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May 25, 2006

It's Pulp Time

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

We're having a pulp fiction moment, so why not enjoy it? Pulp fiction is the theme of Slate's Summer Reading Week, and IFC has declared June Pulp Viewing month. So far I've found most of the Slate articles twitty and condescending -- all-too-characteristic of what happens when smartypants types discuss popular culture. I did enjoy Bryan Caplan's intro to the history of pulp fiction, Dwight Garner's survey of the work of Erskine Caldwell, and John Banville's piece arguing that two of the greatest 20th-century writers of on-the-page fiction were the crime writers Georges Simenon and Donald Westlake in his Richard Parker incarnation. (FWIW, I find Banville's argument plausible. I wrote here about Simenon, and here in praise of Donald Westlake.) Maybe that isn't too bad a harvest. Among the films that IFC will be featuring, I can recommend ... Whoops, I can't find IFC's June film schedule, so I can't pass along any tips at all, darn it. I do love passing along tips.

By coincidence, I happen to be spending commuting time with this audiobook collection of Raymond Chandler short stories. What a dazzler and a giant Chandler was. All that juicy narrative tension ... The wised-up psychological shrewdness ... The mind-bending way a kind of poetic dream/symbolic logic mixes with straight-ahead crime yarns ... And of course the famous (and often-parodied, often-imitated) hard-bitten florid quality in the writin' itself. One beyond-fabulous line and metaphor follows another. About a tough guy with something dreamy in his eyes: "He looked like a bouncer who'd come into money." Woo-hoo! I'd happily sacrifice a half a dozen literary novels for the sake of one line like that.

Before I slipped it into the Walkman, the audiobook had gathered dust on my shelf for a few years. I'd been apprehensive about it because the reader is Elliott Gould. (Gould in fact reads nearly all of the Chandler books that are available on audio.) An often-inspired actor whose work I generally enjoy, Gould appeared as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's 1973 film of Chandler's "The Long Goodbye," a flip and satirical riff on Chandler. Although I love the film and Gould in it, I was worried that Gould as an audio presenter of Chandler would be facetious or otherwise disagreeable. In fact, he presents the stories beautifully, and never tries to outsmart them. He balances "reading" mode and "acting" mode alertly, he plays up the laconic growl in his voice in a way that suits Marlowe and the era, and he sinks into and sells the tense moments with a rueful grit that feels convincing.

Thinking about pulp fiction has got me thinking about American on-the-page fiction more generally ... Hmm. I don't think it's misleading to picture on-the-page 20th century American fiction as coming in two main flavors: the uspcale tradition (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Cheever, Pynchon, etc) and the popular tradition (pulp, crime, sci-fi, blockbusters, thrillers, porn, etc). The first is generally more concerned with "the writin'." It's the fiction that's discussed in the intellectual magazines and that is taught -- or that at least used to be taught -- by English departments. It's what's generally considered to be "literature." The second is what most readers read. It's far less fussy about the writin', and it's far more committed to character, hook, drive, and story.

I was brainwashed, er, educated into reading and appreciating upscale fiction, yet my own temperament much prefers popular fiction. Games with words and concepts can amuse me for a while, but on a gut level I love narrative. In this, I'm like most people, of course. It's funny the degree to which the upscale set has made so many readers feel apologetic about preferring story to intellectual shenanigans and art-games, isn't it? Story is basic, after all; without it, there's no such thing as fiction in the first place. Where highfalutin' artists and audiences often see narrative as a to-be-regretted necessity, I see it as an inviting and giant playground. Where the upscale set often experiences the requirements of story as getting in the way of creativity and visions, I see narrative as what makes expression possible.

Between you and me, I think that most people who take creative-writing classes are being done a disservice by being marinated in highfalutin' writin' techniques. I suspect that many people who dream of writing fiction would have a far better -- a far more enjoyable and rewarding -- time if they were taught how to turn their urges, fantasies, and energies into straight-ahead characters and stories. For that reason, I often advise people who want to write fiction to avoid creative-writing classes entirely and to enroll in screenwriting classes instead. Dream up your characters, construct your stories, and let the writin' take care of itself. And the screenwriting world knows story, by god.

