Monday, July 16, 2012

Some thoughts on "New Pulp"

There's been some talk recently about this idea of New Pulp (here, here) and I just wanted to throw some thoughts out there.

There are at least two ways to approaching a definition of the term, which is probably necessary before talking about it: letter of the law and spirit of the law.

There are a group of writers who approach the first method, letter of the law, in a fairly straight forward manner. They are fans of old pulp fiction and seek to tell stories in that mold with thinly veiled characters of old. Their only nods to modernity are to eliminate specific characteristics such as cultural ignorance/racism, gender and/or racial inequality that would stand out in a modern story. One just has to look at Pulpwork Press for examples of this mode of new pulp with titles like:
Four Bullets for Dillon by Derrick Ferguson

A lost city in the Cambodian jungles run by a pint-sized tyrant wearing a gem-encrusted belt buckle; Beautiful women who lure Dillon and his rival, rock musician Sly Gantlet, into a clash of alpha males and a deadly set-up; a deceitful queen and a backstabbing friend; a quest for an evil artifact linked to the betrayer of Christ. Four Bullets for Dillon includes four hard to find and never before seen stories ripped from the life of global adventurer and instigator, Dillon.

Devil Take the Hindmost by Joel Jenkins

When Damon St. Cloud shows up in Denbrook, pockets full of weapons and carrying an anonymous note with a clue to finding the killers of his wife and child, mysterious forces begin gathering to destroy him...
Dire Planet by Joel Jenkins
Thrust into the savage Martian past, former astronaut Garvey Dire must solve the mystery of time in a world of alien monsters and brutal violence or see his own world destroyed by WAR!

The Pulptress by Andrea Judy

She appears, an enigma, a guardian angel in a mask and fedora, her past shrouded in mystery. Where did she come from? What secrets in her past drove her to become a crusader for justice? Who is The Pulptress? The Pulptress, the masked woman of mystery.
These stories strive for golden age, romantic-heroism entertainments and escapist adventure.

The second way of approaching this topic is spirit of the law. The old pulp scribes cranked out a huge volume of fiction, selling all kinds of stories to any and all markets. They were often paid by the word and writing was their main if not only source of income. In some cases they didn't care what they wrote (which is different then not putting care in to what they wrote) in service of finding a payday. Think Lester Dent's now (in)famous Master Fiction Plot.

The spirit of the law writers can in many cases claim pulp influences but instead of cranking out what could arguably be called derivative fiction they are prolifically creating their own body of work, and often across many genres. As good an example as any would be Joe Lansdale, a writer with a huge body of work, across many genres and in many forms yet you can't distill his work as "Doc Savage-esque". Another good example would be someone like Raymond Embrack who is busy e-cranking out his own distinct brand of "bad ass" crime fiction. And a thord would be Stephen Graham Jones.

Where these two styles can over lap is the in their idolization of forms of pulp fiction that came later. You see this a lot in darker forms of crime fiction like noir and hardboiled. But more on that in a bit.

These are the two loose camps of new pulp as I see them which leaves dealing in some capacity with the idea itself.

I think one could argue that James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss marked a movement away from some of the genre’s pulp roots. I also think that one could argue that in recent years, possibly as a reaction to this movement, possibly as a result of a younger generations of writers wanting to, in a sense, take part in a tradition and history that was over before they were born, and also the rise of popularity of noir and hardboiled fiction due to the internet, there has been a strong pull back towards the idea of the pulp ethos.

In a sense a longing look is being cast over the shoulders, by an increasing number of writers and readers, at days gone past. We’ve seen reprint works, anthologies, entire lines of pulp fiction; also new books that feature stressed covers that replicate the beat up nature of the original paperbacks and sexy pin-up, pulp style original cover art. I think it was this trend that George Pelecanos had in mind when he gave the Phineas Poe omnibus the following blurb “Will Baer has located the black heart of noir, rescued it from the dry-hump clutch of homage, and dragged it back to the drunk tank where it belongs.” Mystery/crime fiction, much more so then other genres, seems to be far more obsessed/enamored with its pulp fiction roots.

But this notion of modern writers spending too much time engaged with their pulp predecessors and its effect on progress isn’t a new one. The following quote is from a review written in 1976 by Richard Lupoff, which has relevance today, “And the people who write “neo-pulp” are doing that and worse. They’re not pushing at the boundaries … nor even standing beside them, but retreating at speed to the old limitations, the old ideas and the old ways.”

 Too often crime fiction feels like a period piece. Like the author is a child playing dress-up and the era is her parents’ clothes. The shoes clomp, the sleeves are too long, and the fit is just off. It’s my belief that the mystery/crime genre is going through a conservative phase. One where past settings or evocations of past times are increasingly more common. Readers are getting inundated with loads of researched facts that scream look-at-all-the-research-I-did, or throw a tantrum with oh-my-God-I-wish-I-wrote-for-Gold-Medal half-baked pulp theatrics.

I also think that a lot of writers and readers and fans of pulp fiction commit what I call the golden age fallacy, believing that pulp fiction peaked in the 20's and 30's and ending in the 50's, which muddies the waters even further when trying to untangle the idea of new pulp. A lot of these pulp practitioners were white American males. But the truth of the matter is that there were thriving pulp fiction lines at the same time and extending well into the 70's in other cultures, countries and communities. The two examples I cite the most are the Indian and Hindi Pulp fiction markets that lasted until the 90's (here and here), and Holloway House who sold millions of books at drugstores and barbershops into the 80's.

Finally the auteur theory of pulp fiction should at least be acknowledged in this discussion. The manner in which pulp fiction has come to us today is basically through the filter of auteur theory—that out of a system of mass produced fiction some great writers were able to rise above it and produce great works of art. Very early in the game Serie noire line cherry picked the best of American hardboiled pulps then again in the 80's we would see this cycle repeat itself with the Black Lizard imprint. Interestingly it isn't until recently, with the digitization of fiction and the rise of ebooks and ereaders, that we find companies who are willing to move beyond the cherry picked approach to pulp reprints and are moving in more of a mass reprint direction. I believe that pulp fiction is in a stage of critical flux right now. I don't know what that will mean going forward, just that I'm trying to make the observation now by throwing some thoughts out there. It is entirely possible that auteur theory will continue to be a strong filter when it comes to self-published and ebooks, that Raise a Holler will be the exception and The Greek Seaman will be the rule.

Is New Pulp a thing? At the very least, in the sense that a group of like minded individuals say so, yes it is. Should it be and what it is harder to answer.

1 comment:

John McFetridge said...

Well, that's a lot to digest, but I agree with you (I think ;).

Crime fiction - pulp fiction - is very conservative, it's very good guys-bad guys and for all the anti-hero and moral ambiguity we can always tell them apart.

And it does often feel removed from the present in some way. Crumley was a turning point, and auteur, sure, but I think maybe the big turning point for a lot of what we see today is Dirty Harry. We still love the loner hero and hate the pencil-pushing desk jockeys. It's been a long time since an accountant brought down Al Capone, so long in fact, we're still pretty sure it was Elliot Ness and a machine gun that did it...