No, Pulp Doesn’t Mean “Fun”

So, I ran across this interesting discussion the other day on a book forum. I’ll give you the cliffnotes version, but essentially, a few people were discussing their reading habits and all started talking about reading for fun versus reading to be … a literary snob? Okay, let’s be honest here, it was kind of a conceited discussion, but there were some assertions made there that really rubbed me wrong, the focal point (and, naturally, the one heading this post) being the idea that “pulp” meant “fun.” And only fun.

No joke, sadly. This was a whole discussion about how occasionally they would read these “pulp” novels that were fun, and ‘Oh, by the way did you read X novel? I thought it would be literary, but it was pretty fun, so definitely pulp.’

Yeah, if your brain skipped a beat on that last line, join the club. But, in truth, there are whole swaths of readers who think this way. A book that is fun, a book that is enjoyed … is “pulp.” Cheap. Disposable. With no redeeming value aside from the “fun” to be had when the pages are turned.

Meanwhile, anything not “pulp,” ie not fun to read is “literary” and of value. Because pain is good, I guess. You’re not really learning if you’re not suffering.

Look, I’ll be blunt. Just because the US education system seems to believe that doesn’t mean that it’s true. And pulp? Pulp does not mean “fun.” If you really think that, you might need to reexamine what you’re reading. But you should definitely reexamine how you think of books.

First of all, what’s wrong with fun? One of my biggest snags on that whole discussion was that these people were using pulp as a negative term and then saying the only thing that marked it was enjoyment. In other words, reading something fun was bad.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Everything else follows that. Fun is “bad” because … you can’t learn from it? There’s no redeeming value? And therefore, by that logic, literary works are books that are not fun, and the only books you can learn from?

This is a toxic mentality, and I hope that those who hold it aren’t successful in spreading it. You can learn from anything, fun or not. Personally, I would argue that you can more successfully learn from something that’s fun because the mind is eagerly engaged, as opposed to something that’s a drag because it’s uninteresting or poorly presented.

But those last two words there are what I really want to touch on: Poorly presented. By the logic these posters put forth, a poor pulp novel, IE one that was supposed to be fun but wasn’t because of poor writing or execution … would be a better novel. Because it was no longer fun, but a chore to read.

Obviously, this doesn’t make much sense. If it’s not a good book, then it’s just a poorly written novel. Being poorly written doesn’t automatically make a book “literary” no matter what people may think to the contrary.

But I suspect that the root of the logic goes deeper than that. While their point may be poorly said, I think that what these posters were trying to get at is that “pulp” books were written ‘purely for entertainment value’ while “literary” books were written for more than just entertainment.

But even then, I’d disagree. I’ve read some really poorly written literary books, poor because they don’t utilize what makes a “pulp” novel good.

Sands, I wouldn’t even call most books, or books that are fun, “pulp.”

Look, the term “pulp” comes from the era when publishers were simply throwing near anything they could on a printed, cheap page (pulp print) to make a buck. As long as it could grab a reader enough to make a sale, that was good enough.

Now, that type of writing hasn’t gone away. Not entirely. But it is nowhere near what it once was. The early ebook boom gave it a brief moment of popularity again, and it’ll never truly leave, but the true era of pulp is long gone.

Nowadays, readers want to feel that their time is well-spent. They want value for their dollar (who doesn’t?). And so, the market doesn’t support pulp the way it once did.

Do books that exhibit the quick and dirty traits of the old pulp model exist? Sure! But they’re not a mainstay. The market wants books they can dig into, books that are more than just a quick moment of possible entertainment.

That’s where this “pulp” moniker and logic really fails to impress me. There are plenty of books out there that are written to be entertaining, yes … but also be bastions of good writing, skillful use of language, neat ideas, concepts … Or really, all sorts of things that readers can learn from.

Worse, I think the mindset that “literary and good” books aren’t meant to be enjoyable hurts those works as well, as it gives them get out of jail free cards for poor writing. As long as they do one thing well enough to be called literary, the poor writing is excused because … readers aren’t supposed to enjoy it?

Yuck. While this does explain the more snobbish readers apparent attraction to some really poorly-written books, I think that’s to the detriment of writing as a whole. Giving poorly written books a free pass because they do one thing well but the rest is a slog only hurts. That’s like giving a really bad car a pass because the seat is so comfortable, it’s all right that the engine gets .5 miles to the gallon, the tires are out of alignment, the windows don’t close, the AC doesn’t work, etc etc.

Are there cars that get .5 MPG? Yes. They’re massive, finely tuned machines that do so many things in a flawless way that the low MPG is worth the cost to some. But they have to do a lot for that to be worth it.

Okay, so this post is a bit of a ramble. Point being … fun books can still be learned from. Just because a book doesn’t slap the reader across the face and say “this is my message” doesn’t mean that there isn’t wisdom to be had from its pages. Or something a reader can learn.

Pulp doesn’t automatically mean “fun.” It really means cheap if we want to be specific. But it doesn’t mean fun. And fun doesn’t mean “not good.” There are great, fun books out there that are genre adventures that still have meaning, ideals, tough questions and concepts, and more. I know. I’ve written a few.

And a book not being fun doesn’t mean that it automatically imparts some great wisdom or message. It’s just dry, or perhaps poorly written. A good book, I would suggest, is fun in some way and has enough depth that you can walk away from it thinking about concepts or ideas.

Pulp isn’t “fun.” And fun isn’t “of no value.” Fun is fun. Fun is something that draws you in. And fun can be very informative, well-written, and insightful. And something that is well-written, complicated, and thought-provoking, or even just purely educational, can still be fun.

And that’s not bad at all. If anything, we should be pushing for more that is thought-provoking and fun. I think the whole idea that “learning” can’t be fun, as this thread argued, is harmful, discouraging those who would otherwise attempt to learn.

You can learn a lot from a fun book. And if you have fun doing it, that’s so much the better.

4 thoughts on “No, Pulp Doesn’t Mean “Fun”

  1. This is one of the reasons why we’ve advocated for a more literal definition of pulp and pulps. “Was a story printed in a pulp magazine? Then it was pulp! Was it printed somewhere else? Then it’s not pulp!”

    Even authors I don’t care for, like Asimov, that some people will argue is not pulp because of this or that stylistic criteria: too bad, his stories published in pulp magazines were pulp stories!

    There were “fun” and “pulpy” stories that were printed in the slicks, and dull and boring stories that were printed in the pulps.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I would expand that definition to include works that are explicitly trying to achieve the aesthetic of the pulp magazines. I mean, they did have their own writing styles, but that’s more because every age and genre goes through stylistic trends.

      Sorry, I digressed more than I intended to.

      Like

      • That’s not a terrible definition, and it’s one that a lot of people use, but one thing worth noting is that it often assumes a more homogeneous aesthetic, style, and content approach than the pulps actually had.

        Even across the ~5 decades when pulp mags were a thing, they were radically different from decade to decade.

        I mean, check out The Cavalier/All-Story: http://www.philsp.com/mags/all_story_weekly.html

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