Tuesday, May 6, 2014

What is Pulp?

Between confusing Amazon descriptions and the Literati slumming it in the world of popular fiction, the umbrella term "pulp" and its various permutations have been stuck in my craw lately.  We've got pulp, new pulp, post pulp, post modern pulp, neopulp, modern pulp, pulp revival, etc.

Originally the term pulp, referring to the poor quality of the paper, was used to distinguish it from the "slicks", or more up-market periodicals.  Pulp was not a genre in itself, but pulp magazines were of various genres: adventure, science fiction, western, boxing, jungles, romance, etc.  They paid less and had less esteem than the slicks, and were intended to be disposable reads for working and middle class folks.  This is simplifying it a bit much, but the pulps evolved from dime novels and were in turn replaced by paperback originals after World War II.

The paperback originals, which were largely in the noir or hardboiled genre (think Jim Thompson, Mickey Spillane, Elmore Leonard), themselves are now referred to as pulp.  It probably isn't Quentin Tarantino's fault, though he gets pulp fiction about as right as he gets grindhouse.

In the 60s and 70s there was a bit of a pulp hero revival which manifested itself in the form of reprints and comic adaptations.  The Doc Savage reprints were especially successful.  On the heels of this we have the Men's Adventure genre, starting at the Executioner and later evolving into techno thrillers and the like.  These have been called postmodern pulp among a lot of other names (aggressors, serial vigilantes, etc), and I think it's accurate to say they've carried on the pulp tradition, though the range of genres has narrowed.

There's not a governing body for genre qualifications, but genre still has its practical use: dividing up books by shelf or webpage so that fans of that genre can find stuff they might like.  To that end, here's how I interpret how publishers and reviewers use the pulp categories.

New pulp usually refers to works written today that have the genre and setting of the classic pulp era.  Many of these have licensed characters (Doc Savage, the Spider, the Shadow, etc), while others are new characters (Silver Manticore, the Rook, the Pulptress, etc).  New pulp tends to have the same setting (i.e. the 1920s-50s), though some similar characters with a modern setting may use this description.  Publishers of new pulp include Moonstone, Airship27, and Pro Se Press.

Postmodern Pulp has been used to described 70s and 80s Men's Adventure books, but it's also been used in a more literal sense.  Giving it more attention than it deserves, postmodernism as it applies to popular culture is a movement that basically gave up on the idea of having new ideas, and mashes up stolen characters and scenarios, only it's called homage and pastiche, not plagiaristic hackwork.  See also Quentin Tarantino.

Not that I'm against literary theft.  You can take every piece of popular fiction and find where the author stole the idea from back to at least Beowulf.  But authors who are self-consciously postmodern do it with a wink and a nod, and very often with a disdain for their source material.  This is very rarely done well.  Alan Moore sometimes gets away with it.

Some of these are more high brow literary writers who are basically slumming.  More often, as of late, it's horrible hipster mash-up nonsense.  Neopulp may fit in best here, and it bleeds into Bizarro fiction, another genre that gives me a rash with just the story titles.  I'll likely never read any of it, but it strikes me as the literary equivalent of Robot Chicken, forgetting that Robot Chicken only works because it's eleven minutes long, and most of the gags are about 5 seconds, not 300 pages.

In the broader world of fiction, pulp gets thrown around to sometimes mean any popular or genre fiction, almost as an apology or excuse for reading or writing a book for entertainment instead of for feeling clever.  A good argument can be made that Dan Brown and other giant doorstop producers have inherited the pulp title, but for me pulp should be short and tight.

But never mind all that.  Nobody does Pulp as well as Chris Morris.


  1. Good post. I still collect the original old magazines and their reprints. I think reading them when we were young makes us want to read and collect them as we get older - like Saturday morning movie serials, or Golden Age comics. Pulps were a fun, fast read written by authors trying to make a living at a few cents a word, if that much.

    1. Thanks, Tom! I love the originals myself, and I'm glad there's so much of it that I'll never run out.

  2. When I started using the term "postmodern pulp" about a dozen years ago, I was specifically pointing at the Men's Adventure fiction and next-generation Conan-esque pastiches written in the 60's through the 80's, material written in the spirit of the original "pulps" but touched by the tone of a much different, grimmer, more nihilistic post-Vietnam world. I think in the last decade or so, the ability for "Pulp" aficionados to connect and jive on the subject has led to a softening of what is and isn't Pulp.

    While by and large I agree with your analysis, I also think - does it matter? Pulp fiction by its very nature is meant to be high-speed, low-drag reading enjoyment that doesn't take itself too seriously, so why should we get so serious about what is and isn't a certain kind of Pulp? I feel like debating this is the equivalent of the folks who get really, really serious about the analysis of truck stop diner cuisine.