Why “Pulp” is a 4-letter word

August 29, 2010

Haven’t we talked about this before? Let me think, let me think… oh yes. I’ve already addressed this issue here: http://wp.me/pWYhv-Z. However, it seems that the controversy surrounding SF’s legitimacy as a form of fiction is not going to go away soon.

I was reading my newspaper this morning, checking out the book reviews. There was an article (to which I cannot link, for some reason, but it was in the Toronto Star, by an Alex Good) about the resurgence of “genre” short stories. That is, the literary New Yorker-style are gradually being edged out by Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, and so forth. Or, as this writer puts it: “such stuff as pulp is made of.”

Pulp. What a small, yet loaded word. Here is my personal definition of the word pulp: “A work which sacrifices quality of character, theme, and writing for the sake of a thrilling plot.”

Does that mean some SF works are pulp? Heck, yes. There are lots of SF stories that land firmly in the “pulp” category; think of those 1930s magazines. Are all SF works pulp? No. They are not. If we’re talking about depth of character, theme, and writing as the determinants of a book’s merit, then there are plenty of SF (and other genre) works that are right up there with “literary” stories. Pulp, therefore, does not mean “all genre works,” which is what this writer seems to be suggesting.

He goes on to discuss these stories’ darker tone, their innate commericialism, and their concern with the “what happens next?” factor. While he concedes that this stories are “fun,” he also writes: “Realism, however broadly you want to define the term, and introspective human drama demand more from writers and readers than the stimulation of what are, in the end, cheap thrills.”

I swear, I almost spat my coffee all over the page.

There are so many things here that anger me, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the whole “Genre fiction demands less from writers and readers” thing. All right. SF, if done well, has characters and themes that are just as complex as those of literary fiction. Look at Peter Watts’ Blindsight, which challenges our very perceptions of consciousness and humanity. Look at Octavia Butler’s haunting allegories, or the psychological studies of Ursula K. Le Guin. These are writers that use real characters to ask questions about tough themes, and they’re getting their readers to deal with them as well. The only difference is that these authors use starships, aliens, and magic as a means of metaphor, rather than a slowly-cooling cup of coffee left on a park bench.

Which brings me to another point. In SF, you create your own world. You have to create new religions, ecosystems, social/political systems, etc. etc. … and they have to work. That means SF writers have to understand our existing systems well enough to replicate them with changes. And where they can’t replicate, they have to invent. Project W deals with an apocalypse. Throughout, I had to think very seriously about my own ideas of God, guilt, and love. No, I don’t have all the answers. But I tried to find them, and I think I got a little closer to doing so.

So, to recap: just as much work on theme/character/writing, PLUS world-building…

Less demanding, my foot.

Also, “introspective human drama” vs. “cheap thrills.” Who says there can’t be “introspective human drama” in SF? I’ve mentioned Ursula K. LeGuin- her story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” is one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read… yes, it’s about a crew on an alien planet, but this metaphor forces the reader to confront some very deep question about the human condition. I think this is the crux of my irritation. Certain people don’t understand that SF (good SF, there are hacks) and literary fiction take different routes to the same destination.

Questions of humanity are not explored just by brooding over falling leaves. The isolation of deep space, the contact with a truly alien “Other,” the touch of a real god, and magic’s mix of power and responsibility are all different frames for those same questions. Writers, and readers, of SF must approach those questions through the added obstacle of experiencing a world unlike our own. Not only is there introspection here, there is empathy and imagination. Yes, there is more sense of “fun,” but often, that same “fun” leads us to think about the story long after we’ve finished it. Even “pulp” has its place- who says all literature has to solve the world’s problems?

So, am I crazy? Am I Don Quixote charging against an immovable windmill?

Or are genre  and literary fiction both legitimate forms of expression?


PS. I know, I keep meaning to write something about finishing Project W. I’ll get to it, I promise.


One comment

  1. Nice stuff, I get around the writer tag bit simpily by not refering to myself as a writer at all but I feel like one. I have written a romance book, not published,(yet) and I am nearly 80,000 words into a Si Fi // Fantasy Fiction that I feel is very good but how would I know? I only wrote it, I’d like to see some Comments about agents and what people think of them.. rude, arrogant, uncareing?? gee am I too hard.
    A published writer is an unpublished writer who didn’t give up.. is my motto

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