Mon
Jul 10 2017 4:00pm

Lester Dent for the 21st Century: How Has Pulp Fiction Changed in the Last Decade and Who Are the Players?

Read Rob Hart's exclusive guest post about the changing landscapes of pulp fiction, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his latest book, The Woman from Prague!

If you want to know how pulp fiction has changed in the past few decades, I think you need to start with the definition. But before I say anything else I want to establish something: I am not an expert, on anything. So let’s think of this less as an academic pursuit and more like a fun little jaw session.

Cool? Cool.

Pulp fiction used to refer to low-quality literature, churned out by folks like Lester DentDavid Goodis, and Mickey Spillane. The thought was, the stories were worth about as much as the wood pulp paper they were printed on.

Maybe it was the movie Pulp Fiction that reframed how people thought about lewd, lascivious, and violent material. Maybe that ushered it into mainstream acceptance. I’m sure someone knows. Again, I’m not an expert.

But isn’t the whole highbrow/lowbrow skirmish nonsense? Shakespeare was pop culture. His plays were advertised as filled with guts and melodrama and special effects. They were the Transformers movies of his day.

A better way to confront this would be to establish my definition of pulp fiction, which is: fiction that excites. It ain’t always pretty, and it ain’t always suitable for a television audience, but it’s always exciting. That doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful. Real life is full of sex and violence and pain and suffering and heroism and villainy. There’s nothing wrong with embracing those things.

Pulp fiction kicked into gear in 1939 when Robert de Graff launched Pocket Books, introducing America to mass-market paperbacks, which he sold for a quarter. And not just in bookstores—at newsstands, lunch counters, and drugstores. Reading and book ownership were democratized—less a pursuit of the elite, more geared toward the masses.

And then there were the pulp magazines—successors to penny dreadfuls and dime novels, offering stories in every genre from mystery to detective to fantasy to war to softcore porn.

Point is, with paperbacks and pulp novels flying off the shelves, there was a demand for content. So sometimes quality suffered, which is why pulp fiction became a bit of a dirty word. Not so much anymore. I think, if anything, we’re in the midst of a pulp fiction renaissance.

You just have to know where to look: smaller publishers.

Smaller publishers can take risks on books that might get overlooked by the Big 5 because they won’t appeal to mainstream audiences. That’s not a knock against the bigger publishers—there are plenty of good and, yes, even risky books appearing on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble. But as the violence hits harder, as the sex gets more explicit, as the down gets dirtier, it’s the smaller publishers that seem willing to go out on a limb.


Real life is full of sex and violence and pain and suffering and heroism and villainy. There’s nothing wrong with embracing those things.


And, pound for pound, there’s some serious talent coming out of the smaller outfits.

The advance of eBook technology has helped—a new way to deliver content at a cheaper price, not unlike de Graff’s move to make paperbacks cheaper and more widespread. And we even have our own version of the mass-market paperback: the novella, which thanks to advances in printing and distribution technology, are getting easier to produce.

Among the larger of the small publishers is Hard Case Crime, best known for its killer cover game, publishing everything from classics by Donald Westlake and James M. Cain to modern writers like Jason Starr, Ken Bruen (Pimp), and Ariel S. Winter (The Twenty-Year Death).

Read the founder of Hard Case Crime Charles Ardia's account of acquiring unpublished manuscripts from his friend, the late Donald Westlake!

My own publisher, Polis Books, lets its pulp flag fly on occasion. In my latest book, The Woman from Prague, I tapped into the spy novels of yore for inspiration. Ice Chest by J.D. Rhoades is a roaring good time of a heist novel, the kind of book you can imagine sitting on a spinning rack.

I’m also the publisher of Otto Penzler’s MysteriousPress.com, where we put out books that have gone out of print or aren’t available in digital formats.

Most of our titles are available only as eBooks, but we do some paperbacks too. And it’s been great—not just to make these stories available again but for all the new authors I’ve discovered for myself, like Charles Williams and Brett Halliday.  

Then there are the punk rock outfits, like Broken River Books, Down & Out Books, and All Due Respect. The new proving ground for tomorrow’s crime and mystery stars.

You want pulp fiction that’s fast and fun and dark and dirty and good? I could sit here and give you recommendations all day, but here’s three to start: Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias (from Broken River), A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (from Down & Out), and Cleaning Up Finn by Sarah M. Chen (from All Due Respect).

Read Neliza Drew's review of A Negro and an Ofay!

That’ll give you a sense of the breadth and skill on display.  

Seriously, I could sit here all day throwing out authors and books I think people should be reading, so I’ll leave it at this: quality is a funny thing to judge. As with anything else in life, people build monoliths. All big publishers are boring; all self-published books are garbage; all small press books weren’t good enough to land a bigger deal.