No reason of course that, as readers, we can't help ourselves to both upscale and popular on-the-page fiction. FWIW, I spent 15 professional years following the book publishing world. I wrote a posting here where I list my fave upscale fiction writers and books. (It ain't the standard best-of list!) Yet I finally found following the upscale new-fiction scene unrewarding. I tired of it. There was the occasional home run to be relished, sure. But: Good lord but the general batting average was poor. It's a fact of reading life that an upscale fiction-book that isn't a home run is generally a dismal thing, while singles and doubles work just fine in popular fiction. After all, when writerly inspiration flags (as it always does at some point), story and characters can sweep your attention along anyway. As in architecture and urbanism, something-to-fall-back-on-when-inspiration-fails is a plus, not a minus.

What's your own history so far as upscale and popular fiction go? Did you follow one, then switch to the other? Do you find yourself unable to tolerate "writin'"? Or impatient with narrative? Are you a connoisseur of pulp fiction? Do you split your attentions and time between the two traditions?

I recently mentioned the first-rate historian and critic Lee Server. His books about popular fiction (here, here, here) are among the best I know of. They're also punchy, funny, and perceptive reads in their own right -- anything but academic. I can't read sci-fi myself -- my failing -- but if I did enjoy it, I suspect that I'd love this Thomas Disch book about the genre's history. Disch is a first-rate writer of fiction as well as a first-rate critic.



UPDATE: Thanks to the amazin' Dave Lull, who points out an article about John Banville. Banville, an Irish literary writer, was so inspired by a reading of five Georges Simenon novels ( "I found they were absolute masterpieces, better than Sartre, better than Camus") that he sat down and wrote a crime novel of his own.

posted by Michael at May 25, 2006


Alas, I'm on the horns of a double-whammy dilemma fiction-wise. (... Wonder what the creative writing instructor would think the that sentence ...)

You see, what passes for high-brow fiction holds no interest for me. And I avoid the page-turner stuff because, well, I find myself turning those pages far longer into the night than is good for me.


Well, about once a year I treat myself to a sci-fi novel. Maybe after I retire ....

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 25, 2006 1:21 PM

There is a middle ground between art fiction and pulp. I once glanced at a NY Times bestsellers list going back to WWII and noted how many of the books I had read during the fifties( mine was a BOMC family). Historical doorstops mostly, Taylor Caldwell, Irving Stone, Thomas Costain. Are these books out of print and forgotton while Thompson and Cain are remembered?

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 25, 2006 4:53 PM

Donald -- The appetite for book-fiction comes and goes during the course of a life, doesn't it? And god knows TV and movies can serve the fiction-hunger pretty well too.

Bob -- Some of my faves come from that sort-of category: John O'Hara, Cain in his "Mildred Pierce" guise ... I guess that psychological suspense, which I tend to like a lot, could be either highbrow pulp or lowbrow "lit." The blockbustery category that you're mentioning is an interesting one, isn't it? Overblown-middlebrow? Middlebrow with pretentions? It has kind of vanished from the radar screen in recent years as all fiction has come to be "category" fiction. Where are the James Micheners or Irving Stones of today? Let alone the sexy-blockbuster types: Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon? Funny how a big standard category of fiction-book can just evaporate, isn't it? And almost without anyone noticing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 25, 2006 5:25 PM

Don't laugh, but I considered recording a Taylor Caldwell novel at one time. I remember agonizing about how that would fit with the other material I was doing. I even thought about a new line of audiobooks to acommodate "high quality" pulp fiction. After considering the hundreds of hours I would be spending in my studio just to end up producing pulp, I chickened out.

BTW, Michael...forget Erskine Caldwell. The guy was just weird. Try another Georgia author, Frank Yerby. He was a black writer who wrote about historical European periods. Some of the best pulp historical fiction around. I highly recommend "The Saracen Blade" by him.

I don't have time for pulp any more. At my age I've got a limited number of books (and years) I can read, so I try to be discriminating and stay with dead white males. The Da Vinci Code will have to await another reincarnation.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 25, 2006 7:16 PM

On science fiction, I share Michael's aversion. However, there are a few gems out there. I would suggest the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov as a good bet.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 25, 2006 7:19 PM

I've been quoting you to Richard Wheeler, a writer of Westerns and historical novels. He has been wrestling with these issues for a year -- you might say wrestling for life. (He's in his seventies and not well.) After sixty successful books, his publisher, his editor, and his agent all say that Westerns just don't sell anymore. (McMurtry probably hasn't noticed, nor McCarthy neither.) There are some other Western writers who have just abandoned the field and have gone to writing crime or sci-fi stuff. It's a very hot topic with a lot at stake. Wheeler has always been praised (and won many prizes) for the intelligence and accurate history in his books.

