Saturday, 9 February 2013

Pulp Manifesto: What is Pulp?

That’s the question people always ask me: “What is pulp?” So for my first Pulp: Manifesto article I’m going to answer that very important question. Or at the very least tell you what ‘pulp’ means to me.

First up... it has nothing to do with that film by Tarantino. Nothing. Nothing at all.
This has nothing to do with pulp fiction writing. Sorry to disappoint.
 Now that we’ve got that out of the way...

The not-so-sexy answer to the question “What is pulp?” is that ‘pulp fiction’ is a production method for prose fiction that has sort of fallen out of favour over the last five to six decades. It’s actually the forerunner to many of the Western world’s most popular genres and storytelling mediums from the Hollywood blockbusters we watch at the cinema through to the comic books we read, or any form of sci-fi or action/adventure television that has somehow escaped cancellation. Even your Mills and Boon collection can trace its lineage straight back to this noble, yet forgotten genre. Pulp was there at the start but most people have never really been exposed to the source.
Yep, this be pulp. In all its 'horror'.
 The golden age of the pulp magazines was back in the 20s, 30s and 40s ie before television took over the family home. Back then, as literacy rates went through the roof, for the first time everyday people wanted to read stories and read them en masse. The more the better. But they didn’t enjoy, or couldn’t afford, those dusty hard-backed novels that the lar-dee-dah rich people read. For the first time the working-class were flexing their popular culture muscles and some entrepreneurs clicked to the fact that something new was needed to fill the need.
A dime novel cover, the pulp magazine's forerunner.
 So what did they do? The early magazine entrepreneurs took the older-style dime magazines, the sort that published serialised excerpts of stories by Charles Dickens et al, and jazzed them up for the new Jazz Age. They slapped a bright and thrilling cover on the front, started publishing multiple magazines that collected popular genre stories together, printed these magazines on the cheapest paper possible to keep the price reasonable (wood-pulp paper, hence ‘pulp’ magazines), then they sold these magazines at your local corner newspaper stand where everyone could find them. Voila! Affordable entertainment for the masses on a monthly basis.
"Just readin' me magazines..."
 The writers of these magazines didn’t worry about literary worth. They didn’t worry about innovations in the art of storytelling. Or trying to add to the Western canon. Pulp writers just sat down at a typewriter and belted out stories that normal people would want to read. And the field took off. Month by month new magazines helped people escape their factory or secretarial work by taking them to new planets, showing how extraordinary citizens vanquished extraordinary bad guys, or revealed how the quiet girl finally got the cute beau from across the road she always pined for. It was all about entertainment and not much else.

People loved it.

Over time some characters became huge. They were so big they got their own magazines all to themselves. Names like Doc Savage, The Shadow and John Carter of Mars became household names. New-fangled genres started up – like those bizarre ‘scientific fiction’ stories – and soon had multiple magazines and devotees. The characters became so popular they were co-opted by Hollywood in movie serials or even a few of the A-features. They even spawned new storytelling mediums like graphic pulps, what we now call ‘comic books’. All these things and more began during that intense period spanning the first half of the 20th century and most of the genres and characters we still read and watch today trace their DNA straight back to the characters and stories of this fertile period of writing and reading.
You may not know this bloke, but many of your heroes are cheap knock-offs of him.
 The pulp magazines eventually died-out post-World War 2. Paper rationing during the War took its toll on profits and then television became the new preferred method of consuming serialised stories. There was no longer a need for magazines that provided cheap entertainment for the masses. Not when you could afford a television or buy those cheap paper-back novels that were now being made. The time of the pulp magazine was past and most of the energy and creativity of the industry migrated over to television to make Cold War Spy-Fi shows or Westerns.
Dime Novel > Pulp Magazine > Spy-fi  TV > Bond, James Bond.
 But the spirit of pulp has never died as it lives on in pretty much every genre-related field of entertainment known to pop culture. And, with the rise of the internet age and, more importantly, the e-reader, a new renaissance has occurred in the field and pulp fiction has become the inspiration for new stories and new characters in the new digital age. Downloadable kilobytes have replaced wood pulp paper and Amazon has replaced the newspaper stand but there’s a growing number of people who want to tell stories in the style of the old pulp magazines. Cheap, fast-paced, genre-focused stories that unapologetically exist to entertain, released on a regular basis so readers can get more and more of what they want. All of this has been made possible by the e-publishing revolution and it has meant that pulp is yet again alive and kicking.
And for some bizarre reason I’ve been caught up in it all...
"How did I get here?!?"
 So that’s a brief overview of pulp, with an even briefer flyover regarding the new satus quo of the field. A very short overview. But stay tuned next week. Next week I’ll go a little deeper and try to explain why I have chosen to write the Aether Age stories in the style of the pulps as well as the rewards, challenges and quirks of the genre and how they relate to Tommy Thunder. 

For all that and more, stay tuned...

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