Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Blast to the Past!

After a long and sometimes arduous trek into the unexplored jungles of publicity/marketing and social networking, I think a rest stop is called for, so this time out I’ve decided to switch gears and talk about the content side of the New Pulp Frontier.

There have been a lot of discussions and debates about what exactly constitutes “pulp” and whether it’s a genre in its own right. Ultimately, when there are so many differing opinions, a consensus seems unlikely, and maybe that’s okay. Pulp is an art form, and art, like beauty, has always defied easy description.

One characteristic of pulp, historically, is that it nimbly crosses into all other genres. High-adventure, fantasy, science fiction, westerns, mysteries, even romance—these were all fodder for the original pulp magazines. Westerns, in particular, have always interested me. When the first stories of the Wild West were penned, they were contemporary adventure tales, not historical fiction. That’s something to stop and think about. The writers of those early dime novels weren’t thinking about creating a genre that would be venerated for more than a century to come—they were just writing stories about the world around them (albeit in a very sensational and reader-friendly way). Would they have believed that, well into the 21st century, people would still be intrigued by tales of gritty desert towns and steely-eyed gunslingers with Colt Peacemakers? Yet, at some point, as the actual era of the Old West gave way to our modern world, those stories ceased to be contemporary and were released into a different creative pond where they could live on in the imagination of readers and authors alike, freed from the currents of the relentless river of time.

I think that’s kind of why I have always associated “pulp” with a fixed period in history. When Walter Gibson and Lester Dent were hammering out the epic adventures of The Shadow and Doc Savage, they were writing stories set in what was, for them, the here and now. It would only be many years later that enthusiastic fans would come to think of the era in which those stories took place as a fixed setting—what I like to call The Golden Age of Adventure.

Maybe we need to come up with a moniker for stories set in this era, something like “westerns” or “steampunk” which clues readers in to the fact that, in a story so described, they will be transported to that era of history before World War II, where cars were not quite so commonplace, communication was not at all instantaneous, and where much of the world was still unexplored. I’ve always described my Dodge Dalton series as “pulp-themed” but given the broad definition of “pulp” that just seems inadequate, and I really don’t know how else to describe it without invoking the patron saint of Golden-Age high adventure, Indiana Jones. (I hope to see some suggestions in the comments below…who knows? Maybe you will someday be remembered as the person who coined the term that describes this genre).

But there’s another aspect to this topic that interests me as well. Aside from the Dodge Dalton series (which is like a playground I love visiting) I also write contemporary action-thrillers. For many years, this genre was called “men’s fiction” probably because it was intended to be a testosterone-driven alternative to that mainstay of the publishing world: the romance novel. It’s kind of a foolish designation since, statistically speaking, women are as likely to read these books as men. The “men’s fiction” label is still in use, mostly as a search tool on Amazon.com, but most of the titles that would fall into that category are also listed as thrillers or action-adventure. There are some very exciting new authors who have emerged on the scene in the last ten years or so: James Rollins, Jeremy Robinson, Graham Brown, Andy McDermott and David Wood are just a few of the many authors who are re-imagining the classic adventure tales of yesteryear in a contemporary setting.

Here’s what I wonder about though: Will there come a time when these stories detach from the here and now, and become a new type of historical period fiction? Fifty or a hundred years from now, will there be a class of writers producing stories that take place in that crazy transition period at the turn of the 21st century?

I suppose a good test case for this idea would be to look back a few decades—not all the way to the Golden Age, but rather to the Cold War era, which gave us the venerable espionage thriller. It seems almost like a dead art form now--the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and cloak-and-dagger stories shifted to embrace the next wave of threats to American liberty. But the books that emerged from that era are still out there; people still read the works of LeCarre, Ludlum and Clancy from that period, and they get it, even if the settings are something they know only from watching the History Channel. Might it be that, in a few years, we will see new Cold War thrillers emerging?

The publishing industry recently saw fit to follow the film industry trend of rebooting the James Bond franchise, retconning him into a modern setting, but I wonder if this isn’t an opportunity missed. As an iconic Cold-War figure, Ian Fleming’s James Bond could have been the perfect character to launch a new period genre. Of course, that would never happen. Bond is too iconic, too commercial, to remain fixed in a historical setting that would appeal to a relatively few readers. But if not Bond, then perhaps this fallow field is ready for the cultivation of a Bond-esque character, ready to fight both Cold War adversaries and the ubiquitous literary and cinematic megalomaniac villains of the nuclear era intent on domination-or-destruction. The timing for this is perfect. We’re witnessing renewed nostalgic interest in the 1960’s, as exemplified by the success of the cable-television series Mad Men. The great thing about a new Cold War literary genre would be its potential to revitalize interest in books that have largely slipped from our consciousness, much the same way that new fans of westerns might be inclined to pick up the classic works of Zane Grey.

I think it could very well happen, and it might be a lot of fun. And if it does, might we reasonably expect that someday there will be a genre dedicated to those quaint adventure stories of the 2000’s, where intrepid heroes used olde-timey devices like GPS and digital computers to explore the mysteries of the ancient world?

Sean Ellis is the author of the Nick Kismet thrillers, The Adventures of Dodge Dalton, and other adventure and pulp novels. He is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources Policy from Oregon State University. Sean is also a member of the International Thriller Writers organization. He currently resides in Arizona, where he divides his time between writing, adventure sports, and trying to figure out how to save the world. Visit Sean’s website: http://seanellisthrillers.webs.com


  1. Nice article. Cold War fiction is making a comeback via modern day writers working in the genre. There's even a new version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (set in the 1970s) coming this December. The Cold War is back, baby!

  2. It's never too hot for a Cold War!

  3. I've always thought of stories from the period you call "The Golden Age of Adventure" as Adventurer fiction, in the same way that Spy fiction or Detective fiction is named after the nature of the main character. It's a bit clunky, but it helps me distinguish between different types of pulp.


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