With the e-publication of my new suspense collection, One More Lie, I’m happy to count myself as a writer of pulp fiction.
What is pulp fiction anyway? Please don’t get anywhere near confusing it with the nihilistic, over-praised and much too often over-copied film of the same name. True pulp fiction goes back to the magazines that used cheaper pulp paper in order to sell in great volume to a voracious reading public. These magazines had their heyday in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
It was fiction for the people, for the guy on the crowded subway going to work, or the busy mother with five kids who got a little reading time at night. It was for the people who wanted to be caught up in a fictive dream. It was not written in a style aimed at some elite literati. It was about dames and thugs and gats and roscoes. Femme fatales and corrupt police. About the American dream gone wrong and how crime does not pay. And it produced many superb writers along the way who transcended the genre.
Some stories became classics, in style and substance as well as plot. The Maltese Falcon, first serialized in the pulp magazine Black Mask, is a great American novel. It is what Shakespeare might have written had he been born in 1894 and walked the mean streets.
And how can you beat this opening to the famous story “Red Wind” by Raymond Chandler?
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.
I’m there. I’m seeing a slice of the human condition. At the time, Chandler was capturing a part of Los Angeles life that hadn’t been given light before. He and another writer of the day, James M. Cain, were innovative in that.
But the thing I like most about pulp fiction is that it has to grab the reader and not let go. A storyteller with a “message” won’t have a chance to deliver it unless he or she can make good on that basic, page-turning promise.
Pulp writers were prolific. They had to be, at a penny a word. Erle Stanley Gardner, like me an ex-lawyer looking to make a living as a writer, came up with the character Perry Mason. He got a penny a word at first, so in his stories you always see both names used whenever he describes a character. Like this:
Perry Mason entered his office and greeted his confidential secretary, Della Street, with a fond hello.
“It’s about time,” Della Street said.
“What’s about time?” Perry Mason rejoindered taking a seat behind his desk.
Before Della Street could answer there was a quick knock and the door, and the private detective Paul Drake walked in.
“Hello, beautiful,” Paul Drake said to Della Street.
You get the idea. Each time it was an extra penny earned! (You have to love how lawyers think, don’t you?)
So this is why I write pulp fiction. I love to spin a good yarn and illuminate a little slice of the human soul along the way. The pulp market dried up, but now e-publishing has given it new life. I have two collections out now, Watch Your Back and One More Lie. Each has a title novella and three stories. I might have made a penny a word in 1930 and hammered out a meager existence. This new digital market pays much better and the shelf life never goes away.
I see this as supplementing my print work. As Rachelle points out repeatedly, fiction authors have to build a platform. This is one way of doing it.
And it lets me be prolific, lets me keep testing new ways to grab readers, lets me keep doing what I’ve always wanted to do––write.
Do you have a “guilty pleasure” kind of book or movie or TV show you go to for escapism?
James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Deceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back and many other thrillers.
Under the pen name K. Bennett, he is also the author of the Mallory Caine zombie legal thriller series, which begins with Pay Me in Flesh. Jim served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine, to which he frequently contributes, and has written three bestselling craft books for Writers Digest, including the #1 writing bestseller, Plot & Structure.[ Next Post → ] [ ← Previous Post ]