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writing & publishing

Modern Pulp Fiction

A brief warning: this post may include nostalgia. When we talk of the pulps, in SF and Fantasy circles, we often think of the classic magazines of the 30s and 40s – such as Amazing Stories – or perhaps more later the pulp paperbacks (check out this cover selection on io9 – how cool are these?). Some of those old novels even became classics. They might later receive the Gollancz Masterworks seal of approval, which I’m sure would have surprised the author (should he or she still be alive). But we rarely think of modern books as pulp fiction, let alone even consider that the modern pulps could become classics in the future.

And what the hell am I even talking about when I say ‘modern’ pulp fiction?

Well, about six years ago I was an editor at the Black Flame imprint. Black Flame put out titles based on franchises with New Line Cinema and 2000 AD, which included Jason X, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Final Destination, Judge Dredd, Durham Red, Nikolai Dante, Sláine and more. We also published the novelisation to Snakes on a Plane, believe it or not – even at the time I wondered how the hell we’d turn that script into a book, but Christa Faust – the author – did a fantastic job in putting meat on the bones. (Check out Wikipedia for a decent list of titles of what was covered at Black Flame.) It was quite the list – and it was all consciously pulp, too. We used the word internally, and we would go out into the big wide world declaring that we were not franchise fiction, but pulp fiction.

These days, pulp fiction tends to be sneered at rather heavily, but it was unashamedly entertaining stuff and, as a 23-year-old editor, it was a huge amount of fun to work with.The franchises were bat-shit-crazy, in a good way. The authors, who were great guys and girls, all passionate about pulp fiction and horror cinema, included James Swallow, Pat Cadigan, Natasha Rhodes, Christa Faust, David Bishop, Steven Savile, Jeffrey Thomas, Tim Waggoner, Nancy A. Collins, Rebecca Levene (and loads more). Most of them are still writing various projects today, but they were solid professionals who had no problem with working in other franchises.

For some, perhaps, it was a good way to sharpen their writer’s senses. The books were written quickly, to a decent standard and to deadline. One or two might have been a little rough around the edges, but that was the nature of the beast in getting lots of books out into stores very quickly. As for the content, pulp fiction was all about good plotting, first and foremost. The stories had to have a kick to them, and be as exciting as their intellectual property required. The way the submissions process worked was that we’d get an initial pitch and, if we liked that, then we’d ask the author for a chapter breakdown, which would give us a great idea of the story flow. This would then have to be approved by the various franchises (New Line or 2000 AD) to see if what was written would fit in with their intellectual properties. Only then could the writing begin.

But what I found interesting was comparing these books to the modern SF genre. They were as good – in some cases even better – than the average SF and Fantasy paperback. They were as entertaining, if not more so. So why, even when we gave these books the moniker ‘pulp fiction’ (or later ‘cult fiction’) did a lot of people not give them the time of day? Maybe it came down to the fact that it was tie-in fiction, and the genre loves being snobby to tie-in fiction, which is ironic considering the amount of snobbery literary fiction gives our genre. (As an aside, check out this chat with Dan Abnett I wrote on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog a while back.)

Anyway, Black Flame eventually shut its doors. The books never sold well enough at the time, and we moved on to setting up Solaris by that point. But I still maintain there was nothing in genre literature quite as much fun as those books and, if genre books were just good fun, unabashed entertainment, I wonder if the authors would be proud to say they wrote pulp fiction? It’s amazing how that word comes loaded with both prestige and shame.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

34 replies on “Modern Pulp Fiction”

Hey Scott – thanks for stopping by. A great post, and I can understand your pain. I wonder: do you find people are more accepting these days (what with internet niches and so on), or has the snobbery (because let’s face it, that’s what it is) has become worse?

I loooove the stuff – the editorial process you describe is 100% focused on getting readers something they’ll enjoy. No distractions at all from that core theme. And god bless it.

Sadly, pulp fiction has a long history of combining dubious commercial success with shameful critical attention. Very tragic.

THANK GOD FOR THE BLOGOSPHERE, eh?

Although out-of-print, we made all of the Black Flame books avaliable as ebooks last year, they’re still selling well, people should give ’em a read!

Jared – totally. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d have been blogging and interacting solidly at the start of things.

Jen – that’s great news, thanks for letting us know. Have you got a link?

It’s hard to say. I will admit a certain dismay that while my first book was reviewed by SFX, the other two were ignored. And it does seem as if Abaddon, which is the main Pulp publisher at the mo, IMO, has increasing trouble getting their books reviewed in the ‘mainstream’ press – including SFX – a few notable exceptions aside.

