Guest Blog: The Need for Pulp Literature

adamToday is a special day at Ye Olde Blog — for the first time ever, I’m running a piece that’s entirely written by someone else. When I first began giving thought to inviting someone to do a turn on this blog, the very first person I thought of was Adam Lance Garcia. Adam is one of the most innovative voices in New Pulp and his work on books such as The New Adventures of Richard Knight and The Green Lama – Unbound has rightfully earned him a growing legion of fans. I’m proud to say that Adam will be contributing to the second volume of Tales of The Rook. Adam not only has a distinctive voice as a writer, he also sees New Pulp with fresh eyes. Though a fan of the classic material, Adam is not afraid to break free of the trappings of the genre. His feelings about what pulp is and what it could — and should — be are quite clear and very interesting. I hope you’ll enjoy his viewpoints and I encourage you to leave behind comments as I do think these kinds of conversations are great ones to have. If you’re interested in learning more about Adam, please follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and stop by his website.

Without further ado, I give you Adam Lance Garcia and The Need for Pulp Literature:

A few weeks ago I started a bit of flame war with one of my publishers over what is—or isn’t—pulp. The argument began after I posted the following statement on my Facebook Page: “There needs to be more character development, more gay characters, less reliance on the “formula,” and less “good to be good” in pulp stories.”

My publisher took great offense to this suggestion, commenting: “No, there does not. What you are describing is something else…but not pulp.”

But perhaps it is time for “something else.”

Now, full disclosure, this wasn’t the first time I’ve been embroiled in this sort of conversation, (nor is it this first time this sort of conversation has been had) though it definitely was the most public, and apparently, the most blood boiling one I had been involved with in some time.

Generally speaking pulp, or for that matter, New Pulp, is defined as: “…fast-paced, plot-oriented storytelling of a linear nature with clearly defined, larger than life protagonists and antagonists, creative descriptions, clever use of turns of phrase and other aspects of writing that add to the intensity and pacing of the story.” (newpulpfiction.com)

Since I started my writing career I’ve often found myself on the edge of what many people consider “pulp.” I write stories that don’t follow a set formula, that feature a diverse cast of complicated characters that make mistakes, grow, and change over time. Originally these decisions weren’t conscious, I just wrote the stories that I wanted to read. But the more I wrote, the more the conversation of what is and isn’t pulp began coming up, and the more often my work was cited as an example of one or the other. Personally, I don’t like to define my work, partially because I’d rather let the story define itself. I enjoy mixing genres, but I’ve made my name in pulp, so let’s talk pulp.

While this is a generalization and certainly doesn’t apply to every author, I feel a recurring weakness with New Pulp movement is the stringent dedication to the style of the original pulps. This isn’t to be confused with keeping canon with the original tales—I work very hard to tie my Green Lama tales directly with Kendell Foster Crossen’s stories. Rather, many writers are so in love with the idea of pulp that they are writing stories for a 30s audience. I’m not implying that these writers aren’t producing good work, or that there isn’t a place for these kinds of stories. They are and there is, and when they work, man, they really work, but the problem is these sort of stories only really appeal to a very narrow section of the reading audience—the folks that are already reading pulp. It’s not speaking to a larger, much more refined literary audience who want more out their stories. If the format, the genre, the style, whatever you want to call it, is ever going to survive, expand, and gain relevancy, it needs to change.

There needs to be a “something else.”

Arguably this has already happened, just take a look at the best sellers list. Let me tell you, James Patterson, Clive Cussler, JK Rowling, Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, and Stephen King are pulp writers. Big plots? Big characters? Linear storytelling? Check, check, check. They even have gay characters, complicated characters, and absence of formula.

The difference between those writers and “New Pulp” is that “New Pulp” is broadly defined by the Hero Pulps, the men in masks, the big damn heroes running around saving the world from destruction. There are exceptions, of course, but if you look at what’s being published under the “New Pulp” banner, the majority of them have someone in a mask or a ripped-Doc Savage shirt. It’s to these sorts of tales that I’m speaking, lest there be any confusion.

So, let’s break down my original post and start explaining things.

More character development.

A lot of writers seem to confuse character traits with character development. Character traits are useful to help build the basic structure of a character, but they’re only surface deep. So often we meet characters that are little more than two-dimensional placards moved from action scene to action scene. We never really learn to care for these characters, as if putting them into danger should be enough to make the readers worry whether or not they’ll make to the end of the story. We need to spend time learning who these people are, give them flaws, make them grow. Let them talk, let them argue. Have them make mistakes and learn from them, and not just the mistakes made during the action sequence. We need to believe in these characters. Perhaps my biggest issue with New Pulp stories is the fact the characters either stay stagnant, learning all of nothing by the end of the story, or if they do, they’re effectively reset at the start of the next tale. Indiana Jones, perhaps the best, most popular modern “pulp” character, is a hero, as my most gracious host, Mr. Barry Reese pointed out, “who is established to have had sexual relations with someone who was underage (Marion) and who later abandoned her at the matrimonial door. He’s still a heroic figure but he’s very nuanced.”

