Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wrong About Pulp

For a long time, I had an idea about pulp and when I saw American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street by Paula Rabinowitz, I saw my chance to subject this long held idea to the rigors of the essay and I was fucking psyched. The essay would wind its way through Hammett and Chandler, Vonnegut and Dick, Markson and Bukowski, Coover and Hunt, before looking at the resurgence of the form, specifically with Hard Case Crime, as a way to examine how art arises from the stresses of frantic production, and hoo boy, you should've seen how I planned to connect it back to my own pulp-tinged-though-not-frantically-produced (Hi, 2002. I finished it!) novel. Well, you can tell from the title of this post how it ended up.

Vaguely stated, my idea was that the frantic production pace of pulp created an atmosphere where a totally unique kind of artistic expression arose. Essentially, I imagined that pulp was Philip K. Dick writ large and that his maddening and beautiful ability to shift from word-garbage to brilliance, sometimes in the course of a single paragraph, was indicative as much of the method of production as it was of any unique aspect of Dick's imagination. I say “vaguely” because I hadn't filled in any of the gaps, explained any of the phenomena, connected the early pulp tradition to the artists (Vonegut & Bukowski especially) who appropriated its vitality into works of overt art.

But that is one of the great powers of books, they take a vague idea that is kicking around in your head, something you've kept to yourself because you've never really had the resources and/or the opportunity to develop it, (but that you've grown fond of anyway, because it's stuck with you for years and some of the pulp you've read seems to back it up) and beat the living crap out of it until I realize I've just rephrased the stupid million-monkeys-write-Hamlet nonsense in terms of the weird shit I like to read. But if you get through life without a few ideas being rolled up in a utility-knifed carpet by a book or two, you're doing it wrong. All of it.

But pulp does have a relationship with art, an interesting and important one that does, eventually get to all those guys I wanted to write my essay about, and as I read American Pulp, that relationship, not only became clearer to me, but began to seem obvious, revealing some kind of weird, vague, as yet undetermined blind spot in my understanding of art. So, gleaned from American Pulp, here is how I now understand the relationship between art and pulp.

First, art was always present. Much of the pulp industry was born through creating cheap, paperback editions of existing works like Faulkner, (Faulkner!) and Invisible Man and Burmese Days (Orwell!) and slapping sordid sensational covers on them. Essentially, economics, classic cynical advertising, and art, all conspired to trick people (including pretty much the entire American military serving in WWII) into reading great works of literature. Second, pulps had a freedom of content unavailable in other forms of expression at the time, not just in terms of sex and violence, but also in terms of non-mainstream lifestyles. Pulp writers were free to write about bohemian lifestyles, African-American culture, the struggles of America's cities, and homosexuals. For many straight, white, American men, a lurid pulp novel or magazine would have been his first encounter in media with any non-mainstream lifestyle. And that kind of freedom, the ability to write whatever you want without any fear, would naturally, eventually, attract artists, either those looking to directly push the boundaries of content, or those looking to appropriate that current of artistic energy (or an image of that current of energy, hello there Kilgore Trout) for their own project. Third, well, it is a little like those monkeys and their typewriters. There was just so many words being produced, statistically some of them just had to be beautiful and, statistically, again, though more oddly so, it makes sense that a higher percentage of the beautiful and significant would survive for me to read.

And finally, I don't think my idea is 100% lacking in truth. There is something in the image of someone sitting down to a typewriter in the morning knowing they've got to have a 5,000 word story ready by that night—it's frantic energy perhaps, the more general allure of the deadline, the understanding of writing and books as also having a place in the daily products of life that can be found in drugstore counters and racks—that is attractive to some writers (like me), especially when that image is experienced as a historical image.

The more I think about the source of my bad idea, the more I see it in a specific version of that image of the frantic deadline meeter. A Philip K. Dick paragraph can often be equal parts awful and beautiful and Dick, composed at a blistering pace, often using amphetamines to sustains his creation. Sometimes Dick was capable of groundbreaking social and philosophical exploration, in some ways, rephrasing the best of Kafka for the age of television and computers, and other times, well, his work was dreary, cliché, and formulaic. I wonder if that single specific image was enough to give language to the pulp that I had been reading at the time, and because there is something Romantic to me about the image of a pulp-writer cranking out words as a day job, it stuck, even though I had no other evidence whatsoever. The singular image made the idea feel legitimate and until I read a book in the hopes of bringing my brilliance to the world, it stayed feeling legitimate.

To me, this leads back to the value of the act of writing even for people who don't identify themselves as writers. In some ways, the most dangerous and potentially destructive ideas I can have are those I don't decide to write an essay or poem or whatever about because they just sit in my brain surrounded by others like them with only the casual process of impermanent logic (and in the hands of someone with linguistic talent, logic can be made to do a lot more than it really should) to cull or improve them. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't (as above) and sometimes I just don't know. In this particular case the potential consequences weren't particularly dire. At worst, I would've spent a long time on a bad essay, that, if published somewhere, could have been embarrassingly corrected. but there's more in my head than just books. But there are a lot of ideas in a lot of heads in the world and far too few are subjected to the kind of inspection and evaluation that occurs through writing and research.

Ultimately, pulp was not a creative process at all, but a publication process. It was not a method of creating ideas and stories, but a method of distributing ideas and stories. I'm sure some of the stories were created in the manner I imagined, complete with fedoras, machine-gun-paced typewriting, and rolled sleeves, but I bet many were not, and I know from American Pulp, that many were also created without the author even being aware of the idea of pulp. I doubt Ellison, Faulkner, and Orwell thought of themselves as drug-store rack material, but for a brief time in American history, they were. And maybe this might be the ultimate source of some artists' fascination with pulp fiction; (beyond, of course, that some of it is really good, and some of it that is less good is still a lot of fun) there was this brief slice of American history, after major progress towards universal literacy and before the advent of TV, when reading was a primary medium of entertainment for just about everybody and some of that great mass of reading material was art, either art artfully and cynically disguised or art produced because enough human beings banging on enough typewriters are just bound to say something meaningful and beautiful.

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