Why pulp fiction is inauthentic (The ACU theory of literature)

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.





18 thoughts on “Why pulp fiction is inauthentic (The ACU theory of literature)

  1. Pulp Rev came out of a rediscovery of the fantasy stories that inspired Dungeons and Dragons and a desire to write our own when both Left and Right science fiction was lacking. It intends to use the best of the pulps to write new stories for the current time, and not stick to pulp as a milieu like Neo-Pulp or New Pulp does.It is generally anti-ideological, agreeing with Burroughs that the goal of fiction is to entertain. (The Superversives are more amenable to message in fiction.) If we look back prior to modern fiction for inspiration, it is out of rejection of literary Modernism and nihilism.

    As for ACU, the 150-year quest for “authenticity” in the guise of realism leads to flagging sales, which undermines universality. We are currently in an age of a tyranny of craft, where “Save the Cat,” “The Hero of a Thousand Faces”, TV Tropes and other such formula books and sites squeeze out inspiration. And universality is laughable in an age when the biggest bestsellers fail to capture more than 15% of the reading public. ACU might be your personal preference, but its a recipe for failure in a fragmented Long Tail market.


    • ACU isn’t a recipe, it’s a description of marketability. It’s an attempt to explain why some writers within a genre (or for that matter within the mainstream of fiction) sell relatively better than other writers. Authenticity could even be viewed as a two-axe concept itself, how consistent to each other the characters are and how the reader interprets them as consistent or possible. To return to Cordwainer Smith, he’s immensely authentic, but he is true to the people of his imagined world, and if the reader doesn’t like being shut out, then too bad for them. Something gross and irritating like Ready Player One, conversely, or quite a lot of other LitRPG type stuff, is very nearly all authenticity, and it’s working pretty well for those people in terms of sales.

      Universality is perhaps the least important piece simply because if it’s sufficiently crafted and authentic to a critical mass of readers, it is by definition pretty universal and able to tap into the general human experience in a unique yet broad way.

      But universality can go the other way and just be broad 1-D strokes, with just enough era-specific detail to anchor the story enough to be published at all.


  2. It’s not that people we hate also hated pulp, it’s that we found the transcendent and universal in it. I’d like to discuss this but I’d like you to mention those mid-century writers you think we SHOULD copy – you mentioned how Howard and Cordwainer are bad ideas, but you didn’t finish that thought.


    • Is anyone writing Penrod in space? That would be pretty cool. And I just gave that one away, lol. I suppose one could try to argue that Heinlein’s juveniles did that, but I don’t know that this is really the case.

      Part of my context is that the 1960s and 1970s and even up through the 1980s had a ton of really fascinating speculative fiction, including science-fantasy and the like, but it was all happening in the YA space. And older, pre-WW2 non-pulp YA and adult fiction is often very authentic and sold extremely well and was often kind of weird stuff written by autodidacts, but they managed to find audiences in the millions, with the niche-y ones still finding audiences in the hundreds of thousands. A lot of it’s hard to get now (thanks, CPSIA), but the last century of YA has offered a lot of interesting side paths and the things popular enough to be reprinted post-1985 have plenty of charm and show how older, more traditional sex roles still have room for a decent sized audience.

      A lot of women’s short fiction outsold pulp, and some of it even had strong speculative elements. And no, it wasn’t all romance or romance plots.

      On a more overtly adult-masculine note, has anyone managed to successfully integrate Runyon’s style into current work? That would be very interesting and probably have a good shot at a decent audience.


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  4. Speaking strictly for myself as an SJW, there’s a lot of pulp I like, and I don’t think it’s true that SJWs consider ALL pulp ‘scummy and gross’ as a rule. Most of it, as you note, is trash, but that is true of the bulk of any literature – all of must sort through a lot of crap to find the things we value. I might value certain stories and authors more to my taste than others of a more conservative bent among the pulp, but I think if we all were honest, we could agree on the virtue of at least a few of the masterworks. 90% of Science Fiction is crap, but 90% of EVERYTHING is crap, as Theodore Sturgeon, a consummately talented writer of pulp, said. No one should disdain the 10 percent that rises above.

    Here’s one of his online stories – not his best, but pretty good (from Baen, a name you can trust:) http://www.baen.com/Chapters/9781625791177/9781625791177___2.htm
    And here is an online version of one of his greater stories, “Mr Costello, Hero” in the form of a 1956 radio play on the show “X minus One”

    Theodore was a great pulp writer. “Microcosmic God” is in a lot of anthologies, “Killdozer” was good slam-bang adventure, but over time and for the little money pulp afforded him he started to push SFF into new territories. It wasn’t for nothing that Vonnegut immortalized him as Kilgore Trout (unappreciated writer of pulp with amazing ideas).