More gay characters.

I’d actually like to expand this point to more diversity in general. Pro Se Productions’ Black Pulp anthology was a huge step in the right direction, (it deserves all the accolades it receives) but we shouldn’t stop there. We live in a pluralistic society and our stories should reflect that. One of my favorite additions to the Doctor Who canon was Captain Jack Harkness. Harkness, played by John Barrowman, is the immortal leader of Torchwood and a hero in his own right—incredibly flawed, but a hero nonetheless—who just happened to be openly bisexual. Shocking, I know. Our heroes shouldn’t all be straight white men, and if they are something else they shouldn’t fit into some archaic stereotype. It is why Green Lama’s Tibetan “assistant” Tsarong is always treated as an equal; he is eloquent and intelligent, and never subservient. It is why I was so eager to write Emma Davies for Barry’s upcoming Tales of the Rook: Volume 2. A lesbian hero? Sign me up.

Less reliance on the “formula.”

Lester Dent, the man behind Doc Savage, is noted to have created the “golden plot,” a strict point A to Z storytelling mechanic that was meant to guide all the other house writers working on the Doc Savage tales. That’s all well and good when you need to pump out a story to make your monthly deadline, but there’s a reason why shows Breaking Bad is winning awards and CSI is… well, CSI. Working within a formula prevents you from surprising the audience. I admit to sometimes finding myself hitting similar beats in my stories. These are never intentional and when they do happen I make sure to have the characters acknowledge the similarities and then work at subverting your expectations as to what will come next. A teacher once told me every conversation you write has to be the most important conversation these characters have ever had. Obviously he was speaking in hyperbole, but this line of thinking is true not just for the characters but the stories themselves. There needs to be something fundamentally special about every story you write—especially if you’re writing a series—there needs be change, there needs to be loss, there needs to be something that takes your characters to places they’ve never been before. Keep your readers on their toes, not just waiting for the next beat to arrive.

Less “good to be good” in pulp stories.

I’m not advocating we should all start writing our own Walter White, but a character without any believable motivation is just poor writing. Take a look at Chris Evan’s Captain America as example of how to do a “good to be good” character. Steve Rogers was bullied his entire life, so when he was asked why he wanted to join the army his answer isn’t “to kill Nazis,” it’s because he “doesn’t like bullies.” His life experiences helped make him into a hero. We need to start asking why the hero is doing what he’s doing. Maybe it’s more than childhood trauma; maybe it’s guilt; maybe it’s for money and fame; maybe it’s because of their own sociopathic nature; maybe it’s because they’re bored; and maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have to be the shining white knight. Sure, this is escapism, but so many of the heroes in our world—the people who inspire us—are flawed human beings. Great men and women have cheated on their spouses; have experimented with drugs; have done morally questionable—if at the times personally justifiable—acts. Our heroes should reflect that, because what is more heroic than a person overcoming their flaws?

And if I were to add one more thing to this conversation let me add this:

Stronger women.

We need to move away from the female character defined by male characters. Perhaps one my least favorite moment in a pulp story ever is when the hero burst into a woman’s home, unannounced, and she happily agreed to go with him because he “looked trustworthy.” It is face-palm worthy writing, sloppy, and honestly, offensive. Women should be treated as more than a damsel in distress or a sexy villainess. This doesn’t mean more women with guns. Guns don’t make people strong. Guns are stupid, violent things and if anything they limit the hero, but that’s a conversation for another time. Nor do I mean more female villains. People seem to think if you have a female villain it means she’s a strong female character, more than anything she’s a stereotype highlighting what men feel is “wrong” about women. Nor does that necessarily mean she should be made masculine, or for that matter, more feminine. Nor do I mean she should be half naked all the time. Apparently, every female hero needs to be falling out of her clothing to be considered a hero. This isn’t to say female shouldn’t be sexy, or for that matter, have sexual desires. If anything the idea of portraying a heroic woman as pure and metaphorically virginal ignores the fact that women are human beings (the same goes for the male heroes by the way, God forbid our heroes have sex). What we need to see are female characters that are just as well rounded as the male characters, with their own opinions, wants, and desires; who can have another conversation with another woman about something besides a man.

Maybe what I’m ultimately arguing for is Pulp Literature; something that tries to do something more than just emulate what’s come before, that tries to elevate the standard and says “there’s more we can do here.” It doesn’t mean we need move away from what makes pulp “pulp,” but we should take the risks to explore the grey area between the very restrictive “golden formula” and “something else.”

