Genre Trouble: Pulp and Proud

I owe a considerable debt to my writing buddy Devin Harnois, who handed me a couple of books and said, “You need to read these, because I thought you already had.” 

Devin was one of the beta-readers for The Shape-shifter’s Tale. She picked up on the main character’s cousin Theodora, and the broken-backed house, both of which draw on multiple real-life originals. But based on those, she thought I was thinking of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House.

No, I hadn’t read it, but once I had begun, I realized that the broken-backed house on Lincoln Avenue belonged to the great family of American haunted houses. They are a numerous tribe, those houses: East Coast like the family mansion in Henry James’ short story The Jolly Corner (far scarier than the better-known Turn of the Screw) or Jackson’s Hill House, or West Coast like The Good House of Tananarive Due, or the modest house in the Ohio River valley from Toni Morrison’s Beloved There’s even one in Minneapolis, in one of Louise Erdrich’s novels, a nineteenth-century millionaire’s mansion whose every ingredient is looted from a land that was stolen in blood and fire from the original inhabitants.

Haunted houses are about history, the uneasy dead, the things that no one wants to talk about, the place where family history dovetails with the darker strands of national history.

My broken-backed house has cousins abroad as well, such as the House at Old Pimen in Marina Tsvetaeva’s memoir-essay of the same name: non-fiction that comes as close to great horror writing as anything you’ve ever read. Family secrets, untimely deaths, and in the end, the Russian Revolution, civil war and famine all converge in one location. The final paragraph is a masterpiece of spine-tingling devastation.

Of course, haunted houses are the very stuff of pulp literature, which brings me to the second book that Devin gave me: Stephen King’s On Writing. King’s an old friend of mine; his novel Carrie, which I read before Stephen King was a household word, was also the first novel I wanted to answer. He digs deep into the psyche of white lower-middle class America to bring up our collective horrors.

On Writing is half memoir and half craft manual, and brilliant in both its faces. He writes about his own apprenticeship, and his view of writing—telepathy, putting the images in your own head into your readers’ heads—is exactly my version of what it’s about. I go on a trip, kinesthetically and visually, and take my readers with me. I write to go on trips, really, which is the same reason that I read.

King also writes eloquently about the shame of the pulp writer, and the peculiarly American culture of drinking and writing (which isn’t to say that other nations and cultures don’t practice the same, only that there is a peculiarly American style of it). This is a country that despises imagination, and in which there is a High-Literary subculture that looks down on popular production, particularly when it’s successful.

King’s own process is remarkably similar to my own, and his warnings took: write the first draft in solitude, turn it over to the trusted beta-readers and don’t look at it for six weeks at minimum, and then revise by carving out the excess. And if you hear advice in stereo, listen carefully.

My answer, my form of gratitude: to take his advice, to hear his warnings, and to declare myself Pulp and Proud.

Since reading his book last year, I’ve thought a lot about the question of the status of pulp fiction—which is to say, the storytelling practiced by paid storytellers. I’m grateful for my good fortune lately in having very many writing pals who are unpretentious and encouraging of each other’s work, and I notice that to a woman, to a man, they’re all pulp writers. For that matter, my high-literary antecedents are also pulp writers: Alexander Herzen, George Sand, Honore de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, even outre moderns like Virginia Woolf, Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, involved themselves in journalism, serial novels, self-publishing, and public performance. Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were Russian-Silver-Age poetry rock stars, as closely related to contemporary spoken-word artists and slam poets as they are to the sort of artists who publish in university literary magazines. Dickens did multiple lecture tours, all of the above wrangled with publishers and editors. Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary is nothing more or less than a zine, and if he were alive today he’d be a contentious blogger.

Oh yes, and on the indie publishing front, I can claim as ancestors not only such illustrious American failures as Melville and Thoreau, but Sand, Dostoevsky, Herzen, and Woolf.

The distinction between pulp and literary fiction is dubious at best, and getting fuzzier all the time… as well it should.

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