Do we have a New Pulp Fiction and do we need one?

Last year, I wrote a trio of posts about the resurgence of pulp fiction and the “anything goes” spirit of the pulp era thanks to the electronic publishing revolution. You can find them here, here and here.

Now the New Pulp debate has come around again, set off by this post by Matt Blind at Rocket Bomber. It’s a very comprehensive post with lots of background detail about the US publishing and bookselling industries (Matt Blind is manager of a Barnes & Noble store). Matt Blind closes by pointing to the wild experimentation of pulp era of the early 20th century rather than the bestseller driven publishing system of the past twenty years as a model for this brave new publishing world, which is pretty close to what I and others have been saying in the posts linked above.

At Voices on the Square, Bruce McFarling echoes Matt Blind’s call for e-publishing to orient itself on the pulp model, though he goes back further in the history of popular publishing to include the dime novels and story papers of the late 19th century. Bruce McFarling also quotes from Tobias Buckell’s recent post on survivorship bias (i.e. the fact that successes are more notable than failure) in this brave new indie publishing world, which I linked to and commented on here.

Tobias Buckell responds to Bruce McFarling and points out that replicating the economics and publishing model of the pulp era is difficult today, because consumers now have more entertainment choices available to them than reading. Here is a quote:

Yeah, the biggest issue I see with this is a comment referenced but not truly appreciated in that blog post, which is that pulp serials were ‘like the TV’ of their day.

While I think eBooks are going to create a new low-cost market (and have, really), the evidence is more that they’re eating up the cheap paperback of the 70s and thereabouts, than pulp.

Pulp was ‘like the TV’ of the day.

Only, we *have* TV today.

And videogames.

Reading is not a dominant entertainment activity. Which is why any reading today is never going to exactly mirror reading of the past. This is the hiccup with paying too close attention to models of the past. The ecosystem has changed.

Now I’ve never been a big fan of “new storytelling medium replaces older storytelling medium” theories, especially since it doesn’t work that way. A new storytelling medium or new delivery system will take aware market share from the older system, but it will not completely replace it. Movies did not replace theatre, movies and radio did not replace reading, TV did not replace cinema and radio, VCRs did not replace TV, videogames did not replace TV. Even in the 1930s, people had other ways of getting entertainment than reading a pulp mag. Cinema was flourishing, vaudeville was on its last legs, but still around and radio was offering a host of audio plays, including such timeless classics as Orson Wells’ still fabulous adaption of War of the Worlds. Often, the different mediums supported each other. The iconic pulp hero The Shadow got his start as a radio drama and plenty of early pulp and comic book heroes appeared in movie serials.

And many of the old forms of entertainment are still with us, too. We still have theatres, we still have circuses, we still have operas and operettas, there are regular attempts to revive old variety style stage entertainment such as Vaudeville, Music Halls and Varieté (with varying success), the BBC still produces radio dramas (and not just “arty” dramas either, but entertainment), many countries including Germany still have their own versions of pulp mags and dime novels. Oberammergau still has a medieval style passion play, for goodness’ sake.

So while Tobias Buckell is correct that reading will never again become as dominant as it was in the 19th century (because by the early 20th, people had other options), entertaining fiction – whatever the delivery system – is in no danger of dying out. Never mind that different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses. I like to consume stories via reading, TV and movies, but videogames and audio dramas largely leave me cold. Others have other preferences.

Philip Brewer responds to both Bruce McFarling and Tobias Buckell and says that the big strength of the old time pulps was not the fact that they serialized stories, but the editorial vision of the various mags and how bundling short stories by new writers with novellas by big name writers could give a boost to the new writers.

What is striking about this reiteration of the New Pulp debate compared to the last one is that it tackles the question whether the pulp era is a good model for this brave new world of e-publishing almost entirely from the publishing and editorial POV (though Tobias Buckell and Philip Brewer are writers), while last year’s New Pulp debate mostly focussed on the freedom of and challenge for the writer to write quickly, often in multiple genres, and experiment with new forms and genres as well as the related freedom of the reader to try many different genres and types of fiction for comparatively little investment.

While I absolutely see the value in discussing New Pulp from an commercial and editorial POV, I am more interested in the writer POV myself. Because for me the most striking feature of the pulp era and the dime novel era before it was the sheer variety of stories and genres as well as the often feverish pace at which they were produced. All the genres of popular fiction we still have today can be traced back to the pulp or dime novel era, while plenty of what were viable genres back then (railroad stories, sports stories) have since vanished. This enormous variety gave the writer a great freedom, namely the freedom to write in multiple genres (and perhaps even create a new one), while knowing that there was a market for what they were writing out there somewhere. It might not be a big market and pulp writers were paid notoriously badly, but it was there.

It’s this energy that the digital publishing revolution is bringing back. Now I’m not the world’s most commercially minded writer – and indeed the extreme mercenary attitudes of some indie writers put me off. Nonetheless, in the traditional publishing paradigm, I evaluated every potential story idea with “Is there a market for this?” If the answer was “No”, then I shelved the idea hoping it would go away on its own. Now, however, every idea is potentially viable, because if there is no market for a given idea, I can make my own. Of course, the resulting story may sell only a handful of copies ever, but it has the chance to find readers, whereas it previously would have gathered dust on my harddrive.

Now the indie publishing has not yet realized its genre-busting, category-defying potential. Most of the big indie success are not just conventional but actually less adventurous than much of what the big publishers are putting out. And the only new genre created by the indie revolution, the so-called “new adult” romance, i.e. contemporary US-set romances featuring college aged characters, is about as far from experimental as you can get. On the contrary, many new adult romances with their domineering heroes and virginal doormat heroines are actually a step back for the romance genres, where more equal gender relationships have gradually emerged in the 1990s and 2000s.

But just because the potential of indie publishing has not yet been realized doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

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2 Responses to Do we have a New Pulp Fiction and do we need one?

  1. Pingback: Bloomsday Linkdump | Cora Buhlert

  2. Johnathon Aguilar says:

    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.

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