Thursday, July 19, 2012

So Why Pulp? Ephemeral Hit Or Enduring Classic?

Ephemeral Hit Or Enduring Classic?

One of the first things I learned, once I stuck a couple toes into the deep and bottomless pool that is the pulp world, is how many devoted fans there are. Pulp writing is a bohemian art form that resonates with many because the stories sing in our blood. Pulp is about heroes and villains that are easy to differentiate, doing exciting things in exotic places. There’s a lot of it out there too, whether you’re talking rollicking adventure fiction in the golden era of the inexpensive magazines of yesteryear, or the New Pulp of this electronic age of print-on-demand books read via wireless gizmos. Pulp is still wildly popular, not just with longtime fans, but in general, for many people I’ve talked with about it had no frame of reference until I started mentioning classic characters and settings. Then the eyes light up, and you get that ‘Ah-ha!’ moment; because who doesn’t love gumshoe detectives, larger-than-life adventurers, war heroes, jungle warriors, outer space explorers, barbarian chieftains, creepy horror, western shootouts, etc—all entwined within the innocence of a simpler age? To endure like they have, pulp and its cast of characters had to resonate on some deeper level than just cheap entertainment that could be read and tossed away. Certainly, the stories and their unforgettable characters stayed popular over many decades. The best of them have been reprinted and made into graphic novels or movies, and they’re still coming back in one form or another. So it makes me wonder, what is the blueprint for a New Pulp best seller?

Dang, I wish I knew! There must be a formula out there somewhere. As a writer, I wrestle with that every day. I can’t believe the folks that created these amazingly enduring works of speculative fiction simply churned out whatever slush was oozing out of their heads and forgot all about it, like a machine stamping out parts in some factory. Oh, I know some of the best were team written from outlines, but somebody had to come up with a grand idea, and someone else’s expertise made it come alive on the page. Maybe in their day, the classic pulps were pawned off as disposable amusement, but to have been adored all this time says something more about the impact they had. These are beloved tales with characters that still fascinate us over 60 years later. Somebody was doing something right.

I’d settle for that!

I don’t think it’s any secret, most of us in the New Pulp movement aren’t here because we’re getting rich from our writing. If this was my only source of income, I’d be out begging with my tin cup, and eating in soup kitchens. We do this because we love what we create, and hope that someday, the money will follow. In the meantime, you don’t quit your day job, and I’ll tend my garden and make sure there’s something healthy on the table. Don’t even get me started on the lack of acceptance issues, because there’s been a lot more criticizing than praising, once you get outside our inner circle of supportive peers. There’s a sense of frustration and futility across the board as everyone is vying for the same customer base, and purist pundit fundamentalists pop up faster than dandelions in a spring lawn. Classic pulp connoisseurs, devoted to the hacked-out darlings of bygone days, can be total bluestockings when it comes to keeping the breed untainted. I’ve seen New Pulp trashed and pooh-poohed more often than it’s been applauded for keeping this style of writing alive. You have to have a lot of guts to hold your head up high and soldier on when the message comes across that you’re sullying pulpdom’s sacred soil with your inferior brain droppings.

Hallowed ground indeed! Aren’t we all just pandering to a populist crowd? In mainstream writing, which is clearly focused on the ‘literary’ end of fiction as well as non-fiction how-to, celebrity tell-all biographies, fad diets, self-help, endless cookbooks, and rigidly formulaic genres of standard novels; pulp is viewed as that backward country cousin with the buck teeth and lisp everyone else jokes about and refuses to admit to having invited over. In other words, they don’t want to admit to even knowing any of us, classic or nouveau, and they still control the mass marketing machine. So to me, these New Pulp critics are simply disgruntled insiders looking to break out into a broader audience, but all they do is divide our small but loyal pulp readership even further, which benefits no one. In all honesty, we are still a very small part of the shrinking book market, even if the tales of yesterday have become the memorable movies of today. And that is the reason you won’t see ‘John Carter’ and ‘Mars’ on the same marquee. Someone in management who doesn’t understand pulp’s rich cultural history is afraid that today’s savvy moviegoer will see it as just another B grade science fiction flick and pan it. So go educate them, and stop dunning us for trying to keep pulp alive! Madison Avenue will trumpet the trendy Twilight or Harry Potter films to the max, and why not? Through endless promotion efforts, these stories have captured the flea-like attention of the masses, which will spend their coins hither and yon on tie-in products, and then flitter over to the next big thing being hawked to them. It’s a numbers game, and someone is getting rich with that. Critics need not apply, because the public knows what it wants.

I believe they want our stories. I really do.

