The pulp ethos is a real thing. Some people think I just made it up or something. Or they think I’m being evasive when I refuse to define “pulp” as a distinct genre in its own right.
Of course, not everyone wants to spend a solid year surveying a bunch of works that nobody is talking about and which are generally regarded as juvenile, poorly written, and dangerously retrograde. Authors tend to want some sort of checklist they can use to confirm that their work stacks up reasonably well against the pulp masters. Watching how some of this plays out, I can’t help but think that Plato knew exactly what he was talking about when he wrote the Allegory of the Cave!
One of the key flashpoints that comes out of these conversations is this one from Misha Burnett’s Five Pillars of Pulp Revival:
In Pulp stories there is not simply the risk that that the hero may fail to defeat the villain, there is also the greater risk that the hero may become the villain. A hero should have a code to follow, and lines that he or she is resolved not to cross. That line should be close enough that the temptation to cross is real—maybe not constantly, but from time to time. There is almost always a really good reason to break one’s moral code, particularly to protect a loved one in danger.
I have to say… this is not something you accomplish in a couple of scenes. This is not an element you fold into your story concept in order capture a veneer of pulpy greatness. Go back and watch the classic western High Noon and you’ll see, this moral dimension saturates everything.
The entire premise of the story is about the former sheriff deciding to stay and fight according to his principles when he could just as soon leave town with the woman he’d just married that day. The bulk of the scenes in the film focus on the rationalizations people in town, at the saloon, and at the church give for refusing to stand by him when he faces deadly peril for his decision.
And that’s not even the half of it. There is a greater conflict that emerges from two key characters’ differing moral codes. It’s self-evident to Gary Cooper’s character that he has to stay and face a pardoned outlaw that has sworn to kill him. But it’s equally self-evident to his wife– a convinced Quaker– that staying and fighting is inherently wrong. She forces him to choose between his principles and their marriage!
As all of this plays out, there is some pretty hard talk on the matter of this quandary, most of it from the character of Helen Ramirez:
I’m going to tell you something about you and your friend Kane. You’re a good-looking boy, you have big broad shoulders. But he is a man. It takes more than broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey, and you have a long way to go. You know something? I don’t think you’ll ever make it.
And it gets even better:
Amy Fowler Kane: That man downstairs, the clerk… he said things about you and Will. I’ve tried to understand why he wouldn’t go with me, and it’s got to be because of you.
Helen Ramírez: What do you want from me?
Amy Fowler Kane: Let him go. He still has a chance. Let him go.
Helen Ramírez: I can’t help you.
Amy Fowler Kane: Please.
Helen Ramírez: He isn’t staying for me. I haven’t spoken to him for a year, until today. I’m leaving on the same train you are.
Amy Fowler Kane: Then why is he staying?
Helen Ramírez: If you don’t know, I can’t explain it to you.
Amy Fowler Kane: Thank you anyway. You’ve been very kind.
Helen Ramírez: What kind of woman are you? How can you leave him like this?
How does it play out? In the most thrilling way possible, of course. And it is exactly the same sort of thrill you get reading Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett stories.
Now the thing that strikes me most about this is just how quickly this sort of thing evaporated. Science fiction and fantasy at the time it came out was well on its way to falling into the grips of people that thought the sort of man and woman presented in stark relief here were not just “unrealistic”, but downright ludicrous. There is something here that was very rapidly driven out of the public sphere. The impact on the wider culture was both inevitable and unsurprising, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s comments in the late seventies atest:
A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.
The bulk of us reading and writing about science fiction and fantasy right now were either very young or maybe not even born yet when he said that. Anyone that is right now dabbling in reviving something of the pulp ethos faces an absolutely tremendous cultural gap, something far outside most of peoples’ capacity to even imagine at this point. No one is simply going to make a run through a checklist and get this pitch perfect.
So take some time to go read some actual pulp stories for yourself. I guarantee it will blow your mind in the absolute best way possible. And it can change how you think about all kinds of stuff!