. I want my characters to be real, but I want them to do and experience something beyond exploring their own unique psyches, which is where I think bad literary fiction fails.

Bill Craig: Art techniques, I assume you speak to adding the grit and texture to the story. Make your character human and give them flaws. Nobody wants to read about someone who is perfect because nobody has ever met someone who is perfect. My characters get hurt, they bleed, they cry. I use my words to paint a picture and then give it color and texture by showing what they are feeling, how they react or how they prepare for what is coming at them. Fear is a natural part of life. Everybody fears something.

Robby Hilliard: Characters with complex and conflicting emotional and moral depth. All too often we see simplistic characters in pulp (not a bad thing if that is the goal) when a little more depth might add that "oomph" to a pulp story. Especially if it is something to be serialized. Make the characters complex with tons of issues to deal with over time. How do we do this? We give our characters real backstories, real past traumas, and real human reactions to them. Then we manifest those demons and flaws from the past into current behavior/traits.

Sara Paretsky
What advice do you offer to those who would like to either pick up the pace of their literary stories or increase the artistic content of their pulp stories?

Nikki Nelson-Hicks: Remember the three things a story needs: Scarcity, Danger, Courage.There is something you want, something in the way, and you pull up your Big Girl Panties and go and get it.

Lucy Blue: This is the best advice I could offer anybody; find a balance. Give the reader a strong story to hold on to but don't act it out with stick figures.

Gordon Dymowski: Read, read, read. But read with a critical eye towards "what makes this story work" -- I've read comments by my fellow writers that suggest they only read one type of pulp...or even one type of literature.

Head the library. Renew your library card, if needed. Go shopping for books that you're curious about. And read them. (I've been getting involved with the work of Chester Himes). Because being exposed to different types of literature will help you develop a greater skill set. And read more than just your favorite genre - take a chance and read something you never thought you would. Because the only way to build your writing muscles is to read how others have done it...and then adapt to your own style.

And again, focus on the damn story. Posterity will take care of itself.

Michael Chabon
Robby Hilliard: For literary and pulp, make the characters face realistic moral/emotional/ethical dilemmas. Sorry, but if your character is just running to the store to pick up a jar of mayonnaise and decides on the spur of the moment pick up a hitchhiker AND decides to screw around on spouse, all without some kind of meaningful backstory AND this is supposed to be 'literary', guess what? I don't care about your character's inner journey. Sounds like a piece of sh--,uh, someone I don't like. So why would I care about his or her decisions? (Sorry. Short story from college popped into my head. Yeah, that really was in the story.)

For pulp, sure, stay focused on the action. That's why we read pulp isn't it? Just maybe layer in something that is orally/ethically/emotionally complex as well. Throw in some symbolism if it fits and works with your story. Make it pose a question, one the story doesn't attempt to answer, that will keep your reader pondering your story long after they've finished reading it.

For literary -- Use actions to flavor and imply/show internal state. It's great to have internal monologue, we all have them. But also add in some actual action and some stakes to be won or lost. It's great that you're character experienced change. But was there anything riding on whether or not that change took place?


Bill Craig: Read, read, and read some more. Look at what has been done before and then figure out what you can do to add texture to your characters and stories to make them reach out and grab the reader by the throat and drag them into the story!

Walter Mosley
Stuart Hopen: I would submit that excellence in pulp or literary fiction depend on the simple formula of maintaining all the elements in balance, recognizing their interdependence. Plot is driven by players being confronted with hard choices, with outcomes based on the exercise of will in making those choices, and style shaping perception of the characters and conveying the way they perceive the world, and they way in which their perceptions are transformed by the unfolding of events, all of which relate to theme. Unity of all elements is the simple basic formula, whether you're dealing with a style as ornate as Norvel Page, H.P. Lovecraft, William Faulkner, or James Joyce, or as simple as Mickey Spillane or Ernest Hemingway. Unity and balance -- that's the simple formula. Only it is the hardest thing in the world. What I learned from pursuing a vision of literary pulp while holding myself to rigorous standards imposed by a merciless muse is that what made the most sense for me is not to depend on it for a livelihood.