The New Pulp Fiction

About one and a half months ago, I wrote a post comparing the rise of indie publishing with the age of the pulps in the first half of the 20th century, since both eras were characterized by the writing and publishing process speeding up beyond what was previously thought possible, by the price for fiction dropping and by genres expanding and new genres emerging and by a general sense that anything was possible. Coincidentally, the heyday of the pulps and the rise of indie publishing both coincided with a time of economic turmoil, which is certainly interesting, though I’m not quite sure what it means.

However, when I wrote the post linked above back in May, little did I know that my long-term fascination with the old pulps and positioning my e-publishing imprint as a modern pulp publisher made me part of a growing movement. If I had known, I might well have decided to call my imprint something else, since I don’t do movements and have so far successfully avoided all of the movements that periodically afflict the science fiction and fantasy genres.

Nonetheless, I may unwittingly find myself part of a literary movement, for there has been an increasing amount of discussion of the New Pulp Fiction online in the past few months:

As a follow-up to his recent Guardian column, Damien Walter asks what new pulp fiction is and why it might be a good thing. As far as I can tell, Damien Walter wants the New Pulp to be more literary than the old pulp, similar in style to the New Wave of the late 1960s and the New Weird of the late 1990s/early 2000s. The analogy actually makes sense since New Wave and New Weird are both pulp-derived movements of sorts, since the New Wave had its origin in the stories published in New Worlds, Britain’s answer to the American SF pulps such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction, while the New Weird very deliberately hearkens back to the more offbeat fiction published in Weird Tales in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

And I very much disagree with his point that SF and fantasy had an amazing burst of creativity in the late 1990s and early 2000s and then went stale, because the late 1990s and early 2000s were the time when I almost gave up on SFF altogether, because I hated pretty much every highly regarded work I tried to read. Things only started to pick up again around 2004/05.

Another occasional Guardian columnist, David Barnett also writes about the New Pulp (or Nu Pulp, as he calls it) and particularly the link to the various Punk-suffix subgenres such as Steampunk and Dieselpunk, which is an aspect that Damian Walter completely ignores.

Finally, there is a New Pulp manifesto of sorts at the New Pulp website, which is a lot more focused on deliberately retro work than the articles by Damian Walter and David Barnett.

In my view, all three articles are a bit too limited in their definition of what pulp, let alone New Pulp is. Damien Walter mainly wants to focus on the Weird Tales inspired fiction he personally enjoys (and not the Seabury Quinn stories about paranormal investigator Jules de Grandin that actually sold the mag either), David Barnett focuses on Steampunk more inspired by the Victorian dime novel/penny dreadful than by the pulps, while the New Pulp people mainly focus on the hero pulps. The article that comes closest to my own view of what pulp is and New Pulp can be is this guest post by Andrez Bergen at Damian Walter’s site.

Because pulp fiction was more than Weird Tales (which was never all that popular to begin with, which is why surviving issues are so rare and expensive), Black Mask and the SF pulps (preferably Astounding, since no one ever wants to bring back Planet Stories or Air Wonder Stories or other mags on the odder edge of the spectrum) and maybe Doc Savage or The Shadow. Pulp fiction was an endless array of western and romance pulps (and western romance pulps), it was G8 and his Battle Aces, it was Zeppelin Stories and The (wholly politically incorrect) Mysterious Wu Fang, it was mags like Dime Mystery or the Spicy line with scantily clad damsels being menaced on the cover week after week, it was the early and very tame erotica of magazines like Gay Stories (not what you think), it was a Railroad Stories and sports pulps.

Indeed, what made the pulp era so amazing and so rich was the huge variety of stories available at all levels of quality from unreadable trash to enduring masterpiece in every conceivable niche and every conceivable genre, including some that no one had ever thought up before or hence. Indeed, it is no surprise that most of the genres we still have today developed or at least consolidated during the dime novel and pulp era. The pulp era and the dime novel/penny dreadful era before it was an explosion of storytelling, largely due to new technological developments in the printing and paper production process. And in this point, the parallels to today are obvious, because again we have an explosion of storytelling (the whole indie and micro publishing movement) fueled by a technological breakthrough, namely the widespread adoption of e-readers and e-books.

