What is the New Pulp and why do we want one?

Some weeks back I penned a column on the phenomenon of the New Pulp, and since then I’ve enjoyed watching the term continue to emerge as a zeitgeist from the group mind of genre fiction.

David Barnett, author of the upcoming Gideon Smith novels, talks here about the Nu Pulp.

Geek Syndicate provide a nice round-up of New Pulp discussions and resources.

New Pulp Fiction has much to say on the issue.

What is New Pulp? That was the question I found being asked again and again after the Guardian column published. I’m going to give my answer here. But first I think it’s worth saying that, in common with all creative movements, New Pulp is at its most interesting in this early phase where that question has not yet been answered. It’s human nature to try and find solid answers to such question. It’s the skill of the artist to leave them floating open, and to study the many different perspectives that are magnetically drawn to them.

New Pulp Fiction provides one possible answer to our question:

What is New Pulp?  Well, as far as my definition goes, the explanation is fairly simple.  New Pulp is fiction written with the same sensibilities, linear storytelling, pattern of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original Pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists, and publishers.

To me this is the most obvious and least interesting answer. Because really this is just genre fiction by another name, and nothing new. Genre was born in pulp, and has continued uninterrupted from then until now. And it’s an answer rooted in nostalgia, the sense that something has been lost and needs to be regained. For me, these answers don’t begin to explain why New Pulp is interesting.

Instead I’m drawn to thinking about New Pulp in the context of other creative movements in genre fiction. New Wave. New Weird. Steps in the long journey genre fiction has made to stretch itself in to being MORE than just entertainment, MORE than just pulp fiction. Is New Pulp a step backwards on that path, something essentially conservative and retrospective, or is it a step forwards that has something new to bring to the party?

My gut says it has the potential to be the latter.

Perhaps a better question than ‘What is New Pulp?’ is ‘Why do we want one?’ Creativity is cyclical. Genre SF & Fantasy had an amazing burst of creativity in the late 90’s and early 00’s. But through the later years of that decade they fell in to a period of relative conservatism, driven partly by the declining economy and partly by changes within publishing. But post 2010 these genres have once again started to show signs of intense creative energy.  Now they seem ready to burst in to life again, fuelled in part by the potential of ebooks and indie publishing, which is where of course much of the energy of the New Pulp is being displayed. We, the creators in the field, are hungry for a focus for our creativity. And the aesthetic of the New Pulp has the potential to provide that focus.

So you tell me. What is the New Pulp? Or maybe more usefully, what could the New Pulp be?

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22 thoughts on “What is the New Pulp and why do we want one?”

  1. Gaudy 1930s pulp was a stand against the dark shadow of depression. Star Wars was a stand against the gloomy SF cinema of the early 1970s. A New Pulp for this current age might be a stand against both the smoke of steampunk and the cool veneer of cerebral ideas-driven SF. Pulp is colour, the brighter the better.

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  2. “Pulp” received its name because the books weren’t (supposedly) worth more than the paper on which they were printed. Then, as you point, New Wave and New Weird brought a more respectable aura to genre.

    Now books are not made of pulp anymore. It’s just bytes. And bytes (as Chris Anderson and others have shown) are worth close to nothing.

    So, the New Pulp is actually a Byte Lit. But before we dismiss it as even lower than the Old Pulp, it might be useful noting that the value of digital media is essentially the attention it can get. People times hours spent. Maybe that’s what New Pulp really is – a SEO of letters, a refined art of building an audience, making noise, being seen.

    Just a thought.

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    1. Your suggestion, Marcos, and complete overgeneralization that pulps were “Pulp” received its name because the books weren’t (supposedly) worth more than the paper on which they were printed” is far from accurate. Many excellent writers and excellent works of popular imaginative literature were first published in the pulp magazines.

      You’re right that the type derives its name from the paper upon which these magazines were cheaply printed. But that does not mean that they were received and read — then and now — with a sort of “willing suspension of disbelief” and an attitude of “I know this is inferior stuff, but I’ll try to enjoy it.”

      The notion that NEW is necessarily TRUE (bytes replacing pulp or text on paper) or that NEW is necessarily superior to OLD or TRADITIONAL needs to be questioned too. We’ve thrown out many babies with the bathwater, and there is a lot of absolute crap in the blogoshere and social networking and makeshift self-proclaimed “expert” web pages.

