Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Pulp writing isn’t quite a subgenre and it isn’t quite a medium. Yes, it once had stylistic and even aesthetic boundaries, but the sensibilities behind those boundaries have outlived them by decades, and pulp is now more an approach to storytelling than anything else.
Happily, it’s an approach that has a lot to teach modern authors, and if you can adjust to the pulp way of thinking, you’ll have the tools to combat some of the biggest challenges writers face in finishing their work and distributing it to an appreciative audience. That being the case, let’s take a look at what pulp writing can teach modern authors.
What is pulp writing?
Pulp writing takes its name from the pulp magazines in which it appeared, and those magazines take their name from the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Though such magazines were a fixture of popular culture for around sixty years – with the height of their popularity coming in the 1920s and 30s – they were deliberately disposable, printed en masse and sold at low cost to a gluttonous reading public.
Pulp writing was usually some form of short genre fiction, with its legacy most defined by lurid horror, crime, war, sci-fi, fantasy, and Western stories. Though eventually killed off by rising costs and competitive media such as comics, paperback novels, and television, the pulps were vastly influential in their day.
Pulp characters include Flash Gordon, Zorro, Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, and John Carter of Mars, while writers as illustrious as Arthur C. Clarke, O. Henry, Agatha Christie, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, H.P. Lovecraft, Upton Sinclair, and Tennessee Williams all saw print in pulp magazines.
Pulp magazines were publications in which you’d find a range of stories that tackled wild ideas as penned by some of the most skilled and imaginative writers of the time, but they were also a business. Author Kurt Vonnegut lamented that the quality of pulp stories (and thus the reputation of certain authors) was often lessened by the writer’s knowledge that editors would be as likely to accept their first draft as their eighth, and there was little reward for developing an idea that already had a story in it.
Pulp writing, then, is writing emblematic of pulp sensibilities; writing which is visceral, imaginative, and unafraid of mass appeal, but also writing which is disposable, sometimes under-baked, and often repetitive in its approach.
What does pulp writing look like in the modern day?
Obviously, pulp magazines themselves are long gone, but pulp writing endures. Many creatives love the aesthetic of pulp fiction – Quentin Tarantino conceived of Pulp Fiction as an attempt to recreate the experience of reading an old crime pulp – but the nature of pulp is even more enduring.
Examples might include Richard Stark – who wrote thirty short crime novels about the cold-as-ice Parker – and even James Patterson, a prolific thriller author famous for his frequent collaboration with other writers. The best example, however, might be horror author Stephen King.
At first glance, it might seem like modern pulp writing is all about quantity. Frequent publication isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it does point to a pulp sensibility: write it, show it to people, write whatever’s next. This approach is part of what makes pulp writing so accessible to readers; it keeps coming, which means you can cast aside whatever you don’t like and still have plenty of what you do.
Pulp writing tends to aim for visceral reactions. There are contemplative, even insightful, pulp stories, but pulp as a label tends to apply to stories that are trying to elicit excitement, horror, or even arousal – primitive, instinctive responses that get the heart racing.
It’s this aspect of pulp writing that pairs so well with frequent publication; craft has merit, but if you’re aiming for simple thrills, there’s more to be said for choosing ‘good enough’ over endless polishing. This can also be seen in pulp’s fondness for archetypes and even clichés.
Consider the most famous Stephen King villains: stripped of context, Pennywise is a scary clown, Cujo is a rabid animal, and the Overlook Hotel is a haunted house. That’s not to diminish King’s skill in making these familiar tropes so individual and so scary, but it does serve to point out that what works is often what has worked before. A different style of writing might seek to subvert these archetypes or find something in them that hasn’t been explored before, but pulp writing just wants them to be scary (or exciting, or arousing, or intriguing). That might mean changing them around a little to ensure they’re still effective, or allowing the author’s voice free reign to make these ideas their own, but if it works, it works, and that’s pulp for ‘success.’
How can pulp writing make me a better writer?
Maybe the sensibilities behind pulp writing describe exactly what you want to write – affecting work that chooses to excite readers rather than wallow in self-regard. If so, take everything that follows literally. But maybe that’s not how you write – maybe you want to aim for a deeper emotional connection, or maybe craft and structure are ends you value for their own merits.
That’s fine, but the great thing about pulp writing is that it can teach valuable skills even to those authors who don’t want to produce pulp work. Once you’ve learnt those skills, feel free to ditch pulp, but for a month or two, it’s worth giving it a spin.
How can I adopt pulp sensibilities into my writing?
Writing with pulp sensibilities is all about redefining your aims, so the first piece of practical advice is to write like you’re freelance. Pulp writers were writing for a paycheck, which meant they were writing short work quickly and trying to present their ideas and skills in a way that would appeal to many readers.
Writing a masterwork involves going a little further than this, but it’s a great way to build up a strong foundation of good writing habits. Many authors struggle to let go of a project, while others forget that authors write for the reader. A pulp approach strips away these niggling worries – write like you’re writing for a paycheck by cutting what’s unnecessary (you won’t get paid for it), keeping your stories short (the more you can write, the more you get paid), and considering the intended reader as you write (they’re the ones who will demand your next story).
The next piece of advice is to make your writing visceral. Exploring melancholy and the fleeting nature of joy has produced many a stirring story, but if you haven’t mastered the basics, your more advanced work will suffer. Write in order to elicit base emotions, and try to keep in mind that while art that goes for the jugular can feel ‘cheap,’ it’s aiming for something that’s core to the human experience. If you want to write something long and contemplative, try first to write something short and upsetting. You don’t have to publish it, but it’ll give you some valuable perspective.
The final piece of advice is to think disposable. Wood pulp paper was low quality, and pulp magazines weren’t meant to be cared for or kept in good condition. They were delivery systems for a visceral experience that, having conveyed the stories within, had done their job.
Not every artistic experience is disposable in this way, but it’s easy to try and make your work too resonant. Many stories get twisted up in an author’s attempt to write something life changing. That’s not always the best form for a given story, and it devalues the basic emotional and intellectual exercise that fiction offers its readers. It’s fine to make art that’s just a beneficial part of someone’s life rather than what defines it. So, while you don’t need to try writing something that will be instantly forgotten, you could benefit from writing something that you intend to immediately move on from.
It’s a healthy way to produce art, and once you’ve done it with something you made for that purpose, you’ll have more experience trying to do it with work that means more to you.
Pulp writing is visceral and compelling, and with a little experimentation, it can give you the tools you’ll need to thrive as an author. While pulp magazines effectively died out, pulp fiction didn’t, and stories involving masked men, rampaging dinosaurs, and outrageous crimes aren’t just popular, they’re consistently among the most popular fiction we produce. Readers love these stories – as art, they work – but there’s still good and bad pulp.
Bad pulp is junk food; empty calories that don’t justify the time spent chewing them over. Good pulp is worth the small amount of time it asks for, and so long as it treats the reader’s experience as its primary concern, it has room to dazzle and even space to say something unique.
Have you tried the pulp approach to writing? Let me know how it went in the comments, and check out Embrace Noir Conventions To Improve Your Writing and The Gothic Secrets Every Steampunk Writer Should Know for more great advice drawn from unique styles of writing.