The Resurrection of Pulp

I’m at FantaSci 2022 this weekend, reporting from Raleigh, North Carolina. Even as I speak, with only Thursday for Precon, and Friday of the con, I’m having a blast, and I have two more days of this to go. This post isn’t going to be about the con, necessarily, as I plan a full AAR on my blog Monday *noting that Monday is a Big Day as it’s the first day of my new job.

No, I want to talk about pulp fiction, my love for it, and the new wave of pulps, carried to us by Amazon. There was a panel Friday, Pulp (Science) Fiction, asking ”Has Indie E-Publishing become the new Pulp?” Now, I rarely go to panels at a con, unless I’m on the panel, because I have trouble not keeping my mouth shut when something is wrong, and, well, this one was no exception. I begged the moderator’s pardon later, and she graciously forgave me, but in all honesty, the audience got feisty on this one and that’s not always a bad thing for a panel, especially in a relatively small audience (there were about 20 people in the room, counting the panelists).

Pulp Panel: JP Chandler, Jonna Hayden, Ian Malone, and Henry Vogel

Is Indie the new pulp? I certainly hope so! There are a lot of parallels. Including with some people thinking that rather than a wave of innovation, they are a tsunami of crap. Am I saying all pulp is good reading. I am not. I collect pulp. I aspire to write pulp. I do not think that what I write is crap (don’t ask me that question right after I finish a book, though), I don’t think what Henry Vogel (one of the panelists) writes is crap. In fact, learning more about his background in Indie Comics (who, as he point out, did this before publishing, as did music), made me regret not having read more of his sword and planet series, which I will rectify soon.

There are few things that poke me in a raw spot harder than the implication that Indie=Crap, and it’s not simply that I am one. No, it’s the community. Walking around the con, I can’t get more than a few feet without seeing a familiar face, getting a hug, talking shop… this is why I love cons. And the writing I see from this community? Is varied in ways you might not expect at first. Are we brilliant wordsmiths? Nah. We aim to entertain. And that is just what pulp was about. Learning, in the serials and magazines that are making a renaissance as anthologies. Honing a craft through direct exposure to the grindstone of fandom and reader feedback. You should read your reviews. Just don’t let them take the edge off your writing, instead figure out the angle that will make your writing sharper, more incisive, cleaner. Then write more.

The market will, given time, correct itself. Writers who simply can’t learn, and improve, will see their sales dip. Readers will give up on being lured into an awful story by a slick cover and blurb, and will learn how to find books they want to read. As authors, it behooves us to not only teach them how to find us, but to learn how to use the tools that will help them in that search. Word of mouth, always, is king. Be active where there are people that like the same kinds of things to read that you do – you are writing what you like to read, yes? And it’s not a quick paycheck. There is no get-rich quick in Indie, despite the wild rumors.

I joined in on a D&D session run by the Rogue DM, and here’s another child of Pulp in action, a game that has endured decades to tell stories impromptu.

Here’s the other thing. Pulp swept across the nation in the way that it did because there was a populace hungry for entertaining reading material, not the ’edifying’ books that the gatekeepers preferred to push. I have brittle, crumbling paperbacks from this era, but I also have books from the era before this, when the piracy was cross-Atlantic, and in my 1898 American Kipling editions (First US printing was almost certainly unauthorized) I see the precursor to pulp. People want exciting stories, they want stories about ordinary heroes, and the extraordinary.

Pulp was about cheap paper, and cheap stories, and it touched the hearts and minds of far more than anyone could have predicted. In an era when paper is getting scarce and expensive, electrons are rising up as the conveyor of strange tales, told dirt cheap. Ebooks are the new Pulp, and their sibling the Audiobook right alongside them. I, for one, plan to surf this wave as a reader and a writer, and may it never wane.

A small party of adventurers finds themselves in a dungeon…

21 comments

  1. Traditionally, Midwest panels are in smaller rooms, and thus have included tons of audience participation (and often the panel calls on the audience, if they see somebody they know who isn’t commenting and has relevant info).

