Schools never assign the books you actually want to read. Or, if they do, they don’t read them the way you want to. Recently, pulp fiction seems to have been getting a bit of an airing on campuses, in classes with names like Pop Literacy and Cultural Trope Analysis, classes I took enthusiastically when I was in college. Still, they seem to miss the point. I’ve written papers trying to find the deeper intellectual elements of a pulpy book that prove, in the accepted academic terms, why it’s as great as I’d always suspected.
The problem, I realize now, is that the reason pulp fiction is great is because it’s fun, and fun is not something you can intellectualize very far. We study classic novels because they unlock deep, serious emotions or reveal uncomfortable truths about the human condition or represent a significant period in history. That is the stuff of seminars, theses and entire departments. We read pulp fiction because it’s fun.
Of course you can analyze pulp fiction. You can talk about how an author makes his or her book uniquely fun; the technique, the style, the subject; you can talk about different kinds of fun and how they might make us grow at the same time; you can delve into cultural themes in the content; but you can’t really explain a pulp novel’s greatness except with some variation on “It’s damn good fun.”
I’m on a crusade to prove that entertainment has value in itself, not just as a dose of sugar to help audiences swallow more important themes. Entertainment allows us to temporarily shut down our brains and waken later with emotions refreshed. Entertainment allows us to feel Big Emotions without shame; in the postmodern era, earnestness is considered a weakness, but entertainment gives us the opportunity to feel, earnestly.
Here are my top five seriously entertaining authors, beginning on the next page.
5. Gaston Leroux: The Phantom of the Opera has been adapted to film no less than fourteen times, and that’s not counting the screenplay I wrote for it in a marble composition book in middle school. It’s just a cracking story from a person unafraid of telling a cracking story. No histrionics are too shrill, no mysterious pits too deep, no tortured antiheroes too twisted for Gaston Leroux.
If you want to enjoy a pure unadulterated blast of Phantom magic, you don’t have to shell out for a trip to New York and theater tickets. Just open the book: The Phantom of the Opera is one of those books that reads like a movie. Like the next author in the list, Gaston Leroux’s original work tends to get overlooked after so many iterations, and many people feel that as long as they know the story, the book that got it started isn’t a must-read. That’s too bad. It’s like never reading Sherlock Holmes.
Why your college professor should love him: The eponymous anti-hero of The Phantom of the Opera is a disfigured outcast; a great example of pulp fiction’s love of the underdog. He’s balanced out by the typical, stunningly-handsome Prince Charming, but seriously, who’s really cheering for him?
4. Bram Stoker: If you haven’t read the original novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, pick it up. We suffer collectively from vampire burnout and the best way to rediscover the genre is to go back to the novel that popularized it. I stopped caring about vampire stuff when I stopped watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer sometime after high school and I hold no grudge against Twilight, even though I never really got into it. Meanwhile Bram Stoker’s novel has been gaining academic respect for all the wrong reasons: themes of sexual politics or death-fetishism or something like that. We’d all be better off if our classes just sat down and had a good old-fashioned gush about how much fun it is.
First of all, Dracula is chilling, even to people who have grown up their whole lives being assailed by iterations of the well-worn story. It’s the kind of book you both fear and look forward to reading in the dark of a windy night in an empty, creaky house.
Secondly, Dracula is one of those magical books that stays suspenseful even in successive readings. Obviously you should give it a healthy interval to forget some of the juicy details, so they can surprise you all over again. But the suspense is also largely a product of tone. With multiple narrators, it’s unsettling to see how no single character ever holds all the threads in his hand. Watching the protagonists painfully weave them together to draw the net around Dracula always leaves you with the sense that they were that close to missing.
When I was hunting for creepy fiction to read last Halloween, I stumbled across Stoker’s short story, “The Judge’s House,” which proves that Dracula wasn’t just a fluke.
Why your English professor should love it: Chances are he or she already does, but here’s a tip: when your class sits down to discuss Dracula, raise your hand and say, “Can we just talk for a second about how scary it is?” I had to call a friend in the middle of the night because of that book.
3. Douglas Adams: Why did surrealist humor have to get pretentious? This is not a rhetorical question. I want answers.
Douglas Adams is listed in most dictionaries as an antonym to pretentious. His madcap weirdzo space adventures couple science fiction with surrealism. But the weirdest thing about his humor is how earnest it is. Wry, cynical, observant, clever, imaginative, unpredictable: it is. Pretentious it is not.
