Are Pulp Novels Still Relevant?
I first became aware of the pulp novel as a kid. One summer day, while vacationing in Galveston, my family stopped by a convenience store. While idly looking at the book rack, a title caught my eye and I bought it for seventy-five cents. It was “The Land of Fear” by Kenneth Robeson, one of the Bantam reprints of the Doc Savage pulp novels from the 1930's. Until then I had never heard of the Man of Bronze or the Fabulous Five. Though a subpar Doc Savage story, I got hooked and soon had a large collection of reprints. From Doc Savage, I branched out to other pulp series such as the Avenger, the Saint, Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Conan, the Lensmen, the Skylark series, Fu Manchu, and the Shadow, but Doc Savage remained a key fixture in my reading for many years. For those unfamiliar with the pulp era, there was a time from the 1890s through the 1950s when authors churned out novels printed in pulp magazines, so called because they were made of cheap untrimmed pulp paper. The rise of comics, the paperback novel, and television brought the pulp era to an end, though their influence on popular culture was immense. The literati may turn their noses up at pulp novels and their cousins, the comic books, but at least comics have gained some respectability, though at the cost of losing much of the fun and wonder they once promised, while pulps have become increasingly forgotten and derided. When earlier this year the movie “John Carter” was released to lukewarm reviews, a common refrain I noticed were comments about how derivative and dated it seemed. “John Carter” was a fine adaptation of “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs destroyed by shoddy marketing on the part of Disney. But the comments lingered, raising questions of whether or not the pulps have any relevance in today's world.
“A Princess of Mars”, published in 1912, was the first novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs, like H. Rider Haggard and Jack London, rose to success in the first wave of pulp magazines before World War One. If the movie seemed derivative, it's largely because the book became the template and forerunner for most of today's the fantasy and science fiction. The ideas, tropes, and devices used in “A Princess of Mars” and countless other pulp novels have been used, reused, constructed, deconstructed, played straight, lampshaded, and subverted for over a century with no signs of stopping, thus of course the movie and the book would seem dated or derivative to modern eyes. Does that invalidate them as reading experiences? That is a good question. A daunting number of critics, especially those unfamiliar with the pulps, dismiss them out of hand, which I think is wrong – or at least short-sighted.
Unfamiliarity with the pulp era is a major reason for dismissing them. The pulps have been marginalized for so long, even as other authors have plundered its treasures for decades, entire generations have no exposure to them beyond the rare movie that attempted and failed to capture their spirit. (Case in point: the movie about the Shadow with Alec Baldwin had a near perfect cast wasted on a script that went for hokey camp instead of relying on the original source material.) Then, there is the reality that not all pulps are good. Most authors wrote pulps to tight deadlines, often paid on a per word basis, with little time for rewrites and even less time for editing. For every two or three that rang gold, many others clunked.
So why bother with the pulps? Because at their best, whether as action/adventure, science fiction, fantasy, or as a mystery, the pulps delivered the goods. Some were very literate, books any author would be proud to claim – not surprising when one realizes the pulps served as the incubator for authors such as Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson, Fritz Lieber, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ray Bradbury. Even if a pulp didn't approach the high level of such luminaries, they often did one thing well: they told rattling good stories. That was the whole idea. For a dime plunked down on a counter, anyone could be an adventurer solving mysteries, rescuing maidens in distress, discovering lost treasures or civilizations, fighting bad guys at every step. Potent stuff for the Depression era and still entertaining today. Many were highly imaginative and invented many of the devices now used to the point of saturation and contempt
As a writer, I learned from the pulps how a story could be as deep and complicated as you wish, or as simple as child's play, as long as did two things: entertain and move. It had to ratchet up the excitement, deliver chills and thrills, and if the prose transcended the limitations of the genre, then it's sauce for the goose. It's an old-fashioned virtue in this modern world where everything has to be slick. complicated, or effects heavy. I've lost count of the number of books I've read and movies I've seen where they did everything right except remember to tell a story. Tell good enough story and even if the characters were two-dimensional or the plotting sometimes got predictable, more often that not it didn't matter when there was death on the wing or the world to be saved. These storytelling virtues are universal and the pulps could display them in spades. Some could still be read today without embarrassment. The better ones, such as the early Doc Savage novels from the first two years of the series (which lasted from 1933 until 1949, running a complete novel each month), have an epic feel, unbridled outrageousness, and largeness of action rarely seen in modern novels. Not to mention a level of inventiveness and imagination that is staggering when one surveys the breadth of the series.
One reason I think some complain of the pulps as dated stems from the reality they were made in an era so different from our own. Values have changed along with expectations and writing styles. For example, the entire white knight vs. villain in black convention has shifted, converted. Look at the current take on “Batman”, which plays up both the darkness and the light inherent in the character, something rarely done in the pulp era. In contrast, both Batman and Superman owe a debt to Doc Savage: both derived numerous elements from the series. Perhaps that is a virtue. The pulps are the wellspring for a lot of great fiction over the past century. Sometimes, returning to the source, seeing how it was done in the beginning, can give new perspectives and fresh insight. Sometimes, because they are so different from what is on the book stands today, they seem new again. Sometimes, it just needs a little mental adjustment, the willful act of becoming a child again for a few hours, to experience them as they should be enjoyed.
From one perspective, one could argue the pulps have value solely as nostalgic or historical artifacts, suggesting something belonging in a museum rather than on someone's bookshelf or bedstand. Another criticism lies in how the pulps are inbued with the stereotypes and prejudices of their day. For every pulp like the Avenger series willing to feature females or blacks in strong roles, a thousand more couldn't look past the era's conventions, becoming a real issue for modern readers.
Yet the question still stands. In today's world, is there a real place for the pulps? I believe there will always be a place for them, even if only for nostalgia. Call it the retro rule of cool. Anyone who appreciates good stories, if not always great characterizations or prose, will find and appreciate them for their ability to tell good stories; others may appreciate them for their very flaws and vices. No, it's getting Generation X to take an interest in the pulps that is a problem. Mind you, this same generation often displays an inbred distaste of anything old just because it's old and not current, hip, or cool. I've heard some say they won't watch movies in black and white for similar reasons. I believe this attitude is a cultural artifact created over the last few decades by a consumer and market driven culture that prizes the latest, greatest, and shiniest as desirable and anything ten minutes old as not, but that is another post. Whatever the cause, the only real cure is to dip a toe in the pulps, perhaps finding something to surprise readers, who have encountered the cousins and literal descendents of the pulps all their life but never knew the roots of what they loved?