I admit I waded my way through a creative writing program. For the most part, I hated it. I took the bare minimum classes required and spent the rest of my time studying history and Spanish. Not every writing class was terrible all the time. I had one redhead professor who was quite likeable, in fact. And I had a few face-offs with the ones who annoyed me. But let me be honest — I never once had a face-off with a math professor. Well, there was that one time… Okay, so I had some interesting moments with math and science professors, too. Math professors can be a bit misanthropic, but I can deal with curmudgeonly misanthropes. Re math, I earned my grades without opinionated comments critiquing the manner in which I produced the answers.
Writing professors are a type. Instead of misanthropic, they’re prone to being elitist. Unless they’re being intentionally ironic, they’ll never treat pulp fiction with the same kind of profound analysis as they will literary fiction. These elitists sometimes get published. Occasionally, their books hit bestseller lists, but more often than not, they get stories published in literary magazines nobody reads, or they write prize-winning memoirs and/or novels (usually with the denotation “A Novel” to remind us what we’re reading) that sell a few copies before falling into obscurity. There is a divide between what is “profound” and the pulp that will sell on the market.
It wasn’t always this way, though, was it? When thinking about the history of novels, as in, what we think of as novels today, literary and pulp have both managed to stand the test of time. Growing up, I read Dickens and Lovecraft; Hemingway and Brackett; Cather and Bradbury, along with (Edgar Rice, not William) Burroughs and Chandler. I read them because they were recommended to me by people I respected. They were recommended because they’ve stood the test of time to one extent or another. Obviously, Dickens’ novels have proved their worth throughout two centuries, while Brackett’s have, at this point, merely managed to outlive the author.
In light of the lasting nature of both pulp and literary, why is one valued at the university level and the other not? I know — I know. Snobbery. Snobbery for characterization, introspection, reflection. Literary work is deemed more philosophical, a necessary analysis of humanity, society, and its foibles. I would like to suggest that pulp has its own philosophy, and that this philosophy is intrinsic to the story: the archetypes are reflections of who were are inside without ever having to be introspective about it, and the stories of heroes fighting against evil are reflections of what our souls need. Traditional pulp is a reflection of our inner selves (outward looking in), while traditional literary is a reflection of the inner self’s effect on the outside world (inward looking out).
Because they are both honest, albeit different, ways of telling the human story, I don’t view them as being in opposition to one another. With one big exception. Going back to my days slogging my way through creative writing classes, I have to admit that something shifted in literature at some dismal point in the 20th C, when the literati sort lost their faith. They became cynical. They gave way to nihilism. They went modern, then postmodern, then post-postmodern, and then gave way to irony.
As I said earlier, Unless they’re being intentionally ironic, they’ll never treat pulp fiction with the same kind of profound analysis as they will “literary” fiction. There’s a good reason for that. When nihilism takes hold, and nothing means anything, then concepts like hope, joy, and heroism mean whatever they want them to mean. Archetypes don’t matter. Honest reflection doesn’t matter. Nothing matters, which is why skewing the narrative to be ironic or cutting edge has become the new benchmark for success. It makes a pretense at being introspective, but the reflections don’t ring true.
Still, they call it literary and call it good, as though they are gods of their own creation. No, there’s really not a “versus” between pulp and literary. Rather, the opposition is between what is real and meaningful and what isn’t.
There are many, many good posts on pulp fiction over at Castalia House, which have inspired me to add my post-creative-writing-slog thoughts on the subject. Thanks for reading my contribution.