A Pulp Manifesto, Version 1.0

What is Pulp? Mass entertainment, or something more specific perhaps, such as film or television? If a comic book is Pulp, does that mean a novel cannot be? Does Pulp still thrive, or was it just folly for the Raymond Chandlers, Andy Warhols and superheroes of the world?

‘Pulps’ were the younger, spottier and less refined brother of paperback fiction, and the whelp sons of nineteenth century ‘Penny Dreadfuls‘. These lurid tales of Victorian depravity – whether it be sexual, psychological or criminal (and often all three at once) – laid the groundwork for a new century of mass-produced, mass-marketed fiction. But alongside such ‘low’ fare as these pamphlets were equally high-art ciphers for the fin de siecle anxieties of a declining empire such as Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll.

Across the Atlantic the travails of the 1800s were subsiding, the US was further industrialising, turning away from its foreign interests and sliding into the new century under a new presidency. Dime Magazines such as The Argosy were appearing on newsstands and they quickly found an audience for their tales of intrigue, detection, speculation and adventure.

The magazines both in the US and Europe attracted those eager to get published, with many of their one-time writers going on to illustrious careers of their own. Most famously, Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op, and Raymond Chandler with his proto-Marlowes; but also science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein; as well as ‘literary’ authors the likes of Upton Sinclair, Arthur Conan Doyle, William S. Burroughs and even Tennessee Williams. On the more fictional side of the table sat Flash Gordon, Conan the Barbarian, Zorro and Tarzan.

From the beginnings of Pulp as a self-contained genre, we can trace the lines of succession. From Detective Comics in 1934 to The Dark Knight in 2008, from H.G. Wells to Arthur C. Clarke to Stanley Kubrick, from a young William Burroughs earning a living to David Cronenberg’s 90s’ Naked Lunch. It’s safe to say that, without the quick-fix melting pot of Pulp we would not have quite the same culture at all – whether Batman or the Beats, a Streetcar Named Desire or the Starship Enterprise, there’s a little bit of Pulp in us all.

But Pulp is more than a collection of namedroppings; it is a way of working, a way of writing or singing or painting, but above all a way of thinking. It is the hand-edited, cut-up versions of the Shakespeare folios whose authority we can never determine, and it is the intellect of a Laurence Sterne deconstructing the very act of writing with Tristram Shandy in the eighteenth century.

If we swing our way past the fulcrum of the early twentieth century ‘Pulps’, it is a pop-culture synthesiser such as David Bowie, or the endless ‘reimaginings’ and cover versions of films and songs. What links them all, for better (Bowie) or worse (Planet of Tim Burton’s Apes), is their ability or tendency to assess the creative process, take it down to its basic cultural building blocks, and relayer it with the thoughts and concepts of others until you can Frankenstein yourself a new creation, whole and fully formed and yet standing on the shoulders of giants.

Whether you see it as a phenomenon specific to the ‘Pulps’ and to Boy’s Own adventure, or rather as a cultural, creative philosophy – a way of working – there are still a large number of Pulpists plying their trade. Only the juiciest Pulp has been covered already by PULPable, but in the meantime you can go and re-watch Star Wars, read The Long Goodbye or tackle Finnegans Wake. Though that last one might take a lot of reconstruction.

DLR 30.08.08

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