Today 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:
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.