My husband just wrote an article on genre and was challenged by reviewers on his definition of pulp--fiction only not in films. How would you define pulp? What are its main elements? Is there any historical connection between the words pulp and junk? Is it only lately that the term doesn't carry any notion of cheapness or of fiction of a lesser value? (These more negative definitions were not his, believe me).

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I believe the word comes from the kind of cheap, pulp paper (versus slick, or coated, paper) the magazines were printed on, so originally, maybe it only applied to printed fiction. But like soap operas, originally created to sell laundry detergent to housewives, now the word or phrase seems to mean much more.
What was your husband's definition of pulp? I didn't know there was any debate on the subject. Like Jack said, it's because of the kind of paper it was printed on.
He used it in a non-pejorative, descriptive way, but the reviewers seemed to think pulp implied junk fiction, fiction unworthy of hardback status. (These are academic types and have their own arcane definitions). Overtime, it has acquired status, but was it originally considered junk? Maybe the whole argument is too academic and esoteric as most of it tends to be.
I may be wrong, but I think it was originally thought of as junk, the way that candy is junk. Of course, that would also depend on who you would ask. I don't think pulp fiction ever had any ambitions of reaching the literary heights of "literature", so comparing the two seems weird to me. If you compared the two, based on what "literature" aims to do, such as reflect society, to get at what it is to be human, or whatever--examining the human condition, perhaps is a good way to put it--than yeah, I think pulp fiction isn't in the same league. But it never wanted to be, right? Pulp fiction was meant to entertain and make money, right? Not that the two ideals don't ever cross, but generally, pulp fiction was throwaway. That's why they had to write so much of it.

"Literature" and pulp fiction are speaking to different needs/wants in people. I think a lot of the snobbishness exists because many in the literary field don't think that doing something for mere entertainment enriches the soul, which, dumbed down to it's based definition, is what "literature" aims to do (that is, enrich the soul). For me, the two sides of the spectrum blur together because I always read for fun, and I think most people do. Anyway, my point is that both "literature" and pulp fiction (or just genre fiction, if you want to think of it that way) serve different interests, but both of those interests are important, and the unwillingness or inability to recognize this, on both sides, is why there is so much snobbishness in the literary community.
I think the term pulp, as it applies to fiction, originated with magazines that were printed on cheap, coarse paper with a matte finish, as opposed to the "slicks" (like The New Yorker) which were printed on a higher grade of paper and typically published, in some opinions, a higher grade of writing. "Pulp" carried a negative connotation among the literati, who considered the detective, science fiction, western, erotic, and horror stories published in those type magazines (along with their garish, sensationalized artwork) to be throwaway, popular fluff, written by hacks for the uneducated masses. The term carried over to paperback "dime store" novels written by some of the same authors who regularly published in the mags. Some of those authors eventually won a certain degree of respect, even among the arrogant literary types, and today are considered classic examples of a group that practically defined mid-century American culture.
Wonderful explanations. Thanks. I guess one generation's guilty pleasures is another's highly prized find.
In response to "pulp" vs. "literature," Chandler says it better than I ever could:

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently–one can never be quite sure–is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.
--Raymond Chandler, "The Simple Art of Murder." (Atlantic Monthly, November 1945)
I'm guessing that you quoted this to say that pulp and literature are essentially the same, but you're taking Chandler out of context. The paragraph you quoted is the only one like it in the whole essay. The rest of the essay is Chandler talking about how inadequate most detective stories are, and his are weighed more towards the literature side than the pulp side.
I think the essay can be boiled down to, "It is always a matter of who writes the stuff."

"Good" literature, whatever your definition of that might be, is essentially the same as pulp. Both must first entertain in some way, or they would not exist. Some of the pulp writers were as talented as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald, but they got a bad rap among the literati because they published in a genre which, by virtue of its popularity and volume, had more than its share of hacks. In that way, genre fiction has always been easy for literary snobs to dismiss. There's lots of it, so the bad stuff makes for an easy target. The good stuff, then, is largely ignored in academic circles.

What Chandler is saying--and I agree--is that poorly-written genre fiction does get published sometimes, simply because of its popularity, but that the popularity itself shouldn't be a measure of whether it's good or bad. Poorly-written "literary" fiction, on the other hand, rarely sees the light of day, because even the really good stuff doesn't hold that kind of mass appeal.

Here's a copy of the essay for anyone who's interested in reading it.
I think Chandler is being harder on the detective story (to use his term) than you seem to think. Chandler is as much the literary snob as any academic, and he clearly sees a difference in literature. He doesn't even call the detective story a novel. Rather, a novel is what he uses to define literature. So he acknowledges a difference between them. If you're going to boil the essay down to something, it would be more like "the detective story is on the whole of poor quality, and here's why". The tone of the essay is Chandler looking down his nose at his own genre, criticizing it from within. The same arguments he makes against the classic detective story are the same ones a "literary snob" would make, which is fitting, because, in this essay at least, Chandler is a literary snob. I mean, he pretty much says that it doesn't take any talent to write a detective story. I'd say that's being pretty critical.

I agree with what you're saying, that it's the quality of writing that matters. I'm not saying Chandler doesn't think that also. All I'm saying is that this essay is not talking about that, and Chandler is definitely not sticking up for the detective story.
To me, Chandler is clearly stating that the detective story, done well, is as valid as any other art form. He clearly, IMHO, denounces literary snobbery.

Speaking of Hammett, he says:

"...he demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius, but an art which is capable of it is not "by hypothesis" incapable of anything. Once a detective story can be as good as this, only the pedants will deny that it could be even better."

What is unequivocal about that?

Yes, Chandler criticized the genre, because there was a ton of trash being published at the time. You have to put it in historical context. That ton of trash sold because of people eagerly wrapped their hands around anything with a hint of sex and violence. Think about the "literary" fiction that was being published during those years. Joyce's Ulysses ring a bell? Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath? Pulp fiction narrowly made it through the censors' cracks, and the public clamored for more and more. It wasn't considered "real" literature, so the powers from above largely ignored it. That doesn't mean that there weren't some important, lasting works of literature being created within the genre.

Chandler's essay, I think, was in defense of detective fiction. It was a back-door way of saying, "Look. We can matter, too. We deserve some recognition, too. We have game, too." And the essay is still relevent, because there are still literary snobs out there who dismiss genre fiction as trash. There are still pseudo-intellectuals out there who can't publish a literary novel, so they "lower" themselves to write and talk about mysteries. Horror stories. Erotica. Westerns. Science fiction. All I can say to those types is, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass."

If anyone thinks it's easy to write, say, the kinds of books that Stephen King writes, or James Patterson, name it, then by all means go for it. I think you'll soon find that you're not the literary genius you thought you were.

P.S. This little rant wasn't specifically directed at you, John, or anyone else. Just getting some thoughts off my chest. Thanks for giving me the opportunity.
Whether or not Chandler was being his own version of literary snob is something for way brighter minds than mine to debate, but this--

"All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts."

--damn, this was one of those BOING moments. All these years I believed I was reading to escape the world beyond me, when -- gasp -- it appears maybe I've been escaping the world within me?

Thanks for the quote, Jude, no seriously. So where do I send my therapist's bill?


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