    Probably the apotheosis of this was when they had a Brother Consolmagno panel interview at a Detroit con, and the entire audience was stuffed with his friends and acquaintances from Detroit and Chicago fandom, chiming in.(Highlight was all the ex-girlfriends who wrote recommendation letters to the Jesuits, raising their hands and thus identifying themselves….)

    It was very weird to go out East and find out that the panel wanted to keep it among themselves, and barely got to a question period.

  2. Re: get rich, that’s true. But even tiny paychecks can be very nice. And in small countries with small economies, indie writing and tips paid for web novel chapters are a big thing for the people involved.

    I was recently poking my nose into a Chinese webnovel, and the guy was talking about how the income supplemented his real job, and he loved sharing stories with others that would otherwise have stayed in his head. But also, it made him “our writer” in his extended family – because writing novels is a scholarly job, unlike his normal job of coding.

  3. Good stories are fun, and because pulp was cheap to print, authors could try things that no-one knew if they’d work or not. Kind of like isn’t game development.

    AAA gets you Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which was cool, but indy gets you the chance for Undertale.

    1. You reach for an example indy game, and you come up with Undertale?

      I’d recommend Deep Rock Galactic, The Outer Wilds or Call of the Sea as alternatives. 😉

  4. It’s a lot easier to see those who got rich than those who didn’t. Also,when they are rich, not before.

  5. In a really good month, usually a release month, I get four figures. Average month is mid three figures, because I have a HUGE backlist. With some things people are just now finding (had reviews for “The General’s Leman” pop up, and it’s been out for, um, a while. Ditto “A Father’s Choice.”) Indie is not a get-rich quick method, but then neither was writing for the pulps.

    And dang it, pulps are FUN! Gun-molls and hard boiled detectives, sword and sandal fantasy, a Puritan crossing Africa? What the what? (Solomon Kane, and Howard gets the mindset sooooooo right, even if he left out explicitly Christian elements.)

    1. There are those that do well with indie. I know of a couple of guys that regularly pull in low five figures a month clear between Patreon and Amazon, and are still writing. One of them, he writes in a very popular (for episodic fiction) genre, writes fast (around 10-15k or more words a week), and has a wide reach. He posts to several different online fiction sites and has tens of thousands of followers just on one of the many sites he posts to.

      I aspire to write pulp someday. My fiction isn’t high quality, but I’m aiming for McDonalds good enough and appealing to a wide range of readers kind of stories rather than Dan Simmons.

      Though I wouldn’t turn down even a tenth of Dan Simmons money. Writing is kind of fun.

  6. 90% of everything is crap, as they say, but all crap is not created equal. Crap pulp novels still have to be entertaining. Crap “literature” is just a waste of time.

  7. I’m a reader, not a writer.

    I like pulps. I buy them old and new. Nothing wrong with Mike Hammer and Northwest Smith and their modern counterparts.

  8. Indie Comics gave us a whole load of crap, but also gave us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Risk-averse big publishing may screen out the crap, but they also miss out on potential game-changing blockbusters.

    1. I’ve seen the same thing with what Marvel Comics was publishing in the 70’s, especially their new titles, as compared to what they ‘dare’ to do now. Back then they were willing to try characters and stories who no one thought would get over. More, they didn’t drop them as soon as sales dipped. They kept plugging and very often eventually found their audience. Of course they were willing to do some actual characterization and plotting as well. That helps more than any amount of ‘daring’ concepts.

  9. I loved the pulps. grew up reading them. I’m perfectly happy to have people refer to my stories as cheap entertainment. And it hasn’t been called crap (yet).

  10. Hey, it was great meeting you in person, Cedar, and that was a fun panel. (Thanks for the shout out!)

    The old pulp stories were ones that, many decades after their original release, I want to read. They’re fun and exciting and about as far from mundane as you can get. That’s why I embrace the “new pulp” label proudly.

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