I’m going to be a little fancy today. I got into a “get off my lawn” type argument at the blog of a guy who really digs pulp fiction and midcentury sci-fi. This led to someone else making a post about some of my comments here. Ultimately the whole thing is a little inside baseball, as is typical for neophyte literary movements, but the back and forth made me realize why I was so crabby at all about the “Pulp Revolution” and all that.
It’s that pulp fiction is inauthentic and thus if you think it’s the only worthwhile fiction to model your more current fiction writing upon, you will end up in an even more inauthentic place and be less popular and interesting than original pulp and pulp-like genre fiction. And that’s where the Pulp Revolution (also goes by PulpRev) and similar folks like Superversive are. They are enamored of pulp fiction because their ideological enemies (SJWs and other ultra liberal types) think all pulp fiction scummy and gross and they found some that was pretty good reading and entertaining so they feel like “TAKE THAT SJWS PULP FICTION IS ACTUALLY ULTRA KEEN FABBO”.
This is mostly false.
To explain why I’m going to introduce my own “three-legged stool” theory of successful literature. The three legs are authenticity, craft and universality, or the ACU of the post title. Authenticity is, I suppose, literary qualia, how real-feeling the fiction seems to the reader. A highly authentic work will typically be pretty universal in appeal and thus quite popular. There are exceptions, but the more authentic, the more relatively successful and universal/crossover-friendly the work is likely to be.
Craft is, well, craft. You can get pretty far into the inauthentic end of authenticity and still reach a relatively larger audience just by upping your craft game. *cough Margaret Atwood cough*. But pure craft is not enough. There are a lot of prettily written fiction works that can’t reach a larger audience because they describe a world too inauthentic and non-universal for readers to connect with.
Universality is pretty obvious. I may not like J.K. Rowling, but she is essentially beyond-pulp, doing what pulp writers did in subverting conventional literature, but retaining a sense of true authenticity of experience that readers could latch on to. She integrated decades of popular, universal literary tropes and character types with modern touches and achieved something both authentic and fairly universal, with an above average degree of craft. Her work, whatever one might say about her as a person or celebrity, is an example of all three legs being firmly represented.
And yet, there is a bit of pulpishness to the Harry Potter world. The reason regular old pulp fiction is inauthentic is because it can’t be sufficiently universal. It was formed in a specific time and place thematically and that means it describes a world a bit too private to break out of the genre cage. And this is obvious with any pulp fiction that achieved popularity in the mainstream. It was beyond-pulp, pushing aside the narrow scope to do something more authentic and often also more universal.
Instead of scrabbling in the dusty pages of pulp magazines trying to defend a good line or two in badly written and not very interesting pulp story after pulp story (this is a frequent occurrence at the Castalia House blog, though it does cover a broad range of topics), I guess I expected pulp fiction rediscoverers to move forward from the pulp fiction that was a little more authentic and thus a little (sometimes a lot) less pulp. I thought they’d go look at mainstream fiction of its day, much of which wildly outsold pulp authors in general and rediscover the whole package, not just the seamy crumbs at the bottom of the package. Robert Howard had craft, and he sometimes achieved a relatively higher level of authenticity and in his most famous creation he found a moderate degree of universality. But in general his work was not solidly three-legged ACU fiction. Cordwainer Smith, a favorite of mine, is nevertheless inauthentic because his world was a little too private to be universal-enough for mass popularity. Deeply strange, profoundly intimate, but ultimately closed-off and full of private humor and emotion inaccessible to most readers.
Pulp fiction, and genre writing as a whole, are such that very good examples will not read quite like the norms for the genre and the best examples will expand the scope of or otherwise break out of the genre’s convention.
This is, of course, quite open to discussion.