Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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What is the Pulp Aesthetic?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 3, 2016

Cirsova3Misha Burnett writes a bit about what, in his mind, represents the “Pulp Revival Aesthetic.” I’ve read a bit about this from various corners over the last year. In part, I was trying to educate myself a bit after hearing some of the bickering in SF literary circles. And the fun part was that in exploring it, I became fascinated by it. This is great stuff.

But of course, nobody quite agrees what the pulp aesthetic is, which makes it even harder for people to proclaim a revival. This is in no small part because the pulps themselves did not adhere to any particular standard or formula (Lester Dent’s formula notwithstanding). Quite simply, they printed what would sell magazines, tempered by the preferences of their editors. In that, they were no different from today. The only real difference was that they came out in a time where they weren’t competing with so many other entertainment media, so their stories reflected the tastes of the common man.

Interestingly enough, Dean Wesley Smith and others contend that many television shows have embraced the pulp fiction “formula.” At least the successful ones. So in that way, I guess it’s just jumped media. In the meantime–and perhaps the reason we’ve had calls for a “revival” every couple of years since at least 2010–science fiction has survived long enough to have gained some status and validation in the literary community, and a good chunk of it is being written specifically to please those critics. And it does, and gets a share of the limelight. It’s often well-written stuff, and might even be entertaining, but the latter seems to take a lower priority than the former. (Yes, we’re getting those same arguments about video games now, too… whether or not it is important if a game is actually “fun.”) But do those titles fairly represent what’s happening in science fiction? Thanks to the indie revolution, there’s a hell of a lot coming out each year, and a chunk of that arguably embraces the pulp aesthetic reasonably well.

Assuming we can agree on what that aesthetic is. Which might mean that it’s not really needing a revival, so much as experiencing a resurgence. Going back to Misha’s post… since I linked to it and everything… I think many of the points are just “good storytelling,” the approach learned via survival of the fittest during the pulp era. Others elements are applicable to broad but not universal sub-genres, like the pulp adventure stories. Violence, for example, was far from universal in pulp stories, even in science fiction and fantasy.  In a lot of science fiction, the protagonist had to think their way out of the problem, although the threat of violence (or at least some kind of peril) might have hung over their head. But if the swords or guns had to start flashing, well, the bad guy had it coming.

Building on what Misha said (exceptions notwithstanding), I’d add “plot-driven stories” to elements of the pulp aesthetic.  While pulp stories may have interesting characters, they aren’t character studies. The characters go through a wild ride though twisty, turny plots. You want interesting characters (or favorite characters) to see how they managed to navigate it.

Also – building on the concept of “classical romance” which generally involved heroism, adventure, and mystery in exotic places or times – I’d suggest that the pulp aesthetic includes “lurid spectacle.” Lester Dent insisted on having those elements in his Master Plot Formula – an exotic location, murder method, villain’s plan, etc. At least one, preferably two or more. Science Fiction and Fantasy almost have exotic locations sewn up… except where they’ve become so common in the genre they no longer feel exotic. A Middle Earth look-alike no longer feels exotic. A pulp story should have a bit of the spectacle, some unusual and unique characters, settings, or plot elements.

If there is anything else… I’d say the pulp aesthetic is “not overly polished.” And I mean how I phrase it. These stories were written and edited fast. They had rough edges. That’s part of their character and charm.  That’s not to say they are unpolished, unfinished, or full of mistakes. Or that they are lacking spectacular turns of a phrase or layers of meaning. But they do have something of … I dunno… more of the feeling of oral storytelling, maybe. A straightforwardness. It’s there to spin a yarn, maybe get under your skin a bit, and then get out of the way for the next story.

Does this completely describe the pulp aesthetic? Probably not. Probably because it defies a any attempt at rigid definition. But I do feel that with the indie revolution, we’re getting a bit of a resurgence of that aesthetic today. Unfortunately, finding it is another trick… there’s an awful lot of crap out there today, and while a little roughness can make for excellent pulp, crap really doesn’t. Even pulp had a layer of overworked, underpaid editors sifting through the slush and cleaning up the final product. Good luck.


Filed Under: Short Fiction, Writing - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Misha Burnett said,

    I think you’re on to something with the “lurid spectacle”. I wasn’t sure how to express that element, and I think you nailed it. The Pulp Aesthetic implies the fantastic, and it’s a good point about exotic murder methods–a lot of the “Black Mask” style crime thrillers involved rare oriental poisons or elaborate death traps.

    I also agree that a lot of fantasy and science fiction settings are so commonplace now that they no longer qualify as exotic.

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