    • I kind of dispute Sturgeon’s law; I actually started doing some tracking of the pulp stories I’ve been reading, and found that there’s a curve, with most stories falling in the 3-4 star range with very little actually falling into the realm of the execrable. [admittedly a lot of the stories in the 5 star tier have been be Leigh Brackett, but I also haven’t been tracking stuff I’ve read in paperback reprints here]


      While I wouldn’t say “All pulp is amazing, perfect, and great!” on average, the pulp stuff from the 10’s through the 40s I’ve read is a few ticks better than the 70s MF&SF I’ve read. Stuff I’ve read from the 50’s is slipping a bit, but there are manifold reasons for why this could be (both cultural and economic).

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      • Well, but where did you read this pulp? From the actual pulp magazines themselves or facsimiles (paper or electronic) thereof? Or did you read them from anthologies of pulp fiction, stories selected by editors as representative of their species AND superior specimens of their kind? If you read it from such anthologies, then what you’re reading has ALREADY gone through a process of winnowing the wheat from the chaff – or separating and discarding the crap from the gold, if you like. It therefore isn’t representative of the overall quality of SFF pulp fiction at the time.

        I look to my own research – by which I mean I just glanced at my Kindle at some Macabre and Occult Detective Megapacks I bought in 2014 for, like, 99 cents each. Some stories were by well-known authors, some less known, others completely unknown to me, and at least one flat-out Anonymous. Given the scantiness of the Forewords – one of them reported that one author’s bio was FASCINATING, and cheerfully advised me to look it up on Wikipedia for myself – I think the editing was not intensive. While it’s not like reading from the magazine itself, I think that and the price indicate that they weren’t as discriminating in their choice as in more professional anthologies. And the quality was wildly variable – from great to just okay to godawful.

        If we take it for granted that even THESE editors must’ve left out a huge quantity of WORSE tales, then I think Sturgeon’s estimate was probably on the mark.

        Even the tales that were ‘just okay’, reasonably entertaining, but not quite memorable or good enough to warrant a re-read – they served their purpose at the time of entertaining the idle reader on the train, and were then discarded, falling out of copyright and memory. A Kleenex serves as useful a purpose, and is similarly discarded. I think calling such stories ‘trash’ is not unfair.

        As for your opinion regarding the stories of the 10’s through the 40’s being superior to those of the 70’s – well, that could be for an abundance of reasons. One might be that comparing the best of the harvest of 4 decades to the best of the harvest of ONE decade gives a slightly unfair advantage to the longer time period, with its benefit of longer evaluation and discussion in hindsight. Or, as you say, you might find the cultural difference of the Good Old Days to be more appealing to you than the latter ones.

        According to Jeffro’s recent column, it’s because the writers of the later decades had the bad taste to DARE give the heros feet of clay. Apparently he prefers his heros to be flawless Marty Stus. He forgets what Oscar Wilde (a Dead White European Male writer par excellence, and a great fantasy writer to boot) said: “It is the feet of clay that make the gold of the image precious.”


        • tbh I think the megapacks are a counter-indicator. They’re not waving these stories in front of a qualitometer, they’re judging them by their own (modern) standards, and a main enchanter about these stories is their deliciously exotic worldview. Mostly we’re reading the pulps straight off of archive.org, not the best reader but not the worst. Castalia does whole series of these, just taking a random mag from 1940 and reviewing all the stories.


          • Ha! That’s actually my series :3
            I haven’t decided what issue to do next. I may actually force myself into one of the issues of Astounding to see how it stacks up against the stuff from Planet Stories I’ve been covering.


        • I collect Planet Stories and a few other pulp runs in print. All of the stories listed there are ones that I have in the original magazine formats.

          All of the stories I listed in Exceptionally Good and Very Good are stories worth re-reading and revisiting multiple times.


          • Ah. Then I apologize for my previous assumption that you read them in anthologies. (It must be difficult to read them, I have one pulp magazine wrapped in plastic that I bought for the beautiful Leigh Brackett cover and the paper was such genuine pulp that it visibly crumbled when I opened it and turned a few pages).

            Still, if you are reviewing the stories direct from the magazine and giving them varying quality labels, you see that some are far worse than others, and we’re only disagreeing on the proportion of crap. (Not to mention that if you anticipate that you have to ‘force’ yourself to read Astounding, it seems you don’t anticipate a time of nearly unalloyed pleasure).

            You go to the trouble of finding and collecting now-obscure magazines printed in a time when likely few of us were even alive, much less old enough to be reading them, and presumably paying far more for them than their original cost, because in their time they were made of crummy material and not valued enough by most of their original readers to be preserved for posterity, and are therefore now pretty rare.

            IMO, it seems to me that the fact that you value that material enough to do that shows that you are already predisposed to find virtue in them BEFORE reading them – whether because of Jeffro’s ‘the Good Old Days were ALWAYS better’ attitude or some more sophisticated criteria, I don’t know enough about your taste to presume to say.

            I will not say that the virtues you found aren’t actually there, because virtue is an impalpable, ultimately unprovable thing, and one man’s trash is literally another man’s treasure. But I will say that you’re going at pulp with a very different attitude then Sturgeon probably did, who actually wrote for the pulps and needed the money and got rejected far more often then was healthy for his wallet…but was accepted often as well.

