Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Horton Hears A Huckster!
“We are here! We are here! We are here!”
Remember that classic children’s tale by Dr. Seuss? That’s what it often feels like down
here in the New Pulp community, where obtaining recognition outside our own little
world is sometimes an exercise in frustration. Yet if we’re going to survive as a viable
entity, we all know we’ve got to get the word out about what we write. It has to go
beyond the narrow confines of our diminutive sphere and out there where the majority of
readers are. How to go about that is where it gets interesting.
There’s no doubt in my mind that pulp is still very much alive and kicking here in 2012.
It’s a time-tested formula for storytelling, with big adventures taken on by larger than life
people facing the nastiest of villains in the most trying circumstances. Since mankind first
told stories while seated around fires and started drawing on rocks and cave walls, we’ve
wanted to share with the world our notions about heroic deeds and great events. I can
imagine, as those stories got passed around and handed down through the generations,
they were embellished upon and added to until a successful hunt with someone getting
wounded turned into an almost supernatural battle between the forces of nature and
mankind. We humans have a long and ongoing reverence for the courageous quest where
the outcome is uncertain throughout, but at the end, the good guys triumphed after all.
There is no reason a greater portion of the mainstream reading audience won’t enjoy
more of that. So why aren’t they beating a path to our books and snapping them up?
They can’t find us… in fact they hardly know that we exist. We’re clinging to the
underbelly wool of the colossal cyclopean entertainment market, and we blend right in.
The New Pulp community is a minority publication source lost in the jumble of the flashy
noisemaking stuff that fills everyone’s days. We’re a quaint retro marching band beating
an antique drum in the midst of a multimedia circus, and unfortunately, that’s not going
to get us to the readers very fast. If Colonial Williamsburg was moved to downtown
Vegas, it likely wouldn’t fare too well. People go to Vegas primarily to gamble, and see
shows. Right on the outskirts of the glamor section though, that’s a great place to put
something both entertaining and affordable. There’s plenty of people roaming around
looking for something different once they’ve tired of the alluringly but costly charms of
the big city.
That’s where New Pulp needs to drag itself, right to the edge of the ever boisterous
mainstream fiction. We need to holler loud and long about offering a less expensive
and meatier alternative, because folks, that’s where the contrast shows the most. This
is something that needs to be played up more—our books are different from what the
big publishers produce because we designed them that way. That said, we can’t only
create content that is viewed as nostalgic rehashes of older work (though there’s nothing
wrong with that), but an entire distinctive class of fiction that is relevant today because
it appeals to the adventurer in all of us. That’s what sells small print books my friends;
offering something a bit unusual but timely; something that stands out in a crowd but
feels homey and familiar. We need to make more whoop-de-doo to get noticed and then
play up those contrasts proudly. Less time spent worrying about our image or defining
what pulp means, but more as a community of writers, artists, editors and publishers
banding together to pitch the very best work we can produce, in the most affordable and
accessible ways possible.
I proudly consider myself a New Pulp writer, though I seldom base a story in that golden
era or even try and emulate characters and settings from that time. What makes it pulp
to me is the breathless pacing in rollicking adventures with characters who are clearly
drawn and plots that resolve something at the end of the story. I don’t compare myself
with what’s already been done, though I will use it as an example of what to expect.
When I talk to people about my writing, I point out some of the classic pulp characters
who have endured, and tell them what made those stories pulp was the interesting
personalities, exotic settings, and page-turning action. I explain that what differs today
between pulp and mainstream fiction is those faster moving plots and lack of long
introspective moments or tedious passages of narrative details. Old or new, Pulp tales
are short, sweet, and to the point, and they take you on a wild ride. Once I have that
framework in place, I can discuss my own work, because now the potential reader now
has some idea of what kind of writing this is.
Now and then I get a curled nostril from a bluestocking reader who will only buy
mainstream fiction, where you supposedly get better quality offerings. I read mainstream
fiction too, and I know it can be technically well written and still seem ponderous and
dull, so that attitude gets nowhere with me. To each her or his own. There is a problem of
negative stereotyping of New Pulp books as amateur fan fiction, or simple pastiches, and
that seems to be coming from a few self-appointed critics. I tend to ignore them, because
I don’t have the time or energy for rebuttals.
We who are the New Pulp community have been putting out an amazing amount of
printed material for small, independent publishers. We work hard at that, and none of
us are getting rich off it. Most of us do this out of passion for the medium without the
resources of the big publishing houses, so there is going to be some variability in quality
control as this infant enterprise sorts itself out. If New Pulp didn’t have a devoted market,
most of us would have gone away by now.