But here’s the thing. All of this stuff is already being done right now. Everything I’ve stated above—that “something else”—is often heralded in pulp fiction review sites as brilliant, modern, and, perhaps most importantly, as New Pulp. Take for example, Michael Patrick Sullivan’s The Auslander Files, which was hailed for it’s “modern sensibility devoid of the melodramatic romances of the early pulps. The Auslander kills, both the guilty and the innocent, to accomplish his missions and foil the saboteurs. It’s a morally ambiguous line he is willing to cross time and time again.” (http://www.pulpfictionreviews.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-auslander-files.html)

But, then again, bemoaning an idea in the abstract and loving it in the execution is essentially the core of modern fan culture.

So call it pulp, call it New Pulp, call it Pulp Literature or call it “something else.” All that matters is if it’s good.

12 thoughts on “Guest Blog: The Need for Pulp Literature

  1. Ok, my comments.

    Character development. Well, even in pulp it happened. Not as much as we would expect, because most characters didn’t last too long. But Doc and the Shadow did change over time. I think we now expect this in our serialized characters. TV shows are a good example of this. In the old days, characters would not change or develop from episode to episode. Now on TV shows, we almost expect it. So I think this is to be accepted in New Pulp. I can see with doing new stories from old characters this might be avoided, because it would mess things up for other writers, unless one is more or less making the old pulp character their own (like Ron Fortier had done with Captain Hazzard, etc).

    More gay characters. I don’t have a problem with gay characters, so long as that’s not their main reason for existing. If the character happens to be gay, that’s fine. If the main point is he (or she) is gay, then I’m not interested. Same with other minority groups. I read Derrick Ferguson’s characters because they are interesting characters. That they are black is not why I would (or wouldn’t) read them.

    Less “good to be good”. That’s fine, but sometimes writers get so wrapped up in the character flaws of a character, that they are not longer interesting as a character. Or some go too off the deep in trying to justify why the hero fights the bad guys. Dynamite’s take on the Black Bat is a good example. I find NOTHING appealing about this character.

    Stronger women. Yup. We need more of them. The original pulp had few, more because of editorial decree then anything else. Several writers are working to fix this, but we need more.

  2. I agree with most of this piece. But i will add some about the things said about the formula. Formula isn’t bad. The bad thing is ONLY use it. or the contrary. Dn’t using it at all. Formula is a tool for a goal. Not the goal itself. Sometimes you need a tool, sometimes don’t. The thing is using the one you need.

    And well, sometimes you just want to have fun. or go straight to something with the story. And a bit of formula can help. Equlibrium is the key.

  3. I agree because I’ve been doing all of this through my own books. Gunfighter Gothic stars two women, one white and straight, one Korean-American and gay. Haunting of Kraken Moor has a female lead who starts strong but is put in a situation where she has to re-evaluate what strength is when confronted with having to not only go from a member of the American elite to the British working class, but work in a castle with sex-crazy demons. I think a lot of what Adam wants to see is already out there, but it’s on the fringes and not in the spotlight.

    To the larger point that Adam raises, that Pulp needs to evolve … yes and no. Yes, in that the changes he suggests are changes I appreciate – I’m doing that in my writing and rewarding that with my purchasing – but no in the sense that the formula is obviously successful because it’s been going on for 100 years. Will pulp/Pulp/New Pulp/Pulp Literature be better for an influx in variety? Absolutely, but the best stories are almost always the stories that people are passionate about writing. You can adhere to a formula and still write a fantastic story. The point, I guess, is that people who don’t want to broaden what “pulp” is shouldn’t be the ones to do the broadening; if they want to write purely traditional stories, that’s perfectly fine with me. I don’t see any reason why the Old Guard has to write New Wave stories and while I appreciate what Adam is saying, it does make me nervous whenever we start talking about what other people should be doing.

    If you (the Royal You, not just Adam) really want to see New Pulp evolve into Pulp Literature, you have to be the one doing it, not just in the stories you write but in the stories you publish. Asking, or expecting, a publisher to do these things is not the right way to go about it; we live in an age where anyone can start a publishing imprint and the best way to make change is to just go out an make change.

    Being a publisher takes a LOT of work, and how many established authors really want to be part of a new imprint (a New Pulp equivalent of Image or Gorilla) when there’s great safety working under the Pro Se / Airship 27 / Wildcat / Etc umbrellas?

    Maybe instead of asking established writers and publishers to do something new, those of us already doing it should ban together, create our own imprint, and start publishing those stories on our own, under a new umbrella that pointedly publishes not only our own stories, but that looks for new voices with new perspectives. Because the one area that needs to be discussed more and that isn’t raised here (and no essay can cover everything), is to try to make sure that the variety in characters and stories are mirrored by a variety in authors; as much as I want to read new stories, I want to read new stories from new voices.