Advertising is everything these days, and because we pulpsters don’t have the mass distribution of the bygone era, we’ve got to find some unity so that we can hitch up to that wagon. Without that widespread availability of the pulp of the past, lack of outside the community ad space promotions are probably the next biggest issue for those of us in the New Pulp world. We need to build wider audiences and make new fans if we are going to survive. Unfortunately, that kind of attention-getting comes with a hefty price tag. Cue up the naysayers to knock down your efforts at every turn, and you might as well hang up your keyboard. Constructive criticism pointed within the market is helpful, but loud and authoritative panning by self-made experts hurts all of us. While the tomes of the old days might be seen as the measuring standard, they too could be formulaic, overly wordy, filled with typos, and sometimes just plain poorly written knock-offs. The patina of age doesn’t hide that too well once you start actually reading them, as beloved as they are.

Well… there are conventions, which bring together people from all over the place who love what we do. From what I hear, you can sell very well at cons. Sadly, they are expensive to travel to and attend, and they take time away from writing, work, and family obligations. To you con-warriors, I say hooray, you’re my heroes; because you’re not just promoting yourselves, but New Pulp as a whole. I’d love to join you, but my meager budget only allows for one convention a year. I can’t leave my family to go on endless working vacations either. Until they start paying my way through plenty of sales, cons either have to be within commuting distance or otherwise subsidized. It’s Catch-22, and I’m not holding my breath.

The old pulps used to be very visible. They were for sale on every corner newsstand. Like comic books when I was growing up, you had no trouble stumbling across one, because the astounding cover art was hard to miss and the price was low. Well those days of cheap reads everywhere are gone. Even mainstream comics are relegated to specialty shops at a premium price and greatly reduced in content. The inexpensive paperback spinner racks of the drug and convenience stores have all but disappeared. Bookstores have increasingly become a trendy, big business outlet, and they only carry mass market material they know they can return unsold. The big retailers tend toward the splashy, high end items, and to keep folks coming in, they feature reading lounges and cafes. Little by little, these brick and mortar edifices are evaporating too. There’s just too much stuff competing for our attention, with cable TV, blockbuster movies on demand, DVDs, gaming consoles, MP3 players, tablets, and phones that do everything but make toast (and there’s probably an app for that…). People with little time on their hands and less cash to spare can walk over to the rental vending machines or cutout bins for movies and games. You can now boot up streaming videos at home, buy whatever books you want heavily discounted online, or download them for an electronic gizmo. Sadly, new fans are not going to stumble across us if we aren’t out there hawking our wares 24/7, and not everyone can do that. There’s just so much stuff competing with us.

It’s not all hopeless, though I still haven’t figured out how to do better marketing of my own work than by word of mouth. That’s something I think about every day though. In the meantime, I keep writing the best stuff I know how to produce, and promoting it and the work of my contemporaries as often as I can manage. Unlike my counterparts of the golden age of pulp, I’m not getting paid X-amount per word or per story. I’ve had to settle for back-end royalties, though I’m not complaining, because it’s better than leaving work sitting in files unread. But it’s a tough market to crack, and it’s flooded by folks just like me, wanting to share their ideas with a wider audience. We all have the dream of making at least a modest income through writing. I hope I live long enough to see that become a reality.

But you know what really motivates me to get back to the keyboard? Thinking about how maybe—just maybe—someday down the road, when I’ve drifted back into the primordial dust, someone will still be reading my stories and sighing happily. Having a big hit must be wonderful, at least while it lasts. Knowing you are leaving a legacy of good reading behind you is even sweeter. I don’t want these books I labor over to die with me.

If I leave one lasting impression on this Green Earth, let it be something positive, like a story well told that not only entertains, but captivates and inspires a whole new generation to go out and seek more of the same. Sometimes you just can’t measure success in dollars and cents. Classic Pulp has survived the ages not because it’s fine art, but because it’s a grand way of telling exciting and heroic tales that has captured the hearts of its fans. That’s my definition of success. Should be yours too. Maybe neither one of us will ever be wealthy, but we’ll be richer in other ways for it. In the end, we’re not taking anything with us we didn’t bring into this world, and we’re leaving behind all that we did and were. If they call me a hack writer in the mainstream world, I’ll shrug and accept that. If someone puts their nose in the air and says what I write really isn’t pulp, oh well… As long as somebody is still reading what I write and wishing for more, I’ll keep on writing it, and you can call it anything you prefer. I love what I do too much to worry about what the bean counters say, and I figure we’ll all get by somehow. The numbers are against us anyway, so I’ll shoot for the longevity angle and hope I get lucky. Costs less than playing the lottery and I get more satisfaction from it.

Never let the ‘experts’ get you down. Give the people who love your writing what they want, and carry on. We’re all in this together folks.

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