Back in 2013 I wrote about new digital distribution models being ideal for a return of old-style pulp literature, because those “new” models looked a lot like experiments from the early days of mass print. The small presses I hoped would specialize pulp have largely failed to materialize, though in a large part that “lack” links directly to my own narrow definition of “pulp.” The media filling the void left by pulp magazines and dime novels doesn’t often look much like the stuff I seek out from the heyday of the pulp era, but the audience is the same class demographic and that’s what drives the content, after all.
Meanwhile, the highly productive self-publisher is the current default stand-in for the 1930s pulpster: the type of author who releases a dizzying amount of books a year, but with the key difference that s/he does all the marketing by his/herself. They exist largely divorced from pulp aesthetic because there is no impetus to follow a unified “look and feel” of yellowed paper and bright art deco covers.
The east Asian “light novel” is a far closer antecedent to western pulp on a formal level: short novels, absurdly fast production schedules, little to no editing, a standard format and a hugely diverse range of work, the majority of which is garbage but which fosters an “anything goes” attitude that can produce some great content as well. They’re often equated with western Young Adult, but YA is heavily edited, targeted and marketed, which just doesn’t lead to the same stew-like literary atmosphere. I’ve come across light novels explicitly influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, which further cements the association in my mind. But: light novels are largely a print medium, and this seems a key part of what, well, made that old pulp pulp: the paper itself, medium and message together.
It doesn’t help that while I’d like to embrace the DIY self-publishing scene, the self-published books I’ve paid for based on high praise have all been disappointing in some way or another. It’s the stuff published online as web serials or collections that gave me pleasant surprises, but the actual ebook marketplace has proved far harder to navigate. The March North had high-profile sf authors and reviewers saying it was award-worthy; for me, the novelty of the author’s strange diction quickly wore off in the face of a bland military fantasy that focused on its magic system and society/military structures at the expense of characters and plot. That one at least had enough going for it that I finished. I picked up One Damn Thing After Another when it was personally recommended to me as something for fans of Connie Willis. That too, had a promising beginning largely squandered; I didn’t finish it, the narrative meanders and most of what happens makes no sense (Why would a university send historians back in time to study dinosaurs and not paleontologists?). There are a few other novels I could rag on, but there isn’t much point. Even saying this much is grossly unfair: self-publishing is such a huge field that judging it by a few self-described outliers, no matter how popular, doesn’t make for a compelling argument.
Old pulp fiction was largely unfiltered, but what little filter there was, imposed by the simple economics of getting something to press, makes an important difference between now and then. Self-publishing is just that much easier and driven as much by authors as readers. Yet, I think sorting through the vast amount of self-published content likely requires a similar approach to how I choose old pulp to read: tapping into communities of authors and reviewers that foster a milieu resembling the communities formed in the 1930s. Back then, those were characterized by writers who regularly corresponded and helped each other, creating the conversations and atmosphere that let weird fiction thrive. I haven’t stumbled across communities like that yet, but I’m sure they exist somewhere or are just waiting for the critical mass to develop.
I’ll make it my mission to support those groups when I find them.