In my recent review of Keith Laumer’s End as a Hero, I went off on a brief tangent about what the word pulp means. I also mentioned that there was an article in that tangent somewhere. This is that article.
Humans like putting labels on things. When we see a mountain, we give it a name. When we see an animal, we give it a fancy Latin name and a place in science textbooks across the world. When we see someone giving an opinion, we wedge them into our own philosophical and political worldview. And when we see a book, we give it labels. lots of labels. The obvious label we give to a book is its genre. Is a book science fiction or fantasy? Is it focused on romance or crime? Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Within this genres, we nerds break it down further. Yes, it’s science fiction. But what flavour? Is it space opera, or military SF, or some fusion of the two, likely ending in the suffix -punk? This article, however, is not a discussion of genre labels. The debate around genre is one that will go on until the end of time, and I’m not quite ready to dip my toes in those icy waters.
What this article is about is the more general labels we apply to books. And by ‘we’ I mean readers, and more specifically those of us who talk about books. Part of being a blogger is sorting books into categories. This lets us talk about books as part of a larger conversation. How do two books compare? What historical and societal setting gave rise to this book? How is the book regarded not only by ourselves, but by others?
In this article, I’m going to take a look at three labels in particular. Classic, Literary, and Pulp. These are by no means the only labels that we slap onto books, but they are some of the most commonly used descriptors outside of genre definitions. So, let’s start unpacking.
Generally speaking, a classic is an older work. It’s a book that has stood the test of time and remained well-known throughout. Things do get a little less clear when a book falls out of the public eye and is later rediscovered as a ‘lost classic,’ but the general sense is the same. If the book has been read and discussed for decades, then it is a classic. Outside of SF, Shakespeare’s plays are classics, and so are books like The Count of Monte Cristo or War and Peace. They have solidified their place in the literary canon, and their reputation ensures they will be discussed for decades more to come.
Most classics are agreed upon by the SF community (such as it is), which is why the names are so familiar. Even people who don’t pay close attention have probably heard of Dune. Not necessarily because it is a perfect story (far from it), but because it occupies a point of historical interest. It is the origin point for many space opera tropes. Many of these tropes existed beforehand, but Dune‘s popularity ensures that people can track them back at least that far.
Then there are more industrial attempts to label books as classics. Perhaps the best example of this is the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. Gollancz, in partnership with the SF Gateway project, have published around two hundred ‘classic’ science fiction novels. There is no single unifying trait. Many are well-known, others are rarities. What they have in common is being influential. Even the newest book on the list, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, has had a marked impact on current writers of science fiction. While there is an organic elements to a book becoming a classic, the fact that much of their reputation has been engineered by publishers can’t be wholly discounted. This is not a criticism of the system, by the way, but merely something to ruminate over.
One final note is the idea of a ‘modern classic.’ This one is hard to define, but essentially amounts to a book the reader believes will be recognised as a classic in the future. It’s not a label I am comfortable using, as we don’t know what will happen to literary tastes next year, let alone decades down the line. What it really amounts to is an attempt to indicate that the book stands out from the crowd, and that the reader very much enjoyed the difference.
I’ll be blunt. The word literary is largely used by snobs who don’t want to admit that their favourite books were written to entertain, and that goes for readers and writers both. There’s a weird idea among the more academic corners of the reading world that entertainment is somehow invalid. A book should not entertain, they will say, it should educate. It should make the reader think. This is the sort of moronic boneheadedness that leads people like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan to write speculative fiction while openly mocking the readership of books just like theirs. It’s a short road from The Hunger Games to The Handmaid’s Tale, and the sooner these writers realise that, the sooner we’ll all get along.
The hallmark of a literary novel is, in essence, pretentiousness. Not content to simply tell a good story, they insist on subverting narrative structure, drowning the reader in metaphor, and pushing agendas. Put it this way. A science fictional interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that when you create something, you’d best be ready for the consequences. A literary interpretation is that Victor’s endeavours to breathe life into a corpse is symbolic of Shelley’s own obsession with death and birth after the loss of several infant children. Both are valid interpretations, but the literary makes no effort to look at the book on its own terms. Literary studies frequently refuse to detach the author from their work. And yes, I’m cherry-picking my arguments here, but I sat through a Masters’ degree filled with precisely this sort of person. The least you can do is sit through a single paragraph.
Ahem. Now that I’ve got some of that anger out of my system, I will admit that there are certain parts of literary theory that are worth baring in mind. Literary books tend to focus on theme and delivery rather than narrative. Even a deep character study is liable to be rooted in thematic exploration. When I see a science fiction book labelled as literary, my assumption is that the writing itself will be more than just a means of conveying story. The prose will have been laboured over. Each word chosen with care. There are likely to be plenty of references to other parts of the literary canon (possibly as an attempt toe look clever, possibly to prove validity of the author’s own theories on those works). For a prime example of this, look to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.
As a label, pulp is often used as a pejorative. It’s a word used to suggest that a book has been put together quickly, or with very little care. A book that is trashy, or easy to throw aside without a second thought. It is a word used by elitists to disparage things they don’t like, quite simply. But here’s the thing, I think pulp should be worn as a badge of honour.
The name stems from the pulp magazines which birthed the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as we know them. Together, these magazines would put out hundreds of short stories every year. A lot of them were terrible. Authors were often paid by the word, and quick turnaround was a must for anyone who wanted to make a living from writing. This led to the bizarrely disjointed tales of A.E. van Vogt, among others. But many of the authors who could turn this required work ethic to their advantage became megastars. Isaac Asimov, not least of all. Even the editors of those times became famous, with Joseph Campbell, Hugo Gernsback, and later on Ben Bova, becoming household names. At least in their respective social circles. Mainstream literature was slow to catch on to too many greats.
Pulp can mean rapidly fixed together narratives. It can mean lurid shocks, and a reliance on unsubtle storytelling. But to me pulp means something else. It means direct storytelling, with no unnecessary frills. It means bold characters and vivid worlds. It means an efficiency of prose that is unheard of these days. It means telling a story in short sections, rather than dragging it over eight hundred pages. Pulp’s short fiction roots often reflect a punchy writing style. Short chapters, lots of cliff-hangers. Keiran Shea is a modern pulp writer, and were it not for the thickness of his books and the length of his series, I’d place the great Kevin J. Anderson in this category as well. Pulp is not something to be afraid of. It’s something science fiction should embrace.
Is there a point to all this? Maybe not. Maybe I am just rambling into the breeze. But we readers throw labels around like confetti, and maybe we need to be more careful when we do so, lest we take someone’s eye out. Because while labels mean one thing to me, they may mean another to you, and a third thing to someone else. Until we have a universal language for these labels, perhaps we use them a bit more sparingly.