What If Pulp Is Next?
This has been one of the hardest columns I’ve ever had to write. Still, it is a timely and important issue, and so I struggled getting my thoughts down on the page.
With the recent spate of multiple murder scenarios in the world garnering so much attention lately, it’s hard not to have some sort of visceral, knee jerk reaction. The facts are just so sickly riveting; I don’t think any of us hasn’t been shocked to the core. We listen to the details and then turn away with a shudder; sick at heart for the victims, families, and survivors. I can’t imagine what it would be like to deal with such a horrific situation first hand.
As is customary with the media, you will hear about tragedies repeatedly in excruciating detail and analyzed to the Nth degree. The conversations will follow you wherever you go, and the social sites and comments sections will be lighting up with opinions being bandied back and forth. This is all very normal, because we all wonder the same thing…
I don’t think there is a definitive answer. Sometimes people just snap. Other times longstanding problems push them over the edge.
What generally comes next is the backlash. Nothing polarizes people more than when some group with an opposing viewpoint and an agenda becomes very vocal about where changes do or don’t need to be made to avert such calamities. I’ve been seeing bitter discussions all over the place about how to fix this broken world. Some of them are truly thoughtful, but most are reactionary emotional responses that won’t do more than assuage our guilt as a society for somehow missing the signals that a percentage of our fellow humans are struggling with issues that we just don’t understand.
I am not trying in any way to detract from the terrible, completely unneeded loss of life, but if anything is broken in this world; it’s how we only seem to handle these situations after the fact. All too often there were plenty of warning signs missed or ignored along the way that some individual or group was going in a malevolent, antisocial direction. Addressing the problems early would eliminate a lot of these catastrophes without broadly tromping broadly on human rights and making many innocent people bear the brunt of punishment for the actions of a destructive few. A lot of the debate seems to center around firearms, and who should be allowed to own and use what.
Now this column is not about gun control, because the scope of this situation goes well beyond the second amendment rights here in the United States. For the record though, I am a responsible gun owner and happen to enjoy shooting, so I’m not going to stop enjoying it because some people have chosen to use guns as weapons of mass destruction. The damage firearms can do to others is stomach-churning horrific, but they don’t have to be used that way, no more than a car is designed to kill accident victims, even if it can speed through red lights.
Guns are far from the only things that can kill large numbers of people. Warfare and genocide, bombs made of fertilizer components, flu epidemics, planes driven into buildings, train wrecks, tsunamis, or miniscule amounts of botulism toxin in the food supply can end many lives fairly quickly. It’s a dangerous world out there, and it always has been. The bigger issue here is what kind of preconceived attitude do we bring to these discussions, and are we being realistic, or just punitive to everyone who might have a different opinion?
I’m also a New Pulp writer. That means I deal with explaining various acts of violence in considerable detail every time I sit down at the keyboard. So the ongoing debates about ramping down the level of violence out there interest me greatly. Outside of the gun control issue, a lot of emphasis has been on just what might influence certain people to have such a marked disregard for life. One of the things getting kicked around in discussion groups is the role of entertainment violence in encouraging callous attitudes toward wholesale death and destruction. I’ve recently seen movies, television, and video games singled out and vilified as possible causes that need to be regulated, and I have to wonder, how long before the V-chip squad comes after the New Pulp community?
Take a gander at some of our covers with the eyes of an outsider, and you’d begin to think that all we write about is senseless mayhem perpetrated on innocent people, resolved by even more acts of brutality. Read what’s inside and you’re going to get that impression too, because this is pulp; where extreme force used against merciless enemies is a story norm. Pulp deals in high action and adventure situations with a significant amount of personal danger, and you can’t get much more dangerous than threatening wholesale bodily harm. Pulp has always been thrill-seeking fiction, and every hair-raising, blood-tingling moment allows the reader to follow the exploits of a larger-than-life valiant character facing off against an equally exaggerated antagonist. It makes for a page-turning read, and that’s what keeps those of us who love this sort of thing coming back for more. We’re action/adventure junkies, and there’s really nothing wrong with that.