            I bought the entire multivolume collection of Sturgeon’s complete stories, and he definitely DID write trash for money. There were stories that were entertaining, but on the level of a bar story that you’d enjoy hearing but forget by morning…and he apparently judged them the same, since as per the editors he didn’t even keep the manuscripts of many of them. So he knew for a fact that the pulps found trash desirable. Also, he was an innovator who likely found that his innovations weren’t that desirable among the editors of pulp. And he wasn’t alone in that evaluation of pulp’s gatekeepers…if you read the letters of Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft to each other, there is a whole LOT of commiseration between them about how what they considered their best stories were rejected because they lacked enough ‘ecktion’ as Lovecraft contemptuously wrote, IIRC.

            And in a larger sense, I think that Sturgeon was defending science fiction and fantasy from the common mainstream charge that it is ALL crap, by acknowledging that most of it indeed IS crap, but there are treasures among it – and pointing out that most of the mainstream literature that the critics of SFF were so snooty about is ALSO crap. IMO, he was making a statement about excellence – that we should judge ALL literature severely, and that if we really applied the same severe judgement impartially among ALL genres – which would also include genres like the detective novel, romance novel, etc, as well as the so-called mainstream – we would find that most of it was trash, but there were also a few treasures in each genre, and that if we rejected a genre wholesale as trash out of sheer snobbery we would be missing out on those treasures.


          • Actually, in most cases, I’m only paying a few bucks more than the original costs when adjusted for inflation. There are a few outliers in the $20-$40 range, but most of my collection has cost less, between $4-$10 per issue. The paper’s flaky at the edges, and covers are a bit more susceptible to damage, but the interiors hold up well.

            I’ll take the liberty to goal-post move and point out the Astoundings I have are from the late 40s Campbell-era and therefore “not pulp” (but digests), though an issue I have from 1932 that IS pulp and was fantastic.

            My issue with the Sturgeon’s Law approach as a defense of the pulps is gives the notion that if a pulp magazine had 10 stories in it, one would be good and the other 9 would be garbage–therefore it would hardly be worth one’s time to ever check out a whole issue of any pulp magazine. Whereas in reality, you typically end up with 1 fantastic story, 2 if you’re lucky, a few really good, enjoyable stories, and maybe one or two stinkers.

            I HAVE noticed, however, that the average quality, at least with Planet, drops off a bit in the late 40s and into the 50s (the 1951 issue featuring Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars, that featured piece was the only decent story despite some other rather big names [Vogt; Anderson]), and the 50s Thrilling Wonder I’ve read was a mixed bag, weighted towards ‘serious stories with serious thinks’. By this time, these were lower paying markets even for the pulps, so I’d not be surprised that they became a dumping ground for inferior works by bigger named authors looking for a paycheck off previously rejected pieces.

            Many of the complaints about the unserious nature and lack of worth shown by the average yarn in the pulps reminds me of the critics lamenting that Thomas Burnett Swann failed to use his encyclopedic knowledge of antiquity to become another Tolkien and instead contented himself with writing cozy LGBT romances with sexy minotaurs bros and hot monster girls. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


          • *blinks* Obviously there is a great void in my SFF knowledge and I should remedy that by reading this Thomas Burnett Swann fellow (IF he writes well).

            “My issue with the Sturgeon’s Law approach as a defense of the pulps is gives the notion that if a pulp magazine had 10 stories in it, one would be good and the other 9 would be garbage–therefore it would hardly be worth one’s time to ever check out a whole issue of any pulp magazine.”

            Thinking over what Sturgeon meant…I think if he’s saying that 90% of everything is trash, that means he’s also excluding what you would conclude as Good and even Very Good stories, allowing only excellence as part of what he would consider Not Trash. By this, I don’t think he means ‘not entertaining’, because trash can be VERY entertaining. Look at the oeuvres of Sidney Sheldon and Dean Koontz (both of whom perpetrated some SF in their time). I’m more familiar with Sidney Sheldon, and I read a lot of him as a teenager. He was around, he was entertaining, he knew how to spin a tale to draw you in. He was also a perfectly dreadful writer, a fact that became increasingly clear the more I read of him. (I remember the last book I read of his had a Spanish speaking character quoting the price of something, “Uno peso.” I started shrieking like a banshee.)

            Sidney Sheldon made metric fucktons of money from his work. Still doesn’t keep it from being trash. I think Sturgeon was saying that we should judge SFF sternly in pursuit of excellence, while defending it from the snobbish mainstream notion that it is incapable of excellence.


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  7. I agree that writing and trying to imitate pulp fiction won’t get you very far, but I feel there is a lot you can learn from all types of writing, pulp fiction included. It would be outright foolish of someone interested in genre writing to not take a peek or two at an old pulp magazine. Some of the best ever started there and worked their way up.

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