Pulp Fiction: A Dying Genre

Author: Madeleine Mi Inskeep

Be sure to pick a seat in a shady corner. Pour yourself a swig of something that tastes a little like gasoline. Lean back, relax, and remember that if something stinks, it’s likely just the 7 years worth of cigarette smoke and moral ambiguity lining the seams of your coat. That sound you hear is half a lung crooning the classics… or maybe it’s just the rain. Comfortable? Good. Let’s chat pulp fiction…. No, not the film. The literal “pulp” magazines of the mid-20th century, the 7-by-10-inch dime journals devoted to tales of graphic violence, punchy dialogue, hardboiled detectives and the cities they skulked through.

Rolling back to the mid-shelf fiction magazines of the early to mid 20th century means getting your hands dirty. Or at least it means shedding your literary ego like a coat at hell’s front door, because if you wanted to write for the pulps, if you could rub two nickels together to make a baby dime-store novel, you were lining yourself up for very little money and lots of literary disdain.

So, why do we forget that the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Upton Sinclair, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, and Sinclair Lewis have their roots firmly planted in these gritty grocery-store compendiums? And why-oh-why have we stopped reading (or writing!) them?

It would definitely be a stretch to call most of the crime fiction published in the pulps of the early 20th century “good.” The majority wouldn’t make it in a secondhand book exchange at your local coffee shop, let alone under the microscopic gaze of literature critics. But, for some reason, even if the classically noir pulps themselves are utterly out of print, we’re still fascinated with their subject matter.

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The Big Combo (1955)

Nowadays, James Patterson’s ghostwriters are still busy making him 89 million a year. The likes of Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara are now the faces of characters like Mikael Blimkvist and Lisbeth Salander. We’re even seeing crime noir set in high schools and winning Sundance awards. Tarantino, Nolan and Ritchie pump out blood, metal, smoke and antiheroic antics every other year; Luther and Sherlock continue to provide us with the glossy, convoluted morals of insanely intelligent justice seekers – and we drool over every frame. So when did cigarette smoke start being sexier onscreen than in the likes of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye?

I’m sure there are a number of reasons – among them being Hollywood’s death-grip on artistic expression, generational nostalgic escapism, the sensory-overload addictiveness of modern society – all topics and reasons that deserve far more pretentious navel-gazing than I have time or attention-span for. Some might argue the pulp fiction simply lends itself to film, that it was originally in the hope of garnering attention from bigwigs in Hollywood that pulp authors started to truly up the sensationalist crime ante, as it were.

 The transition of this genre’s home from library shelf to film studio seems complete; we seem to no longer live a culture that wants to read true crime noir. But I propose that we should continue to read – and, dare I suggest – write it.

Let me take the work of Raymond Chandler as a case study. Chandler’s Marlowe stories were wildly popular, not because they were simply thicker, longer, and published with increasingly high-profile companies, but because Chandler understood something very important about crime stories. “They aren’t about the action,” he said, “they’re about the creation of emotion through dialogue and description. See, everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” This seems apt, coming from a man who crafted figurative language the way Louboutin crafts shoes – with care, and a red-hot signature flare:

She gave me a look that should have stuck four inches out of my back. 

(Chandler, The Little Sister)

At thee A.M. I was walking the floor and listening to Khachaturyan working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt, and the hell with it. 

(Chandler, The Long Goodbye)

The main pillar of what makes pulp fiction so cinematic is its language – not its action. How else would generations or myriad cities and backgrounds be able to so collectively engage in such a consistent fictional world? The wild similes of vintage crime fiction capture the tastes, textures, smells, sights and sounds of cities and people in ways that healthily challenge a reader’s ability to conjure images, especially now that the modern film industry seems to hold a desensitising monopoly on that part of our imaginations.

When Chandler speaks about the creation of emotion through dialogue and description, he’s not talking about intrigue or suspense. He’s saying that good writing can allow us to perceive fictional people and environments with the empathy that prompts us to actually think about the moral questions innately posed in this kind of material. When we see the underbelly of a crime-ridden city onscreen we are not forced to ponder it in the same way we are when we see it through the articulated POV of the detective (or thief or murderer or lawmaker or vigilante or victim or confused amalgamation thereof) in a novel. The language leads us to chew on what we see rather than being force-fed atmosphere with panning shots of brick-scaped crack dens and close-ups of Uma Thurman’s cleavage.

In fact, the thing coming closest to catching the grit, darkness, and moral questions of an urban environment nowadays is actually the poetry and music coming out of places like East London, Glasgow, Compton, the outskirts of Beijing, parts of Chicago and un-gentrified Brooklyn. That’s where we find our modern version of “crime noir” and “pulp fiction,” not in film. If we look for “modern” crime noir or pulp fiction, it’s along these channels that we now find the genre evolving, not in the published prose that kept it so vibrantly alive 50 years ago.

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The pulps may be dead, but their language should not die. It’s not literary nostalgia that I’m arguing for, it’s an awareness of a genre of prose-production that is still relevant, but un-acted upon outside of the production of audio-visual media. So pick up some Chandler, some Hammet, some McIlvanney. Try killing time in seedy part of town, pen in hand, and let that time die hard.

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