    I’d love to be a part of that imprint / movement / discussion but I can’t do it alone.

  4. I agree with Adam for the most part and I think that the best in New Pulp does a lot of these things already. Personally, I think that character development is where I have the most difficulty. But I also have a hard time writing anything longer than a novella ( I realize that the characters should develop even in shorter lengths, but I couldn’t tell you if my characters have a personal arc. I think I also have avoided the good for the sake of good traps. There is no doubt in my mind that my heroes are good, but they are human as well.

    Diversity – I think I write women pretty well and they play crucial roles in my stories. The longer (as yet unpublished version of my Ki-Gor story) features African characters in what I hope is an appropriate manner. I haven’t had any specifically gay characters as of yet in my published writing, but I’m sure that I will find myself loving a character and finding a story that I have to tell at some point. And that is the point, we need to do what works for the story. We can’t jam stuff in just to add ‘diversity’. But I grew up in diverse schools and now live in a the melting pot of Los Angeles so I just think that way. The pulp ew write today should reflect the standards of today. That seems pretty obvious.

    I think Adam brings up some great points and I think that his stories reflect what he is talking about and I’ll read whatever he manages to put out. I think there are other great writers that just do this naturally, like Ed Erdelac in his Merkabah Rider stories.

    Thanks, Adam and Barry for sparking this conversation…

  5. I love all the replies here; so much to agree with. After reading them, I think what we can distill from the comments about diversity is this: Let it happen organically. Don’t force it. If it’s done just to have it done, it serves absolutely no one, and, in fact, it may actually ill serve some. Creating a character that’s gay just to be gay, for example, is a kind of bigotry in my opinion because you’re already defining them for something that’s just part of them. Better perhaps that a writer is writing and suddenly discovers that one of their characters is gay…just like in, hey, real life. The same moment of discovery will happen then with the reader and the result will be infinitely more realistic than anything we could build on purpose with an agenda.

    I love what Adam’s saying and support him in all his endeavors, but I feel as if there’s too much hand-wringing over what should and should not be…and not enough just writing. If a new genre or movement crops up, that’ll be wonderful. But let it happen because the organic demand is there and a writer feels strongly about it. Otherwise, let’s rock on with our bad pulp selves and be the writers we all individually are.

  6. I thought I posted a response to this, but it looks like it didn’t go through.

    I’ll echo a lot of what Adam said and a lot of the other comments, particularly Mark. New Pulp doesn’t just have to be about doing the same thing the old pulps did—I think that’s putting too much focus on the “pulp” while completely ignoring the “new.”

    I definitely would like to see more minority characters. In my work, I’ve especially tried to create strong, female protagonists in Love & Bullets, The Myth Hunter, and Dragon Kings of the Orient. I’d also like to see more gay characters, although like Jim said, that shouldn’t be their defining trait—even more offensive than pretending gay people don’t exist is pretending that being gay is the only thing about them worth knowing (see Chuck Austen’s take on Northstar in the pages of Uncanny X-Men for an example of this).

    I’d love to see more gay characters and minority characters in New Pulp, but I want them to be written by writers who won’t resort to stereotyping.

  7. I’m happy to read a period piece SET in the 1930’s, but reading multiple stories written for a 1930’s audience becomes grating, especially if I know they’re more modern creations. It’s possible to do one without the other, but it’s definitely a balance.

    Though if it’s the audience aim without actually being a period piece, I’m probably going to put it down.

  8. I think the problem with the bulk of “new pulp” creators/publishers is that they only want their particular vision of the genre to exist and can be very negative towards any other viewpoint at all. The problem is that particular attitude will limit the ability of the “genre” to expand beyond the tiny niche audience it currently has. If you want the market to grow, being more receptive to other visions working under the banner is the way to go. Most new pulp tends to be of the “mystery man” type, but it doesn’t have to be limited to just that.

    If you want the genre to grow, you have to allow it to do so. Otherwise you’ll stagnate and continue to be relegated to a few hundred fans.

    Also, and this is agreeing with what someone said above, the way to create that growth is to just do it. Don’t wait for the old fogey guys to do it. Get out there and produce the material you want to see and get it out to readers. Trying to force someone to produce something they aren’t interested in is as bad as someone saying you shouldn’t be allowed to put out work you are inspired by. Accept that the current “new pulp establishment” has become “same-old pulp” and create your own version of the market. There is an insanely large potential audience made up of people who love what pulp is (or can be) as long as you aren’t forcing a specific (or outdated) definition down their throats. The only problem (again, as mentioned above) is that you won’t be able to do it under the comfortable roof of one of the “established” new pulp publishers…not that it’ll hurt your sales to go off on your own. More than likely you’ll be able to do better that way.

    Just my rambling thoughts. 😀

  9. Pingback: Pulp History: nobody does it better | Karavansara

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