PM, Please post to the Two Blowhards that the division between "literary" and "popular" fiction is very recent. Consider this: Gone With the Wind won a Pulitzer for fiction. So did The Caine Mutiny. So did Advise and Consent. All popular novels by today's dubious standards. Richard

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 25, 2006 8:14 PM

Every once a while the need for a novel with meaty words and manly-type action (which means, in the hands of a solid writer, a whirlwind of stupidity, bare knuckles, some gams thrown in to confuse the issues, and minimal thinking until the bottle and glass are pulled out of the right-hand desk drawer), I pick up Chandler or, if really needing the urge to slum and stew with the dregs of society, the incomparable Jim Thompson.

Yeah, that's what Memorial Weekend may turn out to be. A short stay in "Pop. 1280"'s Potts County or a hot date with "A Hell of a Woman".

So, put away that hanky and quit snivelling; Thompson's in town.

Posted by: DarkoV on May 26, 2006 8:19 AM

Having read almost everything Simenon has ever written - and that's a LOT! - I must say I'm a bit put off now by the perception that he enjoys describing people at the ends of their ropes: murderers who haven't been found out yet, mostly. It gets a bit old. The down-at-heel student who's flunking out and has no money and is about to commit suicide but instead commits a burglary that goes wrong and leads to a death that brings him to the brink of the guillotine would be typical. Of course Simenon is a genius at places and weather and motivations. But I tend to think his "psychological" novels are overhyped and he's at his best when describing Maigret perambulating around Paris drinking and thinking and getting into the murderer's head. And his prose style in French is inimitable. Perhaps that's because he's Belgian?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on May 26, 2006 9:26 AM

I read a bunch of Taylor Caldwell's novels when I was in high school. I liked them. A Pillar of Iron, about Cicero, was good. Dear and Glorious Physician, about St. Luke, was good too, as I recall. My mother read Thomas Costain's books, and Maurice Druon's. These writers often set their books in the past, and were diligent about the period details, and provided a good introduction to history. The other author who fits in this category was Allen Drury, who wrote novels about politics. The only person I have seen mention Drury is Peggy Noonan. I loved his books. I remember my mother and I waiting for the last ones in the series to come out and going to the library to get on the list to get them.

Posted by: Lexington Green on May 26, 2006 10:06 AM

I've always liked both, and have no problems following a DeLillo with a Stephen King. What's really great, though, is a "literary" novelist who can write a really long, compulsively readable book that you can get lost in for days. Not many can do it at all, and virtually no one seems to be able to do it more than once. But two good examples are John Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor" and John Fowles' "The Magus".

Posted by: Michael on May 26, 2006 10:07 AM

Hmm, thinking about my distinction between popular and literary, I'm wondering if it wouldn't make more sense to include a "middlebrow" category as well ... How else to account for the Taylor Caldwells and Irving Stones? It would even help with people like John O'Hara and FS Fitzgerald -- I mean, those books are respectable in an English-major sense, but they're also fun and accessible reads. But I like Prairie Mary's friend Richard Wheeler's point too: that these hard-and-fast divisions are of fairly recent vintage anyway. I blame it all on the professors and critics, but then again I would.

It's funny, drawing up these taxonomies: from whose point of view do you do it? Critics? Historians? Writers? Readers? To my mind, once out of school any sensible person reads for pleasure and enrichment, whatever that happens to mean for that person. I might flip through Reason magazine while eating breakfast, buy a diet book if I want to lose some weight, listen to Raymond Chandler on the way to work, and be rooting through four or five books on various nonfiction subjects for various reasons, and be doing so all at the same time. (Hey, that's an exact description of what my "reading" consists of at this moment!) I'll go for a heavyweight or a classic every now and then, and I'll sample some genre stuff -- I'm a curious guy. Me, I'd love to see books coverage take it all into account, rather than focus on some dweeb's idea of what "the best" is, or that boring question, "What's literature?"

Charlton -- I've got my fingers crossed that you'll do a selection of pulp! I'd snatch 'em all up. Until then I'll have to content myself with listening to you read the classics ...

P. Mary -- Please thank Richard for us. Is he the western-writer guy who was blogging for a bit? Whoever it was was doing great stuff, and I wanted to link to him, but then he stopped. But it was super-sensible, super-informed blogging.

DarkoV -- "Gams" is a much-underused word these days! Thompson's a giant too. I wonder how the audio versions of Thompson are ...

Robert S. -- I didn't think it was possible for anyone to read all of Simenon. Didn't he publish more words than anyone in all of history? Anyway, congrats, and I'm enjoying your musings about him. I've read maybe a half a dozen -- piddling! Do you have some faves you can tip the rest of us off to? I'm semi-tempted by the autobiographies, which sound amazing.

