Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Grandchildren of Pulp (Or, How I Learned That Pulp Never Really Died) -- part 1

This week, let's look at pulp again, or more specifically how it has shaped and affected everything that came after it.To get the low-down we went to Bill Cunningham, a pulp writer and aficionado.

What happened to the heroes of the pulp era as the 30s became the 40s and 50s, and how did they change?

Bill: They changed because society changed. We went from a Great Depression to a second world war. We also became more sophisticated and media savvy. Radio and TV filled a portion of our lives that wasn't there before.

How did this change reflect the changing times and what readers were looking for from popular stories? And at which point do you feel pulp shifted toward the more gritty and bleak version called noir? What triggered that?

Bill: First off - there has never been a literary movement called "noir." The source of what you are referring to is "FILM noir" which is a french term describing the post-war, bleak crime cinema coming out of the USA and England from 1949 onward. It's a term used by film critics and misused by everyone else. The term came about from the bleak way the films were lit -- primarily due to the fact that they were mostly cheap crime films shot in 9 days or so. There wasn't any time to use fill lights so the images ended up being very shadowy and stark. Ingeniously enough the look modeled the storytelling in the movies.

In France and across Europe they adopted a term called "roman noir" which means "black novel", and is again modeled after film noir which itself is modeled after the hard-boiled writers like James M. Cain, Thompson, et al...

Interestingly enough, Italy created an offshoot called the "giallo" (jee-all-oh) which were bloody thrillers featuring remorseless killers and driven detectives and other types of broken heroes, many of who had to overcome their own major psychological problems in order to solve the crime or save their own lives. The name giallo comes from the italian word for "yellow" the color of the covers of these grisly thriller books.

Germany had "krimi" thrillers....

Post war America fostered a lot of crooks and people started to understand psychological terms like "PTSD" though they called it "shell shock." The world was no longer black & white, but a very bleak gray landscape. This contributed to the HARD-BOILED genre fiction of the time (Mike Hammer) as writers realized they could tell stories where the hero doesn't always win. It was a flip of the pulp standard.

You'll also note this time was the rise in paranoia over communism and the potential annihilation of everyone on the planet via nuclear weaponry. We understood the sword of Damocles we had hung above our own heads.

Between the heyday of noir and the birth of new pulp, what was going on in the publishing world that still carried on the tradition of the classic pulp story? Were they simply dead and gone, or was some other type of fiction keeping the "faith" alive?

Bill: Well, hard-boiled fiction was derived from the pulp ficition of earlier which evolved into the paperback fiction and so forth. Pulp has never "died" -- it has evolved.

Finally, what are the proofs in popular fiction today that pulp style and tone is here to stay, no matter what the marketers call it?

Bill: The Executioner books are still selling.... Tom Clancy's work - through well-researched - is still dealing with fantastic scenarios. Jeff Rovin, one of the ghost writers for Clancy's OP-Center, and Splinter Cell series has often referred to those books as adopting the Doc Savage and five assistants model.

On TV we have Person of Interest which is The Shadow (if Burbank ran things), 24 which follows the pulp formula of escalation, and Leverage which is another five person model with roots in the pulp world.

For more info about Bill and his work, visit