Pulp Fiction Writer – That’s Me!


Ah, the days of pulp fiction. When writers would crank out story after story for a penny a word.

On the DVD, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which is a documentary about Harlan Ellison (one of the great genre writers of our time), he talks about starting out as a writer in the 50s, writing a 3,000 word story in a night for a penny a word for the pulps, getting $30 for it and being able to eat for that week. It was a factory back then, writing for those pulps.

Oh, and I recommend checking out Dreams with Sharp Teeth. Harlan Ellison is very abrasive (he curses a lot and he admits to mailing a dead gopher to a publisher), and he’d probably tell you that himself, that he’s abrasive, but if you’re a writer it’s an interesting DVD to watch. If you’re a Harlan Ellison fan, like me, definitely a must.

Ellison wrote one of my favorite all-time Outer Limits episode “Demon with a Glass Hand” which stars Robert Culp. If you’ve never seen it I don’t want to reveal any spoilers but it’s worth checking out if you can find it. Harlan also wrote one of the best-loved Star Trek episodes ever. “City on the Edge of Forever”. And his story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”. Just hearing that title still gives me chills.

He goes on a funny but, in my opinion, totally justified rant in the DVD about writers who write stuff for nothing. He adamantly believes that writers should get paid for their work because writing is hard. I hear that!

Now, speaking of pulp fiction, I once had a creative writing teacher in grad school (who happens to be relatively well-known literary writer) tell me that my story about a woman who discovers she’s a werewolf and winds up killing the man who tries to rape her in a park was the kind of story you’d find at airports and/or drugstores (e.g Wal-Mart).

She meant it as a put-down. A put-down that she verbalized in front of the whole class.

Oh, yeah. She did. In front of the whole class.

You see, I was supposed to write about how horrible my childhood was or maybe about my parents divorcing and how it traumatized me or about boozing academics having affairs or something if that ilk.

However, I took what she said as a compliment. I was a pulp fiction writer. Meaning my story was possibly a story ordinary people would want to read!

Yes! Thank you, superior, snooty, grad school creative writing instructor. šŸ™‚

Below is a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal about how plot is starting to reappear in “literary” novels. That writers are kissing Modernism goodbye. Well, if some writers are doing that, it’s probably because they know, as we all do, that, unfortunately, people are just not reading as much as they used to. So you either write what the ordinary person can at least understand (without having some academic standing over their shoulders and explaining what it all means) or you starve.

Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard Work

As you can see by two of the pulp fiction covers in this post, a lot of what came out in pulp magazines, like “I, Robot” by Issac Asimov and “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler, are now considered classics of their respective genres.

Seriously, I consider myself a pulp fiction writer, or a trashy writer, or whatever derogatory appellation some snob wants to categorize my writing in. I even had someone say that to me. That I write trash. To my face!

Okay, no problem. I know I’m not some genius writer. I know I’ll never be canonized in the halls of literary achievement. I know for a fact that I won’t win any awards and, heck, I probably won’t even be able to make a decent living at this.

But I love writing and if one person, just one person, reads something I wrote and is able to get outside of his or her head for an hour or so and forget about whatever problems they may have, have a good time doing it and want to come back for more, I’ll be happy.

Yes, very, very happy! šŸ™‚

Pulp On!

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6 Responses to Pulp Fiction Writer – That’s Me!

  1. BigWords says:

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time railing against the snobbish and uptight definitions of ‘writing’ that seems to be a hot topic at the moment. There’s more to writing than describing every single emotion a character feels across a couple of hundred pages.

    Literary is another way of saying “I’m better than you” to all of the hard working authors who like rollicking good yarns. I would have taken your instructor’s comment as a compliment as well, FWIW.

    Ignore those who would impose their values on your work.

  2. Digital Dame says:

    I used to sneer at the pulps, too, but along the way I learned better. There will always be people willing and eager to tear you down, like that writing teacher you had, and the person who said you write trash. Fine. They don’t have to read it. I’m never going to be Jane Austen, or Chekhov, or Edith Wharton either. I just want to be able to tell a good story. Spin a yarn. “Literary” books don’t sell. Nobody’s interested in someone else’s mental masturbation.

    Beautiful post, very eloquent. šŸ˜‰

  3. Ed says:

    Leonard Cohen once said something to the effect that writing for art is wrong — let others decide whether it’s art.

    And agreed about the “Demon With a Glass Hand” episode of “The Outer Limits”. One of Harlan’s most inspired works. The whole series is available on DVD, I highly recommend it.

  4. jennareynolds says:

    BigWords: When my CW instructor said that to me that was the day I realized I didn’t have a career as a “literary” writer. I knew where my passion lay and I’ve followed it every sense. I love a rollicking good yarn! Love to read and write ’em.

    Digital Dame: Thanks about the post, DD. šŸ™‚ You know, once I got over the shocked embarrassment of what my CW instructor did, as I said in response to BigWords above, I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be. I didn’t have to pretend anymore. I actually dropped that class right after that as I knew there was no use wasting my time in it.

    Ellison, in the DVD I mentioned, says his writing instructor in college said he couldn’t write. For the longest time, he said, he mailed every notice about every book he got published or every award he won to that writing teacher. I’m no Ellison so I won’t have the pleasure of doing that, but I do smile and think of my CW instructor whenever I get a check for my writing.

    Ed: I think I’ve seen just about every Outer Limits episode there is. I just wish I had the money to buy the entire collection. However, there’s always my friendly neighborhood library. They have the episodes on DVD and I just put a hold on the DVD that has “Demon with a Glass Hand”.

    As for writing for art, I think if I tried to I’d freeze up like a deer in the headlights. Yep, I agree with Cohen. If someone wants to call what I write art, be my guess. And if they want to call it trash, I’m cool with that too. šŸ™‚ Either way I’m gonna keep writing.

  5. Good stories and good writing can be found in every genre.

    If anyone calls your work, “trash”- happily remind them of what the critics used to say about works we now regard as classics.

    Didn’t the old pulp novels have the coolest covers? I think a lot of covers today are rather dull.

  6. jennareynolds says:

    I took that trash oomment as a compliment. It wasn’t meant as one but I took it that way. šŸ™‚

    I love those old pulp fiction covers. They really grabbed the eye, I think.

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