Lex -- That whole category of writer and novel seem to have vanished. Bizarre. I remember big fat historically-informed novels around the house too -- I even managed to plow through "Hawaii." I wonder who the last of those writers was. Hey, have you ever read Mary Renault? I hear good things, and I'm eager to learn more about Rome ...

Michael -- That seems a very sensible approach to books. How do you tend to react when a lit person mixes it up with a genre form? "In the Cut," that Donna Tartt Vermont-college-murder mystery novel? I usually feel divided about 'em. Good for the writers for getting their hands dirty -- but there are genre people who do it better, and who get a billionth the recognition. Still: dirty hands are to be prized, IMHO.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 26, 2006 11:15 AM

My advice is not to go for the Foundation trilogy if you've never read much science fiction. Though interesting, it's often rather wooden, a characteristic fault of Asimov's.

If you're coming into the field from the high literary road, you're not taking the best route. Perhaps the best entrances are through other forms of genre fiction. Fans of hard-boiled mystery pulps might want to give Heinlein's 50s-paranoia work "The Pupper Masters" a try, or William Gibson's "Neuromancer" from the 1980s. If you have a weakness for large-scale sweeping narratives, then maybe Vernor Vinge's "A Fire Upon the Deep" from the early 1990s.

The annual Gardner Dozois-edited "Best Science Fiction Stories" anthologies can be a quick way to find something you like, and to avoid things you don't. H.P. Lovecraft fans would get a real kick out of Charles Stross's "A Colder War" in the 18th volume (and it can be read online here). Fans of adventure might enjoy Bruce Sterling's "Taklamakan" in the 16th.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 26, 2006 1:10 PM

I split my attention between the two.

Of course, I like to think that while I am well aware of the various divisions within fiction, I ignore them and read what I want. But that's probably just self-aggrandizing blather. The fun question is: what are you unable to read? I love a good plot-driven book, but sometimes the "writin'" (what there is of it in a popular book) is so poor I quit after two or three chapters. (Wilbur Smith, anyone?) I'll call this my lower boundary, poorly-defined though it is. (On the other hand, sometimes the plot will be so engrossing I'll ignore bad writing. Maybe this is my lower boundary(+1)?) I also love a good "upscale" book, but sometimes the "writin'" is so far out there (past my upper boundary, that is) I have to put the thing down. Gaddis or Vollmann? I think I'd rather stab myself in the kidney. Maybe with age and shifting boundaries I'll come to appreciate them.

MB--re: your list of fave upscale writers and books--absolutely concur on Tom Perrotta. I assume you've since read "Little Children"?

Posted by: Rex Leisure on May 26, 2006 3:37 PM

As an adolescent, I fell under the spell of popular fiction writers such as Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and John Grisham. As my tastes (matured?), I started reading what many would consider the classics. The common theme was that regardless of when the book was written, I was attracted to story and character development. A writer too in love with himself to care about the reader will find his books slammed shut by my finicky fingers. With the advent of technology capable of providing a cost effective, efficient means of listening to audiobooks, I now find myself listening to popular fiction on long drives, commutes, etc., and reading the beefier, prettier prose in the traditional manner.

Posted by: Matthew on May 27, 2006 12:36 PM

I have the suspicion that a lot of today's "literary" writers aren't going to age well. Toni Morrison is hot stuff now, but if you came across a shelf with Beloved next to, say, Death in the Afternoon, which would honestly be a better read? And that's today, when the market for non-white-males writing about non-white-males is practically insatiable, and polite people don't admit to being fascinated with blood and violence. In 50 years, today's political squabbles will seem as quaint and odd as the Popular Front literature of the '30s.

I think Raymond Chandler has a better chance of being remembered as an "important" writer than any literary novelist working today.

Posted by: Zach on May 29, 2006 10:28 PM

I honestly don't think I get the difference. I know this publicly brands me yet again as a rube, but, for instance, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Da Vinci Code." Gobbled it up on a beach in Florida. Then I read the reviews. They basically said: Well, yes, all the little twists and turns and scavenger-hunt details were quite clever, but Dan Brown can't write. He can't? He apparently can't construct an interesting sentence to save his life. Could've fooled me. Why did I read it so avidly? It's like Tom Wolfe. The world voraciously reads his books---and then you hear someone sniff, "If only he could actually write." Huh?

Posted by: annette on May 30, 2006 2:25 PM

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