I’ve gotten into a bit of a “pulp fiction” kick of late and have been reading reprints of the stuff like a madman over the past six months. I’ve eaten up 30 volumes of Doc Savage; tons of adventures of the Spider, the Phantom and the shadow; checked back on the work of HP Lovecraft, RE Howard, Burroughs, Chandler and more.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term beyond it being used as a name for a Quentin Tarantino film, pulp fiction (or, “the Pulps”) was a method or type of publishing from the late 1800s through about the mid 50s. It was made up of a ton of different genres (everything from sci fi, fantasy, horror (although it was first called “weird tales”), romance, sports, war, westerns, detective stories, etc) published in the cheapest format possible, to be sold to the widest audience possible. They started off as large magazines, printed on crappy paper, usually with untrimmed pages.
The pulps grew out of the penny dreadfuls and dime novels of the 19th century and eventually turned into the mass market paperbacks of the 60s and 70s.
The key to the pulps (and their successors in the “pulp paperbacks) was they were cheap and aimed at the largest audience possible. There were a lot of really great authors who worked in the pulps – HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard, Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Arthur C Clark, Philip Dick, Fritz Lieber, Jack London, Clark Ashton Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler and lots more – but for the most part, people were buying them for the lurid covers, cheap price and mix of stories that anyone could read.
I want to place emphasis on that – cheap price and aimed at the widest audience possible..
Which brings us to a “movement” that has been running around for the past few years: New Pulp.
When I started up on my “pulp” kick, I was pretty excited to hear there was a band of publishers running around and billing themselves as “new pulp.” Awesome, I thought, there is someone out there cranking out fun, shorter length product on a monthly basis for a low price – and, for me, the “monthly” aspect wasn’t as important because I’d grown up with the “pulp” paperbacks of the 70s. As long as there was enough cheap, regular content coming out, I was cool with it because I read a lot (4-5 novels a week). I was also excited because, I assumed, these “new pulp” publishers were going to be putting out a wide range of material – after all, there were absolutely no set genres in pulp fiction.
Jumping on the BN.com and Amazon, my assumptions were quickly shattered and three facts reared their ugly heads.
The first was that none of the “new pulp” books were cheap. They all started at about $10 and headed up to about $25 for paperbacks.
Second, the majority of those publshers calling themselves “new pulp” were only publishing what were essentially just from the “pulp heroes” area of things, and were knock-offs (well done knock-offs in some cases) of characters like Doc Savage, the Shadow or G-8, or they were stories using “pulp hero” characters who had fallen into the public domain and required no licensing or guidance by the estate of the creators of those characters. This second point has caused a lot of “old pulp” pundits to refer to the work as “fanfic” because it is unauthorized. Their thinking seems to be “Sure, anyone can write about a character called “Sherlock Holmes,” but that doesn’t make it a “real” Sherlock Holmes story.” Or Domino Lady or Black Bat or any other public domain character you want to insert.
I can see both sides of the argument – how is your Sherlock story any more “official” than that lady’s slashfic with Sherlock making out with Doctor Watson? – but it didn’t really come in to play. For me, a good story is a good story. What did matter was the fact these “new pulp” publishers were all talking about “capturing the feel” of the original pulps and so forth, but they were really only doing a pastiche of one small segment of the pulps.
This limiting of what was called “pulp” irked me a bit. Pulps were so much more than that – really, the only thing that linked most pulp authors together were their nearly universal tendency to over-pad their word counts. When you’re getting paid less than a cent per word, you want to make sure you stretch that out as much as possible! Aside from that, there really wasn’t a lot of crossover in terms of style.
The third thing I noticed was that there were very few of these “new pulp” novels available for sale electronically on either of the biggest two book markets on the internet – the Nook and the Kindle – and those that were tended to be higher priced. I saw ebooks priced at $3 and up.
Now, to be fair, $2.99 for a standard novel really isn’t a bad price. It’s a standard price for an average indy-published novel. $3.99 and up is a bit expensive for an unknown author from an indy press, but $2.99 is a standard price. However, $2.99 isn’t a PULP price.
In my head, these three factors – factors which were some of the basic foundations of what pulp fiction was – confused me. These “new pulp” publishers were charging premium (and above premium) pricing for their work, were limiting the scope of what they produced, and were limiting the availability.
Needless to say, I was pretty mystified by their selection of the “new pulp” term for the work. If you aren’t supporting the tenets of “pulp fiction” then why adopt the name? Even if you say to me “well, they are putting out content that is similar to some of what was produced, so that argument is out,” there are still the pricing and availability issues. Really, without them, science fiction, fantasy or romance are all just as worthy of being called “new pulp” as something starring a clone of Doc Savage or John Carter.
For me, and I am no one of consequence, the term “new pulp” is a misnomer, especially when there is already a “new pulp” movement in existence, and one that is far more worth of the name. The real “new pulp” is e-publishing. With it, a publisher (or even an adventurous author out on his own) can price their work cheap enough to entice as wide an audience as possible AND make it available to that audience for potential purchase.
Pulp fiction is alive and well on the Kindle and Nook, and the “new pulp” is really “E-Pulp.”
UPDATE: I just posted a follow-up – What Is New Pulp – Part 2!
-Mat Nastos, Super Genius
PS. This post is in no way a knock against the talent or work of those individuals who call themselves “new pulp” autors or publishers. I’m actually a big fan of a lot of the guys producing what is essentially a group of period (late 19th through mid 20th century) action/adventure or SciFi/fantasy stories. I recently finished up “The Rook” volume 2 by Barry Reese and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’d have picked up more, but the books are either unavailable in eBook format, or over-priced as ebooks and print books. I’m also a HUGE fan of guys like Van Allen Plexico, Bobby Nash, Mike Bullock, Dwight McPherson and Ron Fortier. I just wish their publishers would get savvy to the fact that they have priced themselves right out of the Pulps.