Is there something intrinsically detrimental with creating or reading such an unrestrained work of fiction? Of course not! It’s a safe form of exploring first hand what it would be like to be strong, heroic, fearless, and capable under extreme duress. Despite the blood and guts action, the emphasis of pulp tales has always been on finding courage and fortitude in the face of certain danger. Sure, someone who is unstable might obsess over the story details of what was done to whom in what way, and maybe even act out that obsession, but does that give us due cause to condemn all pulp stories as instigating violence? No. What we need to do is isolate and treat that individual for having skewed thinking so that the rest of us can continue to enjoy life in our own way and read what we chose to.
To me that’s a no-brainer. While you can’t predict every time someone teetering on the edge of sanity and discouragement will flip, I don’t see any point in eliminating what is for most a harmless source of entertainment. I don’t believe pulp stories add anywhere near as much impetus to the decision to take lives in some heinous way as do the constant, repetitive news coverage of those who have. Replaying those images over and over immortalizes the perpetrator as much as it does the horrible deed; something that people who feel left out of or let down by society crave. If anything, pulp stories emphasize that not only do violent acts not solve anything, but punishment will be swift and certain. They may not be for everyone, but no one is forcing you to read pulp if you don’t care for it.
Pulp has been read and enjoyed by generations of people who go on to have normal, everyday lives without causing anyone intentional harm. People prone to killing others likely do gravitate toward more violent entertainment, but I don’t see how we in the pulp community are responsible for that, not when the destructive tendency is already firmly implanted. What those very sick folks need is an intervention, and as a society we’ve dropped the ball terribly on that, turning our backs on the ugly and unpleasant truth, trusting that somehow that person will muddle through and things will sort themselves out. Once there is a tragedy, suddenly you have this great hue and cry to remove all potential sources of violent inspiration, whether it’s weaponry or entertainment. Must the rest of us be penalized because a few angry, bitter, deranged individuals have surrendered self-control to delusions and have done the unspeakable?
It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s not just talk about this, but let’s actually listen to each other for a change.
I’m not being unsympathetic to the people who have lost so much in those situations, because I can’t even imagine the inconsolable grief in waking up to face that appalling reality every day. I totally understand the urge to control something so that no one else has to face such a horrendous catastrophe. I’m just saying that by treating the rest of the world as potential murderers with no self-control, you’re not going to stop the spiral of violence in susceptible individuals.
None of us are ready to deal with that in the real world. How do you explain to a child that people can be so vicious that there’s no 100% safety anywhere?
You can’t. Nor can we keep anyone as safe as we’d like to think we can. We can only hold ourselves to higher ideals and hang onto what we know is good in life.
As Mister (Fred) Rogers has been paraphrased as saying, at times when there is an overwhelming tragedy, “look to the helpers”. Focus on the good deeds, the heroic acts, and the ways that people come together to triumph over evil. That, my friends, is the essence of a good pulp tale too. For all the nastiness being portrayed on those pages, there is always hope, so that in the end it should leave you feeling hopeful too.
I can see how some people would think of my work as glorifying savagery and bloodshed. Until you’ve read far enough in, you’re not going to see past the lurid scenes of death and destruction down into the underlying humanity, and to get that, you have to understand that horrible things do sometimes bring out the best and worst in people. This is why the edgiest pulp is strictly adult fare, and that’s how it should remain. That doesn’t mean the books should not be readily available, but maybe we need to create some parameters of our own before someone else decides to do it for us. Labeling books MATURE because of content I would have no issue with. I am both a mother and a grandmother, so I understand custodial adults needing some general guidelines. Some of my work is definitely inappropriate for young readers. I have other stories that are suitable for all but the most sensitive child or adult. I would assume most people could look at a pulp cover or read the synopsis blurbs and make an educated guess as to what might be best avoided, but not everyone is that attentive. While it needs to be left up to parents or guardians what children should read, I’d rather we took the bull by the horns and not allow some outside regulatory agency to decide for everyone. In lieu of round-the-clock parental supervision, a label would at least give buyers and sellers something to go on.
It’s getting tougher nowadays to know where to draw the line between freedom and regulation, and we in the New Pulp community don’t want or need someone else doing it for us. Maybe it’s time to be thinking about what is in our books, how we sell them, and to whom. Let’s take charge of the situation, before someone else gets to decide what we should be selling, when, and where.