We Abaddon folk – many of whom are the authors you name in the above blog – get good and regular reviews from blogs, and Amazon readers, and that’s heartening. But I’m unsure how much weight a cover quote from ‘Graeme’s Fantasy Review’, estimable though he and his site are, has with a bookshop browser. And without knowing how many readers such blogs have, there’s a slight worry the only people reading blog reviews are those authors and publishers who find them through Google Alerts.

And when the editor of Angry Robot can say, on a convention panel while sitting next to Jon Oliver, that Abaddon doesn’t really publish ‘proper books’*, even when they share some authors, it’s hard not to conclude that the snobbery is depressingly endemic.

*I wasn’t there in person, so this may have been said in jest, but even if it was, I think it’s still indicative.

They were as good – in some cases even better – than the average SF and Fantasy paperback.

Damning with faint praise here; the average Black Flame title was shit, the average SF novel is shit too. I’m sure they are fun to work on but that doesn’t make them good. There is no big mystery here.

You know, reading that back, it reads more downbeat that I really feel. I’m coming across as a venomous grump. I’m not really 🙂

The blogosphere is in many ways the natural place for pulp stuff to find an audience that will give it some love. You could argue that if the mainstream paid it too much attention then it would cease to be pulp, the very snobbery it suffers from being the defining characteristic of the genre!

That said, please excuse another minor rant – snobbery is often found in the least likely places.

I used to be a paid-up member of the International Association of Tie-In Writers, an organisation specifically set up to fight the kind of snobbery we’re lamenting. Lots of big names are members, and it’s a vibrant and wonderful organisation full of lovely, talented people.

But the awards they’ve created to draw attention to the genre – the Scribes – refuse to acknowledge audio tie-ins. Which means that the four tie-in works I’ve done in the last few years, are ignored by the very organisation that should be trumpeting them.

When I raised this point I was told they didn’t want to distract from tie-in books, the clear implication being that tie-in *books* were more valid or worthwhile than tie-in *audio plays*. Bizarre response, I think, from a body set up to fight snobbery!

Scott – Thanks for sharing that. I guess snobbery exists everywhere, at all levels. I think it comes down to the point that people fight for their niche to be special, no matter how small a niche it is. And also, those blogs do have more reach than most print forms. In fact, I’d say SFX, SciFi Now and a newspaper are the only print reviews that are worth putting on a book (in the UK, that is). A lot of blogs are far more powerful and far-reaching (and influential) than print reviews ever were.

Martin – I can’t let you get away with that! Shit compared to what? Was it was fit for purpose? Did the books do what they were supposed to? If I said your blog was shit or you were shit, it has no use or context. C’mon, I know it’s the internet and we throw words about, but if the books were doing what they were meant to, then how can they be shit? I wouldn’t say cheese is shit at being a book, because it’s not designed to be one.

We aren’t comparing cheese and books though, are we? We are comparing books with books. If you said my blog was shit you would be comparing it to other blogs, if you said I was shit you would be comparing me to other humans. This isn’t rocket science.

I am entirely on board with the concept with shit for purpose. I eat fast food from time to time and when I do I enjoy it. But that doesn’t mean I think it is good. I’ve no problem with people liking things that aren’t good, just don’t try and make big claims for them or complain when people point out the truth.

Do you, as a writer, want your next novel to be as good as that Jason X novelisation or do you want it to be better?

Well, as a writer, I want my next novel just to be better/sharper than my previous – I just use myself as calibration. (Interestingly, the Jason X novel I posted there is rather clever indeed, abundant with literary references, but that’s an aside.)

Firstly: where and what are these claims you mention these books are making? I’ve always maintained the line of fit for purpose.

Secondly: what we are talking about is different “types” of books, which are doing different things for different audiences. It’s as if you think literature only has a one scale of good or bad, based on a certain bunch of criteria, and that surprises me. I wouldn’t judge Umberto Eco on his inability to write like Hemingway, because I can see they’re two writers with different aims. Same for Dan Brown, much as though it pains me to say it. Again, I don’t think anyone here has been making a claim that pulp is anything but pulp. Hence the blog title – as you say, it ain’t rocket science. In fact, I was interested in why pulps of old were now considered classics.

It’s why I like reading critics like John Clute, who seem to be very good at appreciating the different dimensions and – horrible term though it is – whether or not something is fit for purpose.

In fact, I think it’s just a little precision I’m seeking here. We were talking about pulps being pulpy and that being what some audiences desired – and that should be acknowledged. You’ve jumped in to declare something different.

Martin, do you set out to read average books? Because I try to read the best books in any genre I can find. I don’t really have much time for reading, so I try to avoid average books, whether pulp, or SF, or literary.

