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.
Pulp fiction used to refer to low-quality literature, churned out by folks like Lester Dent, David 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).
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).
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.
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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.