Thursday, September 27, 2012

So... Why Pulp: Thinking Outside The Check Box

I was recently involved in a discussion about racism in the mainstream writing world—specifically comics and dealing with hiring practices. As indie creator roundtables are wont to do, it devolved into a converssation of how to be more diverse in what we actually write. Since the majority of us are New Pulp writers, and classic pulp was clearly aimed at a predominantly Caucasian male demographic, there’s a clear sense that we want and need to bring further cultural diversity into our writing.

Now I’m not here to bash what’s gone before, because in the golden age of pulp, some very amazing stories were conceived and many beloved characters were born. But it’s no secret that the old pulps tended to look down their noses disdainfully on anything other than heroic white male characters. That was simply a societal perception of the era it was written and marketed in. Classic Pulp is still a wonderful fountain of creative material, even if you have to hold your nose and wince at the overt racism, cultural defamation, and antipathy for strong female leads. Toward the end of the golden era run, there is a lot of evidence that the folks behind the scenes had caught on that they had a far less homogenous audience to serve.

Pulp has done some wonderful things for entertainment. You can successfully make the argument that it was the father of comics and dramatic radio plays, and the granddaddy of the action/adventure flick and all those riveting drama series that make for interesting television. Humans have always loved enthralling stories with larger than life characters, and Classic Pulp filled the bill when times were tough, money was scarce, and people needed something inexpensive and entertaining to take their minds off their troubles. Looking back at the amount of stories that were generated and how many magazines sprung up to serve them to the public, it’s obvious it became a marketing phenomenon. New Pulp is a bit different in that it started as a conscious effort to not let that style of writing die out, and has successfully brought back good old fashioned enjoyment to a reading market that has grown increasingly jaded with what the big six publishers have to offer. 

That people still love a well-written pulp story hasn’t changed. What has changed is both the makeup of the writers and the readers. While, as in comics, New Pulp writing is still primarily dominated by white males, that demographic is changing pretty rapidly for us these days. A lot more women and non-Caucasian men are writing now, and they’re bringing in a wealth of diversity in characters and situations within the framework of stories. And that my friends, is expanding the pool of readers.

While I’m not suggesting that Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Female, LBGT, etc readers won’t enjoy a story that has straight white males as the principal characters, I believe there’s a great need to have a New Pulp character list that reflects the times we live in—even in a period piece. What matters more is how the character(s) are handled against the backdrop, not what they look like. A costumed and masked vigilante in the 1950s American south could just as easily be a black woman as a white male. All the more reason to hide her identity, considering the racial tensions of the time, and it would add another layer of danger and intrigue to the stories. The old Kung Fu series on television very successfully portrayed a Chinese American man who used martial arts in a classic Western setting while still dealing with the prejudicial attitudes of those around him. I’m sure you can all think of even better and more contemporary examples.

So it can be done well, and by golly we’re doing it too! But we’ve got to do more if we want to distinguish ourselves from mainstream publishing, because folks... that’s where our market strength lies. We’re not like them, and for good reasons. Right now there are a handful of non-white male leads in New Pulp, and a gradually growing number of heroic female leads. Less common but noteworthy are the openly gay, bisexual, or lesbian characters that are cropping up. I’m thrilled because we need all of them if New Pulp is to grow and find additional audiences. Heroic fiction doesn’t have to follow any strict parameters, because we all love to see the good guys win and the bad guys lose, no matter who they are. There is a real hunger out there to have heroes that remind us that anybody can rise to the occasion.

From a personal standpoint, it’s sometimes hard for me to think outside my own gender and race when writing. I’m a white female and a good amount of my lead characters reflect that. I do write stories with male main characters but the majority of them still tend to be Eurocentric Straight Whites. Mixing in different races, cultures, and even gender identities has been a slow process for me because I tend to write from where I feel comfortable. It’s really a mindset thing; we gravitate to those elemental parts of a tale that we most identify with. Yet I want to craft stories that appeal to anyone or everyone, and so I consciously have to remind myself to diversify the cast and background of what I’m working on. I’ll admit to that being rather contrived, but it’s important for me to keep honing my skills while I’m broadening my audience. I know I am far too tentative about it at times, mainly because I’m concerned I won’t get it right and will alienate readers rather than drawing them in. The last thing I want is to do is create a thinly disguised token minority stick figure instead of a vitally admirable protagonist or a complex and skin-crawling antagonist. Regardless, I’m doing my best to bring some cultural diversity into the pulp stories I craft, without it seeming phony. Maybe I’m not doing enough though…?

I do understand the whys of diversifying New Pulp, but the answer to the ‘how’ is a lot more complex. Plenty of us are attempting to bring additional richness into the action tales we all love to read and write. One of the big stumbling blocks—and that got pointed out during the discussion on comics—is the dearth of diversity amongst writers. Now let me say right here that New Pulp writers are already a pretty eclectic bunch, and many of us work with indie publishers who are very open-minded to new ideas from all areas. We don’t answer to Madison Avenue and we don’t have huge staffs and fancy offices to maintain. This is a grassroots effort. The referential article we started to talk about was an editorial piece by a mainstream comics insider, who was frustrated with the brick wall he kept getting when matters of race were involved. As a woman writing in what has traditionally been a men’s adventure fiction field, I can somewhat sympathize. Getting my work out there and actually read still has its uphill climbs, mainly because there are a lot of predisposed notions about what I’m writing. I don’t strictly write for women or Tolkien fans, but that’s the impression that seems to be prevalent.

New Pulp is a lot more inclusive than any mainstream fiction field I’ve tested the waters in. My mission, if I have to state one, is to grab the attention of anyone who enjoys stories where women kick butts and name names. Yes, I do want to involve other cultures, races, genders, and what-have-you in my writing, and you can be sure that I will. But what I know best is how a woman longs to be known as capable, robust, independent, savvy, and respected—and those characteristics make great heroes. So if I seem a bit predisposed to write about the feminine gender, that’s why. I’m filling a niche with stories I wanted to read but had trouble finding. These are stories that need to be told. I want to see plenty of others do that too, in their own ways. We don’t have to pay complete homage to our pulpy past; we can evolve and captivate in the present as well.

That’s why I’m a New Pulp writer folks. Because I can publish the kind of tales I always loved to read—and I doubt very much I’m the only person who feels that way. No matter what we do for marketing, how cleverly our books are presented, the kinds of deals we offer, or how lush the artwork is inside and out, it all comes down to knowing who you’re writing for. If we’re going to survive as a legitimate part of the greater publishing world, then we need to further trumpet the fact that here you get the kind of purely entertaining fiction you can’t find anywhere else. Diversity outside the check box borders is a huge part of that.

I salute you, my pioneering peers. Keep churning out that magical page-turning prose that takes our breath away. Keep pushing toward the next frontier and let’s see how far we can expand New Pulp’s horizons. There is no limit to the types of characters we can introduce or the situations we can shove them into. Don’t get caught up in the mentality that keeps people writing the same old protagonists facing the same kind of perils. It’s a big, amazing world out there filled with ideas just waiting to be mined. In the days of Classic Pulp, the imagineers of the time had vast pools of unknown places and people to draw from. We know far more about the world around us now, but to me that just opens up more avenues of possibilities.

Just tick off ‘OTHER’ in the profiling check box next time, and see where that takes you.

1 comment:

  1. Your words made me think about works like Imaro and Damballah. And now i think, now wordsmiths if they wrote period stories they can be more accurate to some aspects of the society of the Golden Age of Pulp.


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