Pulp is different things to different people. Pulp, to me, is a genre that emphasizes pace and action, that is packaged in a smaller book, that stands alone (even if it’s part of a series), and that’s fun. And you can certainly deliver that and write well, and lots of writers do.

And do you know what? A lot of literary fiction fails to be pacy or fun, even if it’s terribly allusive and original. And actually, a lot of terribly worthy, allusive literary fiction isn’t fun, readable *or* original, and still manages to get raved about because of how densely it’s written. I can write densely; that’s not rocket science either. There’s an Emperor’s-New-Clothes-esque “I found this hard to read, therefore it must be good!” perception I find a little hard to deal with.

And actually, the question of the “purpose” of pulp raises an interesting issue that I’ve been thinking about recently. When we talk about “pulp,” we’re mostly talking about a group of writers and publishers self-consciously trying to recreate an older style of genre book, from the days before fifteen-volume uber-epics and nine-hundred-page doorsteps. And more power to their collective elbows, I say.

But pulp, originally, was about mass-producing populist books quickly to make lots of money. And *that’s* the quality that people sneered at at the time, and that people are sneering at these days.

Which is weird, because if I wanted to point to the shelf at my local bookstore that most reflected those values, I’d be hovering around the vast proliferation of whiny-teen-girl-meets-broody-vampire books, or the vast publicity machine surrounding the Martin/Jordan/Erikson/Rowling epics.

In fact, the stuff we produce at Abaddon – with love and with a self-conscious effort to recall a better time – sells to a smallish market.

Martin “I’ve no problem with people liking things that aren’t good”.

I’m so please to hear that the long sought after objective quality measurement for literature has been found. Please advise where the standard can be found 🙂

Mark: Where and what are these claims you mention these books are making?

Your post talks about how people don’t think of modern pulp being the classics of the future, about how people sneer at tie-in fiction, about how tie-in fiction is as good or better as non-tie-in fiction. You’ll forgive me if I take the general point from your piece that you don’t think pulp/tie-in fiction gets enough respect.

It’s as if you think literature only has a one scale of good or bad, based on a certain bunch of criteria, and that surprises me.

In turn, I am surprised you are surprised!

Perhaps I will move away from the food analogy to the less well-worn figure skating analogy. In skating and various other judged sports you get points for execution and difficulty. Even if you perform a simple routine flawlessly you will never get top marks. So when you say fit for purpose, I take you to be talking about basic routines executed well. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with that (although in my experience even the basic routines in genre fiction are often executed poorly). At the opposite end of the scale you have Eco and Hemingway who may be performing different routines but have a similar level of difficulty and can be judged at a similar level.

David: so I try to avoid average books, whether pulp, or SF, or literary.

Me too. It is very difficult though.

Okay, figure skating then… Again, I think that’s on the surface a good, yet flawed analogy. I think the only thing pulp and Umberto would have in common is that they use words. They’re too far apart that to compare them with each other is to do both a disservice. Does figure skating have masses of different categories with different criteria? Each one having different basic routines?

Then again, I would hate to reduce literature to having basic routines, effectively having to jump through hoops.

David – which one of them do you mean?!

I was interested in why pulps of old were now considered classics.

I think the older pulp books that are now considered classics are the ones that had at their heart a really good idea, concept or theme and which, although produced in a hurry for the mass market, managed to do more than the minimum required to be published. They were written by authors who aspired to greatness and seized the opportunity presented them with both hands to show what they could do.

A quote from the creator of Van Der Valk which I had pinned above my desk as I wrote my Afterblight books:

“The fiction writer has to entertain, and be frivolous, but unless he has a thread of serious thought the scribble is worthless.”
Nicolas Freeling

They were probably read by a younger audience, some of whom were wowed by the perhaps unexpected level of quality and then returned to them in later life to see if they were as good as they remembered and found, perhaps to their surprise, that the work had a quality that belied its origins. This then led to a reassessment of the work and its rise in popularity.

Hemingway. He writes in short sentences. His sentences are short and declarative. He writes short sentences which gives his writing a false sense of sincerity. His sincerity is false. His writing is “that which is very crude.” It is not good, his writing. He writes like a school-child. At school, you must be able to write complex sentences to achieve Stage 2. Ernest Hemingway does not write at Stage 2. Ernest Hemingway writes as Stage 1.

(This is slightly unfair, as I like some of Hemingway’s stuff, especially his short fiction. But to declare that Hemingway and Eco are similar in a way that they are different from pulp is disingenuous, since Eco’s writing is mellifluous, complex and elegant, while Hemingway’s is deliberately simplistic, to the point where it approaches crudeness.)

