Social Realists
Course Requirements

Pulp Fiction

It may be true that, as Michael Blowhard contends, Gold Medal Books, publisher of pulp/noir fiction in the 1950s, "had a greater impact on the content and form [of] American fiction-writing than any other postwar book publisher," although he doesn't really provide much support for this claim beyond citing a few films that were adapted from Gold Medal books, as well as various filmmakers who obviously enough have been influenced by the noir style. To say that "pulp fiction" has influenced storytelling in the movies, or even that some otherwise "serious" writers (Lethem, Chabon) have paid homage to it in their work, is one thing, but to assert it has "had a greater impact on the content and form" of postwar fiction than anything else is quite another. I'm willing to entertain this idea, but I'd really like to have a somewhat more specific idea of what "content and form" means in this context. Does MB really mean to say that Gold Medal-style fiction has so overwhelmingly influenced both the subjects chosen by postwar writers (is this what he means by "content," or is it a looser reference to what might be called "atmosphere" or "ideas"?) and the "form" these writers adopt? What writers does he have in mind? How does their work show this influence?

Perhaps MB clarifies his point just a bit in the sentence following the one I've quoted: "Gold Medal novels were intended as reliable, disposable entertainments: fast, short, and full of action. Noir-ish intrigue, westerns, and adventure tales were the general rule; sensationalism and sleaze were encouraged." It would seem that MB is trying to expand the definition of "American fiction-writing" by insisting we include the practice of those writers aiming for a popular audience. Postwar fiction includes the Mickey Spillanes and the John D. McDonalds as well as "Capote, Cheever, Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Pynchon," et al. Surely there is some justice in this contention, especially if the measure applied is sales or total books in print or name recognition rather than aesthetic accomplishment as determined by sensible literary standards. (And I would even concede that some of the pulp writers MB identifies--Jim Thompson and Richard Matheson, for example--have some claim to aesthetic accomplishment as well.) Undoubtedly most of the fiction published in the postwar era was meant to provide "entertainment" ("disposable" or not), and no one has ever gone broke overestimating the American taste for "sensationalism and sleaze." If Michael Blowhard thinks pulp fiction should be respected for its capacity to satisfy popular tastes, I'm not going to quarrel with him.

Yet underlying MB's paean to the pulps is a palpable resentment against those in certain "stuffy" literary quarters who just won't grant such fiction its due. And its hard not to conclude that this resentment lies not just against readers and critics who disdain "entertainment" but against those who won't admit such fiction is also just as artistic as "literary fiction," perhaps more so, since it has after all influenced Godard and Truffaut and Tarantino, who must know art when they see it. It has good-old fashioned masculine "raw energy," a better criterion for judging narrative art than that applied by those now in control of American publishing, which has become "feminized and corporate." It gives the people what they want (and makes money too!), and people who won't settle for its "gritty fun" are just "prisses."

As always in populist screeds such as this, the primary target of ire is the "canon-maker-wannabes" in universities. The professors have told an "official story of postwar American fiction [that] recoiled entirely from the Gold Medal writers." They've withheld their markers of "respectable culture." Putting aside the fact that writers who valorized "sensationalism and sleaze" probably were never looking for the approval of "respectable culture," MB really ought to take a closer look at what academic critics are actually up to these days. Contemporary literature has been a substantial part of the literary curriculum for only about 30 years, and "scholars" of contemporary literature have long since abandoned a gatekeeping role, anyway. Breaking the canon--in this case before it was even clearly established--is much more popular than making it. And as MB himself admits, "Many colleges now offer a course or three in the history of hardboiled and/or detective fiction." Indeed, it is much more likely for students to find "a course or three" in not just detective fiction but genre fiction of all kinds than a course designed to teach "canonical" postwar writers in the solemn manner MB describes. Genre fiction is much more amenable to the kinds of historical and sociological analyses literary academics now undertake than "merely literary" works by Roth or Pynchon.

MB imagines a critical-literary establishment that disdains popular and pulp fiction. (It's hard for me to believe that much of this establishment resides in "the New York City trade publishing biz." As far as I can tell, popularity now means everything to this "biz.") When Gold Medal Books was founded in 1949, it probably could be said that "respectable" literary opinion" was appalled. But it seems to me that genres like detective fiction and SF, "noir" fiction in general, has been embraced by many if not most readers and critics whose most immediate preference is simply for challenging and aesthetically credible work. It is just as likely that accomplished writers are going to emerge from these genres as from "literary fiction," a designation that has now become just another marketing category. A lot of dull, formulaic genre fiction gets published these days, but the same thing is also decidedly true of literary fiction.

It is also true, at least in my opinion, that most of the Gold Medal fiction was indeed "reliable, disposable entertainment." The serious writers (and also filmmakers such as David Lynch) who were subsequently "inspired" by this fiction have not settled for the disposable and the sensationalized. They have in some ways transcended the original limitations of the pulp fiction form by filtering the conventions and images of this fiction through a more developed aesthetic sensibility. They write better than Mickey Spillane. To make a case for these pathbreaking pulp fictions as art seems to me on a par with the attempts by creationists to make "intelligent design" acceptable as "science." (They want the approval of scientists, whose domain they otherwise reject.) You can believe in intelligent design if you like, but it isn't science. Have all the fun you want with fiction that is "fast, short, and full of action," but, in most cases, it isn't art.

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