Thought of the Week

A small confession…

… I love pulp fiction. No, not the movie, which I have not seen for some reason, but the genre.

Today I picked up a large stack of issues of pulp comics, mostly from the War Picture Library. These are set in World War 2, with accurate equipment and real battles. The stories are fictional though, and usually at least slightly fantastic.

As a whole, the stack of cheaply made comics on the floor next to me has little to recommend it: the stories are trite, predictable, characters are one-dimensional, there is often minimal moral ambiguity, in many cases they are thinly-veiled propaganda, and filled with casual racism, outdated stereotypes, and sexism (if in fact any women appear). And at the same time, enormously entertaining.

But pulp in general appeals to me. I enjoy listening to old radio shows, which are often pretty pulpy, filled with lantern-jawed detectives, distressed damsels, bizarre aliens, and vile villains. I have a bunch of out-of-print ebooks of things printed in the 1930s and 1940s. The Indiana Jones movies (which I love, even the Crystal Skull) are firmly rooted in pulp fiction. Pulp fiction is just fun. It will not make you think, it will not make you a better person, it will not win literary awards unless the awards committee are smoking something truly excellent. But so what?

The point of a good pulp fiction story is simply that it is a good story. Too many authors and publishers seem to forget that people want good stories. So your main character lost a leg and his family to the same crocodile attack and then got hit on the head by a falling meteorite. So what? Why do I care? Does it turn into a rip-roaring tale of revenge against all reptiles and rocks or does he just sit and whine? There is room for stories like the latter, and in general, it is not on my bookshelf. Intense navel gazing novels, of the sort that tend to win awards usually hold little interest for me.

“100 books to read before you die” “The best 50 books ever written” “I typed ‘who won literary awards in the last 12 years’ into google and now everyone should read the results” You can keep those lists. They can be helpful and if there is a particular genre that you like and a book is on the list, go for it. Partly, I suspect that my apathy for such lists is the lack of science fiction and fantasy on them. I will happily sit in the corner with my unfashionable pulp fiction and ignore what the publishers tell me to read.

And I will need to own up to my own hypocrisy here. Pulps were written for the mass market, so my dislike of books like the Twilight series is entirely hypocritical, since they obviously hit a chord with the mass market. There is no reason to suppose that my beloved, cheesy 1950s science fiction has any more literary merit than Twilight, save perhaps as an interest look at the thoughts of the time. That said, 1950s SF stories are still mostly bloody awful: the science is outdated, the characters are flat, the women are trophies, the technology is impossible. And I love it, so there.