I’m late, late, late to this gunfight and I left my pistols hanging on the wall at home.

A question to the panel instead: where do you peg an author like Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, or any number of their less famous co-contributors of weird tales, swashbuckling adventure, SF, horror, and what would become today’s sword & sorcery?

You can say they were part of these movements, but at the same time they were unquestionably considered “pulp” authors. And much of what made them pulp, I’d argue, makes their work the classics they are today – among them their fast pacing, evocative strangeness, and relatively simplistic prose.

It was also common for these writers to jump in and out of each other’s worlds (see the many Cthulhu stories written NOT by H.P. Lovecraft for just one example) making them some of the earliest writers involved in “tie-in” fiction.

Is most of their output the stuff of “great” literary novels? Perhaps not, but at the same time I’d feel confident that you could site some very good writing among them.

Any thoughts?

E.

David – I can tell you’re not a fan there… 🙂 I get what you’re saying, though Hemingway also wrote long sentences – very long ones, in fact. He boasted of one being in the hundreds of words long. I think the importance of Hemingway is that he managed to change the way people thought about prose, though now in the age of prose transparency, that’s kind of forgotten.

Eric – Good points there. To throw into the mix, what about writers who we do see as classics, who were writing to a format of instalments for entertainment? Or writers like Dumas, who were churning the out work with assistants? They, too, have become classics. I guess the thing is, only time defines what will become a classic. The Great Gatsby, for example, wasn’t a strong seller at the time, but over the years (and being on school education progs) helped define its status as a classic.

I’ve often thought that enduring popularity is intertwined with classic, and that literary merit or otherwise sometimes has nothing to do with it, but that’s another discussion!

Dumas is definitely pulp. God bless him. The man wrote for entertainment value. Ditto, Dickens. Also, REH & Lovecraft. (Although Lovecraft’s idea of entertainment is a little perverse – but that’s because the emotional response he was looking for was “fear”, so, he fits).

Maybe that’s the defining line?

Yeah, Dumas was pulp through and through, even down the diminishing returns in the sequels to Three Musketeers (which remains one of my top ten favourite books). And while I’d be hard pushed to argue the literary merit of a book I’d only read in translation, I get the impression he’s technically brilliant.

Dickens is also unashamedly pulp, but I’d suggest that the added social commentary and outrage is what makes his work classic. Wilkie Collins, who wrote much the same stuff for the same audience at the same time but with less meaty themes is only remembered for a couple of books which broke new stylistic ground, whereas Dickens’ entire canon endures.

However Robert Louis Stevenson I’d be ambivalent about labelling pulp. His best books definitely fit that mass audience, closely plotted, thrilling adventure template, but he was sometimes prone to be more self consciously literary and his actual prose is flat out some of the best I’ve ever read.

Mark–Thank you for writing about these. As a self-proclaimed modern day SF/F pulp adventure writer, I wanna get me some of these titles to study and enjoy.

Jen–Thank you for the link to the Dredd novels.

[…] Mark Charan Newton has a good post on media tie-ins as modern pulp fiction. There’s some of the by now predictable sneering at urban fantasy and paranormal romance in the comments, though. I really wish writers and readers everywhere would stop the “my genre is better than yours” game, because it’s bloody annoying. […]

[1] Can I turn up late to the party and throw some scattered crisps amongst the sleeping revellers? (And do this comment in several chunks? Presumptuous, I know, but I’m nothing if not an arrogant buffoon…)

Anyway. Although Martin’s first posts raised my hackles (to coin a cliche) a tad, I do really like his figure skating analogy (particularly, *fires up intertubes*, in relation to the old “6.0”, system when marks were split between “techinical merit”, and “artistic impression”).

The best of the ‘pulp’ (if I may be forgiven “scare quotes”) writers had exceptional “techinical merit” (argh!) in terms of pacing, describing action, keeping the readers turning the pages etc. whereas the best of the ‘literary’ (argh! again! argh!!!) writers can (rarely, but sometimes) compensate for lack of “technical merit”, by sheer “artistic impression”.

(In my own case, by way of examples, I guess I’d place the likes of R. E. Howard and E. R. Burroughs in the first category, and, say, M. Amis, in the second…)

The ideal, of course, would be a perfect harmony (Christopher Priest, in my own, humble, well (not so humble!) FACT!)

Finally (for the moment), regarding Mark CN and the future classics being “Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and so on…”

I’d agree with JKR, whose “technical merit” (howsoever defined) keeps the pages turning in a way that the other two (IMHO) don’t. (Larsson has the most valid excuse, of course, and I’ve only read him in translation anyway, to be fair…)

Long enough for now…

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