Any serious writer knows there are really no new stories under the sun, just new ways
of writing them. Mainstream genre fiction is full of copycat books, because if something
sells, others are going to try and cash in on that. I’m sure the original pulp was just as
much looked down upon, yet it sold and was obviously enjoyed and much of it endured
the test of time. So if there’s an audience out there still hungry to read what I write, I
can’t afford to spend my time defending what I do. I’d rather be turning out more books
and short stories to sell. I strive to do the best writing I know how to do, and judging by
the reaction I get, the people who have purchased my books have thoroughly enjoyed
them and asked for more. At the end of the day, that’s all I care about. One thing that does bother me is that New Pulp hasn’t always kept pace with our
potential audience. The majority of readers are no longer blue collar, Caucasian, straight
males, which judging by the old covers, is the audience golden era pulp was intended
to reach. We need more female heroes than victims and sidekicks; more Asian, Afro,
Native American, Middle Eastern, Aboriginal, Gay, and young reader pulp. We need
more stories with a contemporary setting, or that at least reflect the demographics of the
audience we’re trying to sell to. Now I’m not saying lose the old storylines completely
because they obviously still resonate with folks. Nor would I ever change the pace of the
writing, or the more straightforward plotting, because then it wouldn’t be pulp anymore.
However, we should strive to make some of these stories we’re creating to reflect the
world around us now, which is what a lot of classic pulp was doing at the time. Keep
the retro stuff, because it’s amazing to read, but let’s bump some of it into this era, and
beyond too. Write to today’s reader, and not just the nostalgia buffs. And for goodness
sakes, put more of those non-male/Caucasian characters on the covers!
Today’s young adults grew up with all kinds of gadgets and games that allow you to be a
super soldier marine fighting an invasion of bug aliens one moment and part of a heroic
swordsman’s quest to clear out a bunch of rampaging orcs and reclaim the countryside
the next. If you look at the games they’ve been playing, and the reading material that
has sprung up around them, you’re going to have a good idea of what kind of pulp
adventures younger readers prefer. Most of them are based in the future, or some sci fi/
fantasy world, though there’s a lot of wiggle room in there for super beings, car chases,
sports heroes, technology savvy sleuths, and cute little critters that can really pack a
wallop. Yeah, people of all ages love video games, or we wouldn’t have them on our
computers, phones, and tablets, nor would you see studios making (admittedly poorly
done) movies from them. Video games are hot, hot, hot! And kids today, from tykes to
twenty-somethings (and beyond) love that kind of fast paced entertainment. We can tap
into that market, without plagiarizing the actual games themselves. And we should.
The peak of the pulp years was a time of great upheaval, spanning the burgeoning
technology in industry moving people from farms to cities. With that came the
discovery of previously unknown cultures, species, and places; the infancy of worldwide
communication technology and travel, two world wars, and economic booms and
busts. There was a gradual increase in life expectancy as well as improving health and
education amongst the masses of the more industrialized nations. I’m sure it all seemed
overwhelming. So in all that muddle, a simple tale in a bargain magazine purchased on a
newsstand brought the casual reader out of the drudgery and confusion of everyday life,
to a place where good triumphed over evil and you felt better after reading it. That still
We’re burned out people. There’s so much going on around us, so much news overload,
so many new technologies, new problems, threats to safety and well being… a body’s
just got to stop and wonder, “How do I get away from it all?” With a good read my
friend, in a quiet spot, without blaring televisions playing endless ‘reality’ shows and
news reports trumpeting which celebrity got divorced or what food will likely kill you
next. That is a big selling point—escape with us in our books. The classic pulps that inspired generations of readers were a marvel of timing because they appealed to a
certain world-weary demographic of their era. Today’s stories need to be designed to
appeal to the more diverse and higher educated readers of this era without losing that
wonderfully pulpy feeling. While there’s a good market and audience for retro work
based on the past, there’s even a greater one for pulp stories that resonate with the jaded
readers of the 21st century.
So we have to beat that drum louder, let them know that we are here, and what we
have to offer. But most of all, just ignore the critics and stand proud by what we’ve
accomplished. Because in the end my friend, what they say will go away, and the stories
live on to be read another day.
Come and look, we have books; there’s something for all! And a publisher is a publisher,
no matter how small.