There is another parallel, for those old pulp writers were fast. They were damn fast and they usually wrote in several genres at once, sometimes inventing new genres on the fly. And most of the stuff they wrote was short by today’s standards, namely short stories, novelettes and novellas. Full length novels were rare and fifty or sixty thousand words usually counted as a novel. And though the payment was crap, a few cents per word at most, a lot of people managed to make a living at writing for the pulps.

A few weeks ago, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a great post tackling the question whether it is possible making a living writing short fiction. The answer, by the way, is “yes”, provided you are prolific and willing to work hard. I nodded through much of the post, but nonetheless it proved to be surprisingly controversial and generated an eight page discussion on the Kindleboards. There’s also a follow-up thread about fast versus slow writing here. A lot of people said that what Smith is proposing is flat out impossible despite evidence to the contrary. Some people even used words like “scam” and “pyramid scheme”. “Get rich quick scheme” was another one that was used, which is oddly enough exactly what some critics accuse the whole indie publishing movement (though they hate the term, because it offends them by supposedly insulting the alternative small press) of being. Here’s sort of an example. There used to be others on that blog, but the author deleted them.

Now I must confess that I find the exclusive money-making focus of some indie authors problematic myself. You know the sort. The ones who post topics like “Which genre sells best?”, “What’s trendy right now?”, “How can I cash in on X trend?” on the Kindleboards and similar forums. Or the ones who obsess over algorithms or price pulsing or whether their sales rank slips below whatever their arbitrary definition of success is. The ones who change their cover a hundred times (and usually every subsequent cover looks more generic and uglier than whatever the original was) to match what they believe their target audience expects. Hell, make that those who worry way too much about who their target audience is. I must confess that when I read posts and comments by such people, I often find myself thinking, “Why are you doing this at all, since you obviously don’t seem to enjoy it? If it’s just about the money, then there are easier ways.” Cause even in the indie publishing revolution, there is no guarantee of making a living.

Which is why I was surprised how much hostility Dean Wesley Smith’s post generated in the indie writing community. Because basically, what he says is, “Yes, it’s possible to make a living at this, even if you write short fiction, which traditionally sell worse than novels.” And you’d think that’s exactly what many indie writers want to hear. Hell, it’s what I want to hear, even though I resolved years ago to treat any money I earn with my writing as a nice bonus, but never as something to depend on.

But after following those discussions for a few days, it dawned upon me that what the naysayers really have issues with was not so much the claim that one can make a living writing short fiction or the claim that one can make a living writing fiction at all, but the claim that it is possible to write a short story every week and still manage to turn out something publishable much of the time. Indeed, this semi-serious thread on the Kindleboards seems to confirm this suspicion, namely that some people assume that fast writers and prolific writers automatically produce substandard work. Dean Wesley Smith already tackled this myth in his Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing series, but it still dies hard.

On a related note, Kristine Kathryn Rusch goes into the idea of the perfect story and why there is no such thing in this installment in her Business Rusch series. And as for how quickly a seed can blossom into a fully fledged story, Jay Lake describes his process for writing a particular short story, which grew out of a vague idea (the story must have X and Y) and a few opening lines, here.

Now there are plenty of examples of fast and prolific writers whose work is excellent and often endures for decades if not centuries. But somehow, none of those examples ever count in the eyes of the naysayers, no matter how many of them you offer. Since publishing has largely become a slow business, I think that a lot of people have forgotten how prolific many of the old pulp writers truly were and how prolific writers e.g. of category romances still are. For example, check out this post by horror writer Brian Keene about writing 80000 words, i.e. a complete full length novel, in the course of a single weekend.

Many years ago, in a creative writing class at university, we started discussing those writers who impressed and inspired us. And I said how much I admired pulp writers like Walter Gibson who could write a 60000 word novella every two weeks and still turn out something that was enjoyable some sixty years later. The teacher as well as the other students in the class were horrified. “But someone who writes as fast as that Gibson guy surely can’t be as good as – say – Thomas Mann.” The comparison was actually appropriate, since Thomas Mann and Walter Gibson were contemporaries, though the clear implication was that Gibson was not a suitable writing hero, whereas Mann was.

“You’re just forgetting one thing”, I said, “I never set out to be Thomas Mann.”

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11 Responses to The New Pulp Fiction

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