Thursday, March 15, 2018

Literary Pulp—Why It Makes Sense and How To Write It


by Sean Taylor, with a little help from my friends

Classic pulp is as much known for its black and white, all or nothing characterizations and crammed-to-the-top-with-action plotlines as it is for the cheap paper from which it gets its name—maybe even more so nowadays. So, with that in mind, how does someone like me, who got his start in literary fiction and the three most important words in fiction writing (character, character, and character, of course), grow into the kind of writer who embraces the pulp style of storytelling?

That’s a good question.

But, perhaps the better question is how can someone else do the same?

Because, trust me, there’s a lot of gold to be mined in the odd, little marriage between literary fiction and pulp fiction.

Author Derrick Ferguson sums up the discussion between art and non-art quite well.

“Before I step up on my soapbox and start the pontificating, let me start of by saying that I don’t consider ‘throwaway writing’ to be a bad thing. Robert Heinlein is famous for saying that 90 percent of everything is crap. I think that 90 percent of entertainment is throwaway and disposable. Most people are really just looking for something to entertain and/or distract them from whatever is giving them the grumbles in their life. Of course, the creators of that entertainment hope and pray that it will live on after them. But I find it difficult to believe that the creators of Gomer Pyle, USMC expected or hoped that people would still be watching the show 50 years later.

“And the ability to entertain is not to be taken lightly. I don’t get emails of thanks often, but every so often I will get one from somebody who will thank me because they read something I wrote that transported them away from their problems for a couple of hours, and for me, that’s one of the highest compliments that I can be given.”

Barry Reece
Let’s Get Two Things Straight First

Before we go any further, we should probably lay down the two ground rules that govern this whole shebang in my understanding of it.

#1—Literature doesn’t trump genre.

There are those out there in the market who think that literary means better written and that genre means written for the average idiot. As far as I’m concerned, neither of those thoughts hold any validity. Rather, I believe that the two are simply two different ways of approaching writing that both can learn from each other and help each other out from time to time.

“Great literature isn't great because of its genre or its pace," says author Percival Constantine. "Shakespeare wrote plays for mass consumption, for crying out loud. I defy you to read anything by Vonnegut and call it slow or meandering. There is nothing in any definition of pulp I've ever seen that says the characters must be flat, the prose must be clunky, and the plots must be simple.”

#2—There’s no such reader as the average dum-dum.

Are there smart readers? Yes. Dumb readers? Of course. Average readers? Absolutely.

However, the straw man that some critics and reviewers have created to build a chasm of difference between a Joe Everybody reader and an Artiste McHighbrow reader is pure garbage. I come from a background in Literature, and I’ve been all over the United States as a writer hitting various conventions, and let me tell you what I’ve learned: Readers are readers. They don’t divide themselves into camps based on a perceived difference in brainpower. A lot of the same folks who read Oprah’s Book Club recommendations also read both James Patterson and Zora Neale Hurston. Many of the same folks who read Mickey Spillane on their Kindles also read Ambrose Bierce and Flannery O’Connor on them as well.

They Go Together Better Than Macs and PCs
(or even Marvels and DCs)

If you’re my age, you remember those commercials where one guy was a Mac and another was a PC and they argued about who was better (which were later parodied for Marvel and DC). Well, I’ve had that same experience, but with pulp and literature. Literally. I’ve had some editors and writers tell me there’s no room for literary techniques in pulp, that pulp should merely be fast and free of any style or technique.

I daresay, those folks seem to have forgotten H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and Ray Bradbury. They crossed and re-crossed the great literary divide, and their stories live on not in spite of their craft and technique but because of them.

“I think you have to look at other genres that have often been seen as the opposite of art—science fiction, fantasy, superheroes, etc. All of these at one time or another have been considered trash fiction. But then you've had people who have elevated those genres to new heights—people like Ursula K. LeGuin, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, etc.” says Constantine.

The "New Pulp" Openness

In the interest of keeping us all on the same page (as the saying goes), let’s first clarify what New Pulp is. According to Pro Se Press, one of the leading publishers of the genre (or style, depending on who you ask), new pulp is “fiction written with the same sensibilities, beats of storytelling, patterns of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists, and publishers. New stories with either completely original characters or new tales of established characters from Pulp past. It’s really that simple. New pulp is pulp written today.”

There are several schools of thought within the New Pulp movement. One looks to do little more than telling new stories of classic characters. Another looks to create new characters that are primarily reminders or pastiches of those classic characters. Still others seek to take the tropes and style of classic pulp and bring those types of stories kicking and screaming into contemporary fiction (regardless of the time period and settings of the tales themselves). I’m not going to say any of those is better than the others, but I will admit to being firmly entrenched in that third group.

