News & Politics

The Power of Pulp

The more my daily life has been moving toward full-time writing, the more I’ve been thinking about writing as a profession, or as a business.

Of course, both Sarah Hoyt and I have been talking a lot about independent publishing, especially independent publishing of e-books and print-on-demand books. Of course, if you listen to the powers in legacy publishing, indie publishing will never be really significant, because they don’t have the layers of editors and designers to act as the gatekeepers to bring out only “quality” fiction.

They undoubtedly work in the same buildings as the layers of editors and fact checkers in the legacy news media.

But have you read any “quality” fiction recently? Between making sure that all the right demographics are presented in the exact right way, and the tendency of “quality” fiction to still be about nothing, most of it is not much fun. In fact, there’s even a technical term for reading that’s supposed to be fun: it’s called ludic fiction. It’s characterized by a particular experience: you get lost in it. You forget you’re reading and you’re engrossed in the vicarious experience.

The funny thing about ludic reading is that what you’re reading doesn’t have to be particularly good writing. It can be clumsy, it can have odd grammar, but if it absorbs you, the writer can get away with a lot.

You know, there was once a whole field of publishing where the fiction was meant to be nothing deeper or more meaningful than an enjoyable experience, that “lost in a book” feeling.

It was derisively called “pulp”.

It’s a little hard to tell what happened to pulp. To some extent, people started watching TV instead of reading the Saturday Evening Post or Argosy. The economics of pulp changed too — in particular, both printing and postage went up, and magazines like Life and Look were simply not economical to produce and mail. Besides, the news magazines were competing with TV news that could get you pictures in seconds rather than days.

I was pondering this when I read a book about Erle Stanley Gardner, who invented Perry Mason. He started with the pulp magazines, moved into paperback and even in hardcover. But Perry Mason was never meant to be anything but entertainment — and it made Gardner the most published writer in the world during his lifetime. Hell, he may still be.

Of course, a lot of that distinction disappears over time: Gardner’s papers are a prized collection in a University library, and Dickens — who wrote newspapers serials for crying out loud — is now a classic. And, more recently, of course, there is a series of young adult books about young wizards at boarding school that makes the author richer than the Queen.

The point is, we may derisively call is “pulp” but there is still a market for ludic fiction. The same market forces that are killing paper publishing are making it harder and harder to break in, the publishing houses are merging and buying fewer books, and frankly, I think the Know Betters have decided that they know better what people should read, instead of what they want to read.

What if we could expose the market to more stuff written to be fun to read? There’s an economical path to do the publishing: electronic publishing undercuts the costs of paper by a factor of 10 million times.

The whole indie publishing movement is built around this, of course, and people are making money at it. (As Sarah has pointed out, some people are making lots of money at it.)

The trick now is that there is so much of it that it’s hard to find the really good stuff.

So, I think there’s an unserved market there: something like an old pulp publisher, that can promote pulp fiction wildly and that can become a brand in itself, so people will know that a 99¢ short story or a $4.99 novel is a good bet for something to read on the plane or at night before bed.

It’s time that we see the real power of pulp come back to readers everywhere.