Modern Pulp Fiction

Sep 1, 2023 ~ 6 min read ~ writinghistory

Modern Pulp Fiction

This article’s canonical home is on my author site, and can be found here: https://matthew-mccray.com/posts/modern-pulp-fiction

What exactly does “modern pulp fiction” mean, and how does it inform my writing?

Grab a cup of joe, put your feet up, and let me break it down for you.

A Pulp Primer: The Definition

Most literally, pulp fiction refers to stories of varying length, printed on cheap wood-pulp paper and published quickly for mass consumption. Originating in America, I’d trace them back to the Victorian era’s penny dreadfuls and gothic novels.

Literary fiction? Ah, the genre in denial.

Genre fiction, which attracts snobbery from certain literary types, often finds its roots in the pulps.

Bygone Heroes…and Villains

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Tarzan
  • Doc Savage
  • The Shadow
  • Allan Quatermain
  • Sam Spade
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Fu Manchu (yikes)

You’ll recognize some, or most, of these classic pulp fiction characters. In fact, pulp fiction gave rise to more iconic characters than you might realize. From detectives like Sam Spade to adventurers like Tarzan, pulp stories delivered larger-than-life protagonists that embedded themselves in popular culture.

That last one though… We do have to acknowledge that some pulp fiction books did have some unsavory aspects. Certain stereotypical villains revealed the prejudice of the times. And some sensational elements haven’t all aged well either. We’ll get into that issue in a bit.

Pulp fiction’s legacy of pioneering bold, vivid characters that captured imaginations can’t be denied. They laid the groundwork for countless popular heroes that followed.

Traits of True Pulp

Pulpy Goodness

What exactly makes a story “pulp fiction”? More than just the texture of the pages, it’s about the narrative elements that shape them. Stories exhibiting a good number of these key pulp fiction traits can be considered properly “pulpy”:

  • Plot-driven — action-packed plots took center stage, character development less important
  • Cliffhangers — stories ended with cliffhangers to sustain suspense
  • Melodrama and Stereotypes — stark morals, stereotypical characters
  • Violence — action and violence used liberally
  • Luridness — graphic (for the time) sexuality, gore
  • Minimalist prose — plain writing that spotlighted action

And so on. This list isn’t exhaustive. Nor does a pulp story need to have every item on it.

Now let’s fast-forward…

Modern Pulp Fiction?

Ferris Bueller

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

While I embrace certain classic pulp fiction elements, modern sensibilities require some updates to the formula.

For example, no more damsels in distress waiting around to be saved by the square-jawed hero. Modern pulp needs multi-faceted characters.

Also gone are the days of obvious stereotypes and toxic tropes.

Morally simplistic good vs evil struggles won’t cut it either. Ambiguity and complexity better reflect the world we live in. Heroes should be flawed and villains given depth.

Midjourney: a delight irony in literary fiction --ar 3:4

Reading is mental travel, unfettered by time or geography.

Of course vibrant action, tight plotting, danger, intrigue and escapism still define modern pulp fiction. But through craft rather than cliché.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t throw out the baby over spilt milk… Or something. As society evolves, we integrate current values into enduring frameworks. Pulp’s core works, but needs selective renovation.

The key is retaining pulp’s seat-of-your-pants fun while losing what hasn’t aged well. That formula results in fresh, exhilarating reads. At least, I think it does. I’ll let you be the judge.

Pulp’s Legacy: Why It Matters to Me

Buckaroo Banzai

From Buckaroo Banzai, another pulpy legend. For my brother and I, anyway.

When life gets tough, entertainment should provide an enjoyable escape. That’s my mini Writer’s Manifesto:

Pen with pleasure, read with relish.

Pulp gave us superheroes, modern thrillers, and countless genre tales. But at its core, pulp fiction aimed to divert and excite. That spirit still inspires me. Which is why I embrace the designation “modern pulp writer.”

Pulp fiction has evolved, but its DNA lives on. And I aim to do it justice in my writing.

So grab some popcorn, dear reader. You’re in for a fun ride!

A Brief Pulp History Lesson

While pulps peaked in the 1930s-50s, their legacy continues:

  • 1896 - First pulp magazine
  • 1912 - Pulp pivots to genre fiction
  • 1920s/30s - Peak pulp popularity
  • Post-WWII - Pulps decline with comics and paperbacks
  • 1960s - Remaining pulps devolve before disappearing

Read this if you are interested in more pulp fiction history.