Entertainment vs. Edutainment: The New Pulp Narrative

In my wild opinionated youth, I was something of a disdainer. Where other readers and writers widely explored what certain genres had to offer; I tended to stick with the first thing that brought me in the door. I liked Star Wars, and never found another sci-fi world that interested me until I read Heinlein. Star Trek was fine, but I didn’t want to converse with nerds about it, so I held it at arms length (yes, the irony of that is breathtaking. It was a different world then). And after reading Tolkein at age 11, no other fantasy write would ever do.

I tried the mainstream ones. Raymond Feist’s work I found dull and lifeless. Robert Jordan had an interesting take before he drowned it in a sea of skirt-smoothings and braid-tuggings. And Martin… Well, we will not speak of Martin. The only other author I held in Tolkein’s tier was Frank Herbert, and even his series got silly before it ended (I’ve never cared for the expansion novels. They don’t have the same feel. The intensity and insight isn’t there).

But there was another side of Fantasy that I haven’t explored until recently. I speak of what is known as “Sword & Sorcery” or “Blood and Thunder”, i.e. the Pulp side of things. And as I have earlier written, I have found prose craftsmanship and strong storytelling in the works of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber. They may have been Low Art, as these things are defined, but that doesn’t mean they were garbage. Quite the contrary.

The moral quality of art is something of a bugaboo. On the one hand, to the extent art and aesthetics are tied to Philosophy, they are tied to some pursuit of Truth, which has moral considerations. On the other hand, art as a transcendent experience does not fit neatly into the finely-ground gradients that ethics and politics create. There is something to the experience of watching say, Trainspotting, that exists even if you come to deplore the ethos limned therein. Aesthetic quality and moral quality are related but distinct.

And the Pulps, generally speaking, inhabited a moral universe. There may have been gradations between darkness and light (Conan and The Grey Mauser are certainly no Paladins), but overall there was an awareness in each story of who traded in deceit and corruption, and who was honest and forthright. Justice, a Cardinal virtue, involves not just fairness but also honesty, the keeping of ones word. The ability to tell the truth and do as you have promised has always been admired, and it’s opposite reviled, across culture. Human society does not function without it. Violent pulp heroes tended to be those who could and would do that.

What isn’t found here is preaching. Pulps were not interested in subverting, inverting, or otherwise altering the moral awareness of their readers. They acted upon the moral universe common readers were familiar with. The need for art to be at odds with culture, something I’ll talk about in another Ruskin-related post later on, was not present. That was the secret of the pulp’s success, as chronicled in J.D. Cowan’s Pulp Mindset, which I’m currently reading on Kindle.

So far I’ve read Cowan’s summary of pulp history, and how it differed as mass entertainment from 20th century litfic. It has its repetitive moments (you are unlikely to forget how Cowan feels about OldPub, as he calls it), but overall it functions as a discussion of what pulp is, and its overall aesthetic. So it is of use to writers of genre fiction, especially if they want to avoid the politicized slapfights that have plagued SFWA, The Hugos, and suchlike. I look forward to reading the rest.