Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Pulp Literature

The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically--it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
--G.K. Chesterton, "A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls," The Defendant (1901)


  1. Sounds very similar to the old comic book worries of the 50's. Brain rotting material (may be true in my case. I read alot of friggin comics).

  2. Why Mr. Gutenberg, your monstrous machine has made a great number of books all the same! It will turn out an army of zombie automatons! Especially among the lower classes!

    There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum.
    Since I'm just now catching up with Girl Genius, it strikes me that the Foglios would know all about this, and I'd be very interested to know what they have to say about it.

    ...and as an architectural historian, I'm amused by this:
    It has no more claim to be good literature than ...the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. Ahem, "Sublime."

    Sorry, back to gaming next time: I was deep in some iridescent ethical paradoxes when this caught me.

  3. "A Million Flaming Imaginations" is a lovely turn of phrase. Of course, this is Chesterton we're talking about here, so that comes as no real surprise.

  4. I love Chesterton. He is perhaps the most quotable writer in the English language. His books are impossible to underline. You find yourself underlining practically the entire page, at which you ask yourself, "What's the point?" Thereupon you put your pen away and simply read.

  5. I read every piece of writing that crosses me, lest I cheat myself. Let me tell you, there is plenty of drivel in the highest places, be it literary fiction in Harper's or foreign policy papers prepared by expoits. Hence, I never look down on anything.

  6. In a lot of ways, I'm the "anti-high brow." I'm actually zealous in my preferences for the low-brow, mass appeal of stuff like the pulps, the penny dreadfuls, comic books, and cheap mass market paperbacks.

    What strikes me as interesting is that with the separation of some time, so that the academic snobbery can wear off a bit, we can start to understand the appeal of popular, mainstream writing. There's a revolution in literature right now (well, maybe that's overstating it just a bit, but you get the point) of looking at the pulps as significant pieces of literature, for example. A few decades ago, Charles Dickens was considered vulgar. And the time-honored classics like Homer, Shakespeare, etc.? All popular, mainstream works of art that happened to survive. The reason we can view them with some academic reverence today is mostly just because they're old. Not to denigrate their intrinsic merits, but still.

  7. If you look at who wrote the pulp fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, these were the ghostwriters, the bestread and some of the brightest thinkers of their time, who put their thoughts, their political views and their otlook on life itno their writings, a la Shalespearean soliloque. Consider the ghostwrietrs who churned out Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, among others.

  8. Something I'm just beginning to realize is how character-centric REH's writing is: not in the conventionally accepted sense of growth and change (which are non-existent in Howard) but in how deftly and unfailingly he communicates character, and how his plot springs directly from believable, pre-established character motivations or impulses.

    I constantly read how-to-write material instructing that character growth is the essence of story.

    Well the simple fact is that it isn't. It's essential to modern literary fiction (and a plethora of genre conventions as well, but I'm betting that the first is the reason for it's existence as canon).

    But there are a shitload of other conventions, modern as well as ancient, that don't seem to me to require character growth at all. They require interesting characters, surely, but not story-as-character-journey.

    This strikes me as another example of how the strictures of one type of art are elevated by it's proponents to the status of Golden Yardstick, which is then used to show why all non-conforming conventions are inferior.

    I can't help wondering what the modern literary landscape will look like when circa-1980 Marvel comics are finally recognized as the ultimate pinnacle of human artistic achievement.

    Dickens, Homer, Proust, Delaney, Herodotus, Joyce, Shakespeare et al -- all interesting attempts at storytelling before the discovery that four-color spreads are essential for real literature.

    Movies are certainly entertaining--for those who don't have the cerebral discipline to absorb the sublime alchemy of stop-motion action, the mix of text and picture that marks true art, the interaction of story with the tactile and olofactory elements of paper and ink.

    The Old Masters of Renaisance art: fascinating how much they could do, the superb levels of their technique, even though they remained so woefully ignorant that they attempted to tell their story in a single panel--and they only ever showed their heros' alter-egos! No wonder they starved in garrets. How long did they think their series would run when they never even showed the superdudes in costumes?