Where do we stand now? Percival Constantine again hits the nail on its proverbial head. “I'm not going to stand here and say that all pulp is filled with complex characters, intricate plots, and well-crafted prose because that would be a lie. In fact, probably a majority of the classic pulps are pretty bad. The plots are simplistic, and the characters are flat or stereotypical (especially where women and minorities are concerned). But you know what?” he continues. “That's true of pretty much any genre. Have a look at the literary fiction section the next time you're on Amazon or in a bookstore and flip through some of the books. There's a lot of stuff that tries to use pretension to cover up for ham-fisted dialog, extremely purple prose, and a lot of navel-gazing.”

Within that new generation of pulp writers there are numerous characters and settings being created that may or may not stand the test of time like Phillip Marlowe or The Shadow, but folks like Derrick Ferguson, Barry Reese, and Percival Constantine are still doing their damndest to make that happen and fill the world of pulp fiction with something different—but not too different, unless, of course, you're talking about the caliber of writing.

So, I asked them a bit about how they create New Pulp held to a higher standard. Here’s what I was able to glean from them.

The Facts, Ma’am, Just the Facts

No more ideological stuff. You want the how-to. Well, thanks to some of the modern masters… here it is.

1. Don’t try so hard.

“The best advice I can give for looking to create some kind of lasting art?” says Ferguson. “Don’t even try.”

Barry Reese echoes the sentiment: “I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about such things. I write what I want to read, and a lot of times, that’s escapist entertainment.”

True art hides itself. That’s what I’ve been taught my whole life as a storyteller. You may have heard that same idea translated this way: The author should seek to hide himself or herself so he or she doesn’t distract the reader. In the best art, that intentional invisibility will refuse to be hidden. One needs no more than to look at Monet’s paintings or Michelangelo's David to see that. Or perhaps to read The Great Gatsby or the poetry of Langston Hughes. The difference is that the art comes after, not before. The work comes first.

But be careful, cautions Ferguson. “That doesn’t mean I’m saying don’t try to produce the best art that you are capable of producing. You should always strive to tell the best story you can in the best way you can. What I am saying is that there’s madness in sitting down at your keyboard and pronouncing to the world ‘I am going to create art!’”

2. Be true to your characters. 

Derrick Ferguson
One of the tenets of both literature and genre fiction that adherents can agree on over the chasm is this: Character is king. Without the consistent personalities behind them, protagonists like The Spider and Doc Savage wouldn’t have become so important to so many fans in the same way that without a well developed personality, Hemmingway’s existentialist heroes wouldn’t have influenced decades of readers, writers, and filmmakers.

The difference comes in how literature and genre decide illustrate and create characterizations.

Constantine says, “Pulp is, in its simplest distillation, fast-paced, action-oriented fiction. That doesn't mean you can't have characterization in there as well.”

Characterization comes from what your characters do and say in pulp fiction, not in what they think and pontificate about, according to Ferguson: “As so often happens in fiction and especially pulp, you gotta figure out what works for you and how you can best convey characterization while your heroes are running around trying to stop the big bad from blowing up the world.”

3. Say something about the world around you.

Here’s something folks don’t always think about in their writing. It gets down to that amorphous notion called “theme.” Like in the first point (Don’t try so hard.), theme is one of those things that most often is distilled through the writer’s views and ideals without really thinking about it. That said, however, it never hurts to look at (or back at) your work to see what you are saying beyond just Character A punched Character B.

In my own work, it is not just important to me, but vital to the understanding of Rick Ruby that the multi-colored, but still race-embroiled, world in The Ruby Files be communicated in the stories. I’m not using a Phillip Marlow pastiche to try to make a point about racism, but I’m determined to show the world as it was and let readers figure things out for themselves.

Likewise, Ferguson’s Dillon can at first be seen as a black version of Doc Savage, but the comparison stops at the surface. What the author says through the adventures of Dillon is what’s important, and goes far beyond the idea of “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a black Doc Savage?”

“Great literature not only features developed characters and skillful prose but is also a commentary on the society it was written in,” says Constantine. “That doesn't mean you hammer readers over the head with it, but you have to look at the world in which you're living, think about what you want to say in regards to it, and find a subtle way to relay that message through your fiction.”

He cites the recent Black Panther movie, with its “really serious and complex themes about colonialism and globalism” as an example.

4. But don’t be so obvious about it.

Remember that bit about art hiding itself? It’s worth repeating, particularly in pulp fiction. Find ways to write complex characters and themes in simple, subtle ways.

Ferguson has a method that works for him—using the movement between settings to get to know anything about his characters the action might not show.