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  3. It’s more than just genre under another name, as you say. Pulp was always about reconnecting with the raw energy of storytelling. You can compare the very high, literary openings of English ghost stories of the ’20s and ’30s with that lean-close-to-the-radio vibe of the typical Weird Tales yarn. This sense of coming down off the stage to grab the audience by the throat (or other parts of the anatomy) is also evoked by: Dickens transforming literature into blockbusters, Marvel blowing the dust off comics in the mid-60s, Tarantino shaking up CSI with his “Grave Danger” episodes, JJ Abrams reminding us that Star Trek can be seat-of-the-pants stuff. And I’m not even going to get into the musical analogies…

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  4. When did pulp die? I go to the bookstore, and all I see is shelves and shelves of books deserving to be shredded. Kidding, kidding! Everyone has different tastes. But seriously: there has always been commercial fiction. “New Pulp” may be a warcry, but I don’t see how it can be a revolution.

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  5. Or is it a revolution co-opted before it’s begun?

    I mean, where I’m coming from on this: I suspect I’ve written at least one thing that could be classed as New Pulp in terms of your non-nostalgic take on it. I.e. Escape from Hell! is deliberately pulpy, deliberately out for the sensationalist dynamic that makes pulp fiction, as they say, *fuckin rock, motherfucker*. But it’s also a second person omniscient narrative masquerading as multiple third person limited. Which is apparently considered “literary experimentalism” in written narrative… cause, yanno, yer bog-standard reader supposedly can’t deal with fancy dan clever clog tricksiness like the non-linear structure of Pulp Fiction (the movie) or the split-screen effect of 24. The point being, I see the potential you’re talking about as coming from the fact readers *can* and *do* take poncy “high-brow”/”experimentalist” techniques in their stride. There’s no reason a work can’t be pure pulp in its aesthetic and *more* ambitious than the work of a writer mistaking solemnity for seriousness, eschewing the sensational as terribly gauche. I’d be on board for that sorta New Pulp.

    BUT I reckon the quote from New Pulp Fiction shows how that label is doomed to be recuperated by the established system, turned to a reactionary standard in both senses of the term — banner to rally round and template to adhere to. Note how it already locks New Pulp into linear storytelling, contra Pulp Fiction (the movie) or Kill Bill, both of which I’d see as cinematic expressions of *my* kinda New Pulp ethos — the *non*-conservative New Pulp it sounds like you’re interested in as well.

    My suspicion? Send out the warcry for a New Pulp in the mould of New Wave and New Weird, and immediately it’ll be drowned out by a chorus shouting “Yes! Yes! New Pulp! Back to basics!” and decrying “pretentiousness”… which is to say ambition.

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    1. Yep. i can see deep frustration with this…it’s a soundbite issue…the New Pulp as a label doesn’t integrate enough complexity in to its label to avoid simplistic interpretations. But then, this was a problem for New Weird as well, which is still interpreted as ‘Let’s do Cthulhu squids’ buy much of the genre community.

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    2. Being one of the guys who came up with the definition for New Pulp you’re referring to, You make great points…. and a few disclaimers are used when the definition comes up by most of us. First… the exceptions prove the rule. A handful of Publishers make up ‘The New Pulp Movement’ that is attached to http://www.newpulpfiction.com, most of us really small press…and You’ll find books in most of our catalogues that don’t fit this definition, but we still refer to as pulp. (www.prosepulp.com, Creeping Dawn: Rise of the Black Centipede is one such title). The definition was devised as a thumbnail and of course holds no official status anywhere except as a sort of rallying point.

      New Pulp is what one makes it for themselves for the most part. It’s really interesting to me as someone who’s been using the New Pulp phrase as a tag for what I write and publish for a couple of years now and it’s of course coming up now all over the place from multiple sources. I’m glad to see both those who are trying to adhere to the roots of Pulp as they see them with a modern sensibility, as well as those who push the envelope and boundaries and turn New Pulp into its own thing. I hope that what I’m doing with my writing and Publishing is a bit of both.

      The coolest part is the discussion of this.

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  6. Hmm, hmm and hmm again. When I spouted off-the-cuff-ishly about Nu Pulp/New Pulp, I wasn’t precisely sure what I meant in a lot of ways. I think I was talking about evoking the spirit of the old pulp adventures, with a contemporary writing sensibility. Which means telling stories but not necessarily following the rules. Not that the Gideon Smith books which Damien kindly plugs up top are what you’d call experimental literature in any way; they’re linear, orthodox novels, though not through any sense of having a “manifesto” to write to, more that that’s just the way I roll.

    I’d possibly like to point you to this piece I did yonks ago, and of course the book that it’s actually about, Stories, an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrontonio: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/jun/23/neil-gaiman-short-stories

    In his introduction, Gaiman says of their reasons for assembling the (very pulp-ish) stories for the antho: “What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. Yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that.”

    Which, I suppose – rather boringly – is where I’m coming from personally. A thumping good read, well-written. Fast and furious, fast and loose (both with conventions and expectations), but perhaps conversely somewhat familiar and comforting.

