Friday, January 22, 2010

Pulp fictions

Recently a half-dozen reproduction L. Ron Hubbard pulp novellas showed up at my doorstep, part of an exceptionally well-produced (and well-financed) marketing campaign designed to reacquaint the American public—specifically young adults—with the exciting, white-knuckle joys of reading pulp adventure fiction. The marketing piece included a stack of newspapers that “reported” sensationalized (as if they needed it) plot lines of the stories, complete with drawings and relevant side-bar stories. There were also several interesting articles on the history of pulps and on L. Ron. As an ad man and marketer, I’d say this is one of the best prepared and presented campaigns I’ve ever seen for books. The only problem? The books.

The books, as physical objects, are fantastic. The covers are bright and engaging, they’re the right size and the paper, while not technically pulp, has an unusually rough feel. The problem is what’s inside the books.

L. Ron Hubbard was one of the best pulp writers to ever crank out a story. He knew his genre (he helped invent it), he knew his public, and he delivered the punch in every book. The six books I received showed the variety of his work, from far-East tales of adventure to spy thrillers to the paranormal to science fiction. It really is an excellent overview of the pulp genre. And that, I’m sad to admit, is the problem.

Last night I read Hubbard’s Spy Killer—it’s a perfect example of the action-adventure pulp sub-genre. It had outstanding action, it had high adventure, it had some of the best-written scenes I’ve ever encountered in the genre, and it was still a lousy read.

People who love pulp—and they are legion—say that the gross stereotypes, the half-dimensional characters, the bizarre dialog attributions (bawled, barked, cried out, almost cried out, snapped, demanded, muttered, chuckled), the ridiculous plot twists and the lust-less passion are all part of the genre’s appeal.


Pulp is the cotton candy of fiction. You know it’s not good for you but it looks so fun. So you take a bite. It’s sticky and messy and you want it to be as fun as it looks. But one bite tells you there’s nothing to it, and a second bite only confirms the first. If you stay with it to the end, you feel sortta sick for the rest of the day.

I know many wise adults—authors, doctors, business owners—who love pulp, and I know adults—my wife, fro one—who love cotton candy. As for me, I’ve had my fill of both.

That is until I see a great looking pulp cover or have yet another friend hand me a tattered reprint saying, “This one’s different.”


Dana King said...

The pulp that gets remembered are stories written for pulp, but not as pulp. (Note how I twisted myself into knots trying not to say, "transcended the genre.")

Pulps written just to be read and tossed are one thing, but the people we talk about (Chandler, Hammett, Cain, etc.) write pulps that were more than disposable action stories. That's why they stuck out and are remembered, and used as models, today.

Charles Benoit said...

Yes, but even in that wheat some chaff still gets through.