“Plenty of time characterization is done as my heroes are traveling in vehicles from Point A to Point B,” he says. “Let me provide you with an example from a popular movie: there’s a scene in the movie Silver Streak where Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor are in a stolen fire-engine red Jaguar racing to save Jill Clayburgh from Patrick McGoohan, and they’re exchanging what is some pretty meaningful dialog about their relationship, the situation they’re in and how they’re going to save Jill Clayburgh. It’s a nice scene with characterization but it’s done in a moving car that is taking them from one action scene to the next. The movie slows down to provide us with characterization but the actual plot doesn’t slow down and carries the promise that we’re going to see more action once to get to where we’re going.”

5. Keep it moving while you do all that.

Hot on the heels of the previous point, it’s important to keep pulp fiction movie moving along at a good pace and speed. There’s little room (none, some might say) to admire the mountains between Hobbiton and Mordor in pulp fiction. Nor is there time to lie down in the grass and dreamily point out cloud animals. Something needs to be happening. (Notice the tense of that sentence. I didn’t say “Something needs to happen.” I said: “Something needs to be happening.” Ongoing. It doesn’t really stop.)

Reese says it’s all based in the definition of pulp, as he sees it. “Pulp, to me, is about fast-paced adventure. I can deliver that while also giving you three-dimensional characters. Indiana Jones is a good example of what can be done with new pulp. He’s nuanced, but his adventures are thrilling to watch (and read—some of the licensed novels are excellent).”

Ferguson agrees:

“Writers of pulp knew the secret of having genuine characterization in their work long ago. You can do characterization and have sparkling, meaningful dialog and solid supporting casts and all those things that literary fiction prides itself on in the most action-packed of stories. Here’s the catch: Don’t stop the action to do all that stuff. 
“Let me clarify. Action doesn’t mean that you have to have constant fist-fights, explosions, cliffhangers, the heroes continually escaping fates worse than death or chases and captures. Although if you are writing pulp, I would certainly hope that you do have all that stuff in there. After all, what’s the point of writing pulp if you don’t? It’s like making a ham sandwich without the ham. But in pulp, the plot always has to be going forward. You simply cannot stop the thrust of the plot to indulge in a three page introspective passage when your heroine is supposed to be saving the world.”

To put it in terms those who have attended one too many writer’s conventions can appreciate, don’t let the writer chew the scenery.

6. Realize that not all “art” is as good as some writers and critics think it is.

Percival Constantine
This one gets back to the heart of our two things to get straight. (You haven’t forgotten them already, have you?)

#1—Literature doesn’t trump genre.
#2—There’s no such reader as the average dum-dum.

Just because a section in the bookstore is called literary fiction doesn’t mean the books there are better than everything (or even anything) else in the rest of the store. Nor does it mean it’s intrinsically good at all. Literary fiction is based on a set of rules for storytelling just like genre fiction is based on a set of rules for storytelling just like comic book writing is based on a set of rules for storytelling just like… Well, you get the point.

“The problem with the ‘literary debate’ is that you're not actually having the right conversation,” says Constantine. “Not all great literature is literary fiction. And I come at this from both sides, because not only am I a pulp writer, but I also teach literature.”

“One thing I’ve noticed with most writers whose work has stood the test of time and transcended whatever genre it was created for,” Ferguson adds, “is that most of them did not set out to create art. They simply wanted to tell a good story, maybe make a couple of bucks on the side and entertain themselves. A good deal can be said for writers simply relaxing and having some fun with writing. And it can be a whole lot of fun if you let it be.”

As the vernacular goes these days, “You do you.”

7. Literary techniques and genre techniques are the same techniques.

Never thought you’d hear that, huh? When it comes to writer’s toolboxes, there isn’t a fancy mauve one for literary writers and a beat-up, tried and true rust bucket for genre writers. (Unless you paint your own, of course. In which case you can mauve your heart out.) And if you open either toolbox, you’ll find the same tools in each. You’re no doubt familiar with them already:

  • Dialog
  • Pacing
  • Characterization
  • Point of View
  • Grammar
  • Breaking Grammar
  • Research
  • Setting
  • Word sounds
  • World building
  • Connotation and Denotation
  • Figures of speech
  • Spelling
  • Intentional Misspelling
  • And so on…

When it comes to pounding in a nail, a hammer is a hammer is a hammer. Whether you’re building a shed or a mansion, the tool remains the same.

Conclusion—It Either Works for You or It Doesn’t

So, where does this leave us? Are you ready to take your action stories into the world of literary approaches? Or do you prefer to just sit in your office and make Character A punch Character B in the face? Then do it.

Are you tired of critics or other writers trying to tell you your genre writing is something less than their highbrow art? Ignore them.

Are you tired of reading poorer quality stories in your chosen genres? Move past them and write something better.

The genre doesn’t matter. It just “comes down to writers willing to go that extra mile to elevate the genre,” says Constantine.

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For more information about Barry Reese, Derrick Ferguson, and Percival Constantine, please visit their websites.  

If you want more about Literary Pulp, go read the companion piece to this article.