Monday, December 5, 2016

Jeff Duntemann reconsiders the pulps

Recently, over at Sarah Hoyt's blog, she discussed reading an old pulp story, "The Green Men of Greypeck" by Festus Pragnell, and the lessons she drew from what she found to be a below-average pulp of questionable-to-the-point-of-silliness worldbuilding:
On the other hand, I also realized why I read these back to back as a kid, even the ones that made me roll my eyes and go “oh, this is so stupid” or “Bud, your politics reek.”  They caught you.  They did their job first and preached at you second.  (And sometimes incoherently, improbably, and in a few paragraphs.) Which I’m cool with.
So, should you read ["The Green Men of Greypeck"]?  If you wish.  It’s on Amazon.  It’s readable.  Do I recommend you pattern your writing on it?  Uh… no.
But you might want to look at how he sets up a beginning with a man accused of his brother’s murder, then drags you through a plot that doesn’t stop.
Jeff Duntemann joined the comments and brought up a trio of his blogposts describing his own rediscovery of the pulps.  Duntemann is an old science fiction hand who has recently returned to the genre (I recommend his The Cunning Blood), and his insights, taken from railroad pulps, help highlight both the history and the technique of pulp writing.

From Part 1:
How bad were the Golden Age pulps, really? Thirty-odd years ago I had a few SF pulps from the late 1930s, and while I’m not sure where they ended up, I remember the cognitive dissonance that arose from knowing that I should despise them–while in fact enjoying them a lot. Reading them was a little like watching old B-movies like The Crawling Eye: You know damned well they weren’t literature, but somehow they kept your attention and made the time pass..which is exactly what they were created to do. 
Few people–especially those under 40–realize just how broad a phenomenon the pulps were, and how small a part of it SF actually was. Beyond SF and fantasy there were sports pulps, many subspecies of crime/detective pulps, adventure pulps, romance pulps, aviation pulps, western pulps, railroad pulps, and doubtless others that I’ve never heard of. The SF pulps were better than I’d been led to believe, and I started wondering recently whether the SF pulps were outliers, or whether the pulps as a phenomenon and even a literary form have been slandered out of proportion by the ultrasophisticated artsy elite.
Thirty-odd years from the date of writing, 2010, would put his first reading of the pulps in the 1970s, during the transition of the field -and fandom- from short-story based magazines to books. The new book editors were not schooled in the pulp and magazine history of the genre, remembering only the novels of the late Golden Age and the New Wave.  But while Duntemann's first reading of the pulps reflects post-periodical attitudes to the pulps that last to this day, he shows just how ubiquitous the pulps were, sharing stories in an entire host on genres, of which detective pulps, hero pulps, and weird tales were just a fraction of.

From Part 2:
In a way very much like the Tom Swift books I read in the early 60s, the railroad pulp stories (and I’m guessing all pulp stories) were created to help people imagine themselves in certain roles and in certain situations. The people (thinly) depicted in the stories were like halloween costumes, in a way, to be put on by people who wanted to imagine themselves as railroad engineers and brakemen, or perhaps remember being railroad engineers and brakemen years ago.
This should be obvious, and it may be obvious to you, but I’m amazed at how some people just don’t understand why pulp fiction was ever popular. A lot of people would consider the railroad pulps bad fiction because they focus on technology (railroad tech, such that it was in 1935) rather than inner conflict and growth. Swap in “spaceflight” for “railroads” and you’ll have pulp SF of the same era. The railroad pulps had their share of adventure and fistfights and gunplay, but I was amazed at how close the action stayed to the tracks. And just as superb writers like Robert A. Heinlein stepped aside from the action to teach lessons on orbital dynamics, the railroad pulp authors sometimes taught lessons about their beloved technology. Read this excerpt from “When Destiny Calls” by E. S. Dellinger, the cover story in the August 1935 issue. It’s dense, but if you love trains you’ll understand the frightening energy contained in a boiler full of steam (enough to lift a 100-ton locomotive two and a half miles into the air) as well as how the devastating boiler explosions common during the steam era actually happened.
 It is important to remember that the events of the time inform many of the stories.  As Duntemann suggests:
 The firms that published pulp fiction knew exactly what their customers wanted: a sense of being somewhere else, somewhere vivid and colorful, somewhere better and more exciting than a boarding house during the Great Depression, after a twelve-hour day at a mindless job in a sweltering factory that paid a quarter an hour. 
However, the times also created the type of stories told as well.  The lawlessness of Prohibition and the Depression created such a outcry against crime that manifested itself in the vigilante justice of the Shadow, the Avenger, and Amusement, Inc..

Also of interest to the characterization of the pulps is the strong setting and events that accompanied it.  C. S. Lewis, in his "On Science Fiction", noted:  
Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. If they had been more remarkable they would have wrecked their books. 
Many pulps were written with this in mind.  

In Part Three, Duntemann ponders about the demise of the pulps and offers these writing lessons:
The pulps were about specific cultures. They were tightly linked to a time and a place and a generally understood cultural subtext. This was even true of early pulp SF, much of which might be characterized as “Depression-era Chicago on Mars.”
Characters were intended as costumes to be worn by readers, not fully realized individuals to be admired on their own merits as independent men and women. A lot of people don’t understand this, and many still won’t admit it. Make characters too vividly fluky and original, and readers will have a hard time identifying with them. 
As a corollary to the above: Concepts, settings, and action were as important as characters, and much more vivid. Again, it’s the difference between imagining yourself driving a fast car and imagining someone else driving it. 
The pulps were fun. They understood and accepted their role as immersive entertainment. They were not equipped to be literature and didn’t try to be literature.
While the emphasis on action echoes that made in Misha Burnett's Five Pillars of Pulp Revival, Duntemann adds setting and concept to the pulp stew.  It is no coincidence that many pulp and noir stories use the City, be it New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Los Vegas, as a character in and of itself.  And a review of Moorcock's Thrre Day Novel recalls how much emphasis he placed on getting the imagery right for the story.  Perhaps a sixth pillar should be a sense of the exotic.

While Duntemann does not answer whether or not the pulps were slandered in this series, his posts are a welcome addition to the Pulp Revival discussion.

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