How do I mean “earnest”? Do you have a goofy friend with absolutely no social fear? Someone willing to try anything and put himself in any sort of silly situation, not for the glory and not to impress anyone, but just for the pure love of fun? That’s what I mean by earnest. Douglas Adams is that friend.
I don’t expect The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be hitting university syllabi any time soon, and if it’s already there, it should be taken off. I’m not going to write why your English professor should love it because I already know your favorite professor does. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is emphatically a book that should not be read for school, but is often read while at school, maybe inside a bigger more impressive-looking book. How will the legacy of the Guide be carried on, without the official endorsement of academia? By the armies of spoon-toting students who are certain to carry its message boldly wherever they go: DON’T PANIC.
2: Wilkie Collins: Collins came a little after Jane Austen’s era, but he wrote the kind of books her girls in Northanger Abbey whispered about and the gentlemen read inside their decoy copies of Serious History. I can’t remember what names they called those novels in Northanger Abbey, and my bookshelf is all the way over there, but I’m going to surmise it was something like “horribles” or “dreadfuls.”
Victorian books like this are packed with all the personal drama of a soap opera, but with enough action to compete with an Indiana Jones movie. And Wilkie Collins perfected the art by adding clever, masterful character portraits and deliciously complicated intrigues. He is to the “dreadful” what Downton Abbey is to General Hospital.
Just pick up The Woman in White, one of his most famous works. Like a carefully woven net, dozens of seemingly unconnected strands are laid out at the very beginning, and then come together intricately until it becomes apparent that each piece is critical to the plot, however insignificant it looked at the beginning. Foreign counts, Continental scandal, poisonings, usurpations, coerced marriages, long ocean journeys, high-stakes detective work, feigned madness, chases through the streets of London, secret identities, murder and doomed love: if even two or three of these things sound juicy to you, you won’t be able to put this book down. I could tell you more but I don’t want to give anything away.
Why your English professor should love Wilkie Collins: Collins has been getting more attention in college classrooms lately as an anthropological exercise: observe the mid-nineteenth-century Englishman confirm gender stereotypes and glorify colonialism. He deserves better. His mastery of character depiction is right up there with Dickens and Twain. Collins combines an abundant imagination with clever prose to sketch an endearing, round and hilarious character in one paragraph that other writers would take pages or books to get right. Readers underestimate him because he makes it look easy; but just try to do it yourself to discover how writing the universal villain is much, much harder than copying out all the stereotypes you know. Similarly, the best comedy in writing sounds effortless, yet it is the product of great effort. Comedy is harder to write than tragedy, but Collins could make you laugh two pages after he left you in tears. We praise a variety of modern writers for their ability to evoke emotions such as soul-boredom or existential angst. Don’t undervalue the author who succeeds consistently in evoking pure delight.
1. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Yes, I was that girl in the movie theater who squealed during the trailer for John Carter of Mars. No, not when the camera panned to reveal the hunky half-naked man. I squealed when they showed the binary moonrise of Mars.
Admissions like that make me doubt the wisdom of writing out here where people can hear me.
Let me walk this back a few steps. In college, my good friend Tom told me that if I was a self-respecting (or, really, self-disrespecting) fan of pulp fiction at all, I had to read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. The title had already sold me, but then I dove in and discovered, to my delight, that the first forty pages are straight-up Western until by a bizarre and slightly difficult to understand transition the entire story is transported to Mars.
So begin the adventures of John Carter, soldier of Mars, who makes his home on the Red Planet where he is admired for his resourcefulness and unmatched jumping ability (gravity has less force on Mars, so he discovers his Earth-toned muscles give him an advantage). You could eat the series up like a bag of popcorn, and because there are so many books in it, you can grab it by the handful like popcorn too.
If Edgar Rice Burroughs sounds even vaguely familiar, it might be because he’s better known as the creator of…wait for it…Tarzan. Are you sold yet?
Why your English professor should love Edgar Rice Burroughs: Let’s face it: ERB is not the master of prose. He does not have an elegant hand with, well, anything. But he has a firecracker imagination and he’s fearless in his quest for more action, more suspense, higher stakes, longer shots. Unabashed larger-than-life storytelling like that takes guts, and in Burroughs’s world, only pansies cover their asses by claiming at the end that it was all “ironic.” When asked why he took up the pen, Burroughs said that he had been a regular reader of yellow-backed novels and pulp magazines for ages, and he decided one day that he could do it better than all those guys. Mad respect. I think absolutely everyone should read the original Tarzan of the Apes. I laughed through much of it. Was it intentional humor? Not always. Would ERB give a flip? Probably not, as long as you’re having fun and he’s raking in the money. And that’s why he’s number one.