I don’t think that’s true. Just as pulp fiction grew and evolved to mean something more than “cheap crap,” the publishing industry is growing and evolving to support a variety of platforms.

Which is a good thing! There are good books everywhere, at every level. And those good books will thrive as long as there are readers into blood, guts, and sex. History tells us that kind of stuff never goes out of style.
 

Comment below for a chance to win a paperback copy of The Woman from Prague by Rob Hart!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

The Woman from Prague Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2017/07/how-has-pulp-fiction-changed-in-the-last-decade-and-who-are-the-players-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) July 10, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 3:59 p.m. ET July 18, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

 

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Rob Hart is the author of The Woman from Prague, available July 11, 2017, from Polis Books and picked by Publishers Weekly as one of the best reads of the summer. He is also the author of New Yorked, nominated for an Anthony Award for Best First Novel, City of Rose, and South Village, chosen by The Boston Globe as one of the best books of 2016. Short fiction has appeared in publications like Thuglit, Needle, and Joyland. Non-fiction has appeared at Slate, The Daily Beast, and Electric Literature. You can find him online at @robwhart or www.robwhart.com.

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51 comments
Gary Anderson
2. gwander
I really want c opy of The Woman Fron Prague.
John Smith
3. jsmith2jsmith
Yes, I'm aware of Polis Books as being a quality publisher!
Barbara Bibel
4. bbibel
I can't wait to read this. I went to Prague last year, so it will be fun to revisit the lovely city.
Phyllis Sinclair
6. psinclair
Interesting info about pulp fiction. Thanks
7. Julie Wakefield
Going to Prague next summer, would love to read this book.
8. K. Martin
I've never read pulp fiction, but your commentary has me intrigued. I'd like to win this book to see if pulp fiction as a genre is indeed as good as you say.
Vernon Luckert
11. vl4095
Would love to win - loved our visit to Prague by the way.
Darlene Slocum
12. darandsam
I didn't know what pulp fiction was. It sounds like what I like to read.
13. odedude
I've been to Prague and I can't wait to read this book about an intriguing city.
Diana Petty-Stone
14. DPSreads
Thank you for the opportunity to read such an intriguing book!
Janice Santillo
15. themommazie
Informative article on pulp fiction. I would like to read this book.
John Davis
17. John
Pulp fiction is indeed underrated. Today, many authors write for small publishers and self publish for financial reasons. Many don't have the money up front to hire agents, finance reviews, and approach the big publishers. Thus, many gems are found in the smaller press houses. Bravo. Good article.
Richard Derus
18. expendablemudge
Loved pulp fiction all my short sixtyish years. Hope I can read this one, set in my spiritual home Prague.
susan beamon
21. susanbeamon
So glad for the invention of the paperback. Not really fond of eBooks. It's just easierfor me to read hard copy.
Rena Sollish
22. Rena
It would be great to win this book.
Linda Peters
25. linnett
Looks like a great summer read, thanks
Connie Williamson
28. angelbun
I'd love to read The Woman From Prague. Sounds just right for me.
Meredith Miller
30. meredithfl
Sometimes smaller publishers do have the better books! Count me in!
L
32. LStirling
Loved Mickey Spillane. Had the pleasure of spending some time with him in the 90s. Obviously, I'm a big fan of pulp fiction and happy to see it's alive and well!
Anita Yancey
33. rosewood780
It sounds like a book I would be interested in reading. Thanks for this chance.
Marisa Young
36. Risa
Interesting article. Would like to read the books.
Jim Belcher
37. librarypops
Some star and near star authors are going to small publishers or self publishing to break free of the control and pressure of the big 5.
LabRat517
38. LabRat517
Rob Hart makes some excellent points about books that are considered pulp fiction. And I agree that just like paperbacks helped get books into more homes, ereaders are now doing even more toward that end. I've found many books from small publishers and self publishing authors for my library. I'm loving these trends.
Jane Schwarz
40. Janeschwarz
You are right. There are so many books out now. Different venues for different interests but pulp usually gives the reader more down-to-earth gritty reality that a lot of us only see through these type of stories. Thanks for the opportunity to win a copy of "The Woman from Prague".
elsie321
43. elsie321
I love reading and would appreciate the copy.
Clydia DeFreese
44. clydia
Looks like a new style book. I look forward to reading it.
Tawney Mazek
46. tmaze
My name came from a "Pocket Book" my father was reading -- a lonng time ago - so some pulp should be just right for me.
48. Polly Barlow
I believe Rob Hart has written about real life with its sex and violence, pain and suffering, hero and villian. It will be a real good read.
Art Taylor
50. ArtTaylorWriter
Great post, great suggestions—and congrats again on the new book!
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