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  7. As an author of comics, a medium that never considered any theme too low, too outrageous or too cheap, it´s a an interesting debate, because we may be going on the oposite direction – there´s a search for respectability that could kill some of this great energy and freedom of genre. As if with each step towards bookstores and literary awards, we´d have to “behave” more and more. Be nice. Be serious. Etc. It could be a big loss of vitality.

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  8. As a New Pulp practitioner myself I see pulp as being about pace, pace, pace. I don’t mind novels with world building, deep, introspective characters and so on. But pulp, both the classic stuff and New Pulp, is about grabbing the reader by the throat with the opening line and not letting him or her come up for air until the tale is done.

    In today’s world of mainstream publishing, every book is 900 pages long in order to justify the price they have to charge in the marketplace. Brilliant authors can pull off these bricks and keep you interested. Well, not every author out there is a brilliant author. I find myself saying more and more while I’m reading current novels: “Will you just tell me the goddamn story?!” I don’t need to know where the hero bought his clothes, what he had for breakfast, how he fixes his hair, his outlook on life and what kind of car he drives.

    Pulp is edge of your seat reading. Like the great action movies Classic Pulp inspired. A rollicking story you simply can’t put down, regardless of genre. Back in the day, Max Brand wrote the Dr. Kildare novels. “Sappy” romances with a tortured lead character. And those novels MOVED baby! The pages fly by.

    This is pulp and New Pulp for me. A great, fast-moving story that leaves you breathless. This type of story has never gone out of style. Sure, New Pulp set in the 1930s is now historical fiction. Nothing wrong with that as many, many readers love historical fiction and just about every time period is being covered these days. The difference is that New Pulp rollicks along in this historical setting. No endless pages of description covering every aspect of the period. Move, move, MOVE!

    It’s quite simple. If you like today’s action movies: Avengers, Dark Knight, The Expendables, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, and countless others, then you like pulp. If you read Lee Child, Preston and Child, Clive Cussler and Michael Connelly, then you like pulp. New Pulp is just trying to hone down the tale into something lethal, something you’ve just got to read and can’t put down.

    New Pulp is about exciting storytelling and exciting reading. And it delivers!

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    1. Thanks Andrew. Whilst I see your argument, that’s the part of New Pulp that is much less interesting to me. I think people who want spectacle have action movies, it’s not what fiction books do well. Without insight fiction is just a brick of dead paper.

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  9. I was provoked by those who wanted to limit the idea of New Pulp as being stories based in the 20’s and 30’s but written by a new generation. I wasn’t interested in limiting myself AT ALL in this regard. In order to hone my craft, I wanted a label to place on the stories I wanted to write, something that could be used to market the stories for what they are (hastily written, in-your-face endeavors), and give potential readers an expectation they’ll be reading something unpredictable. I started Grind Pulp Press with the intention of releasing my own new pulp stories, but I chose to use the term Grind Pulp – inspired by grindhouse films along with 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s mass market horror, sci-fi, adventure (no genre limit). As a reader, I want genre-bending tales that can scare me, make me laugh, and make me think, “holy shit!” all in the same story. Blood and Tacos and I are not affiliated in anyway, but I highly recommend everybody go buy their ebooks ASAP for a taste of what I’m talking about.

    I’ve recently noticed some new pulp reviewers who will only review hardcopies of books. For me, New Pulp and Grind Pulp belong on e-books for people reading on their phones while on the train, in the bathroom, or underneath a bridge with a bottle of Mad Dog. Sure it would be cool to have hardcopies made (I dig vinyl and VHS collecting), but that’s secondary to the grind of writing and releasing.

    Of course, who am I to talk? I’ve only written two Grind Pulp / New Pulp stories. Santo Diablo is a character I’m writing a four part novelette series about. His first story is out now, but now I’ve gotta grind out #2, #3, and #4. All are due to the editor in a few months. Here’s hoping beer doesn’t get the upper hand and that I can knuckle down and get these stories written and revised as soon as possible.

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  10. Some call it New Pulp while I prefer to call it Pulp 2.0 for the following reasons / rationale:

    – Not only is it print matter but it’s digital as well…
    – this pulp methodology of faster, energetic and entertainment first covers a wide variety of media – print, ebooks, video, animations, artwork, audio, and software. The 1930’s method of “getting it out there as cheaply and as wide as possible” has mutated.
    – Pulp as an ideology, methodology and subject matter never really went away but transferred its aesthetic and so forth to the paperbacks, the digests, the radio shows, and the television. What are shows like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE if not pulp? I SPY? MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. ? WILD WILD WEST? X-FILES? KOLCHAK? etc… all delivered in a timely, budget-conscious manner to entertain an audience.

    It’s all come back and we are using the web and its tools (print-on-demand for one) to create entertainment as cheaply and effectively as possible. And like the way that pulp movement revolutionized print entertainment – our 2.0 version is changing our media buffet…

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