Sometimes, great things come in campy packages.
Don’t judge a book by its cheesy cover.
What other slightly modified platitudes can we fit in here? Oh:
All that glitters is not Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
High literature is in the eye of the beholder.
Better the paperback you know than the tome you don’t.
Literary snobbishness bothers me, which isn’t to say I don’t understand or appreciate “great literature.” Rather, I reject the idea that there are hard and fast genera separating “the good” from “the bad,” or “the canonical” from “the campy.”
I would even go so far as to argue that pulp exhibits a certain superiority over traditionally defined literary fiction. A great piece of pulp fiction is belletristic, in that it constructs a self-contained world which functions as the ideal hideaway from life’s everyday disappointments, existential angst and frustrating uncertainties. True, great literature forces us to confront and consider these things — but there is something to be said for the occasional avenue of escape. Pulp fiction, appropriately, is the literary equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino film: It’s not Kubrick, it’s not even very realistic — but it’s nevertheless necessary.
For those unconvinced, here is a docket of widely appreciated fiction that was originally published as pulp:
1. Tarzan of the Apes
The most well known work of adventure novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan first appeared serialized in the 1912-1913 editions of All-Story magazine. Its immediate popularity allowed for its consolidation into a book in 1914, and since then, it has risen from identifiable pulp to a place in the Library of America and the exclusive bibliography of English-language classics.
2. A Princess of Mars
Disney took this other well-known Burroughs work and made it into one of the most expensive action-movies ever filmed: 2012 box office bomb John Carter.
Hollywood failures aside, this first installment in the Barsoom series is considered a classic work of early 20th century pulp, not to mention a foundational work of science fiction.
3. The Thin Man
Dashiell Hammett’s 1934 detective story was originally published in the pages of Redbook. Although it was eventually released in book form, it’s far better known for launching the canon of Nick and Nora Charles, the attractive, crime-solving newlyweds who’ve graced every medium from movies and radio to television and Broadway.
4. The Maltese Falcon
Arguably the most famous of Hammett works, The Maltese Falcon was originally published in Black Mask magazine in 1930. It is often cited as the industry mold for hard-boiled mystery lit, and protagonist Sam Spade is the godfather of noir detectives. What started as a piece of pulpy crime fiction came to be known as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, not to mention the inspiration for one of the most highly regarded films of all time: the 1941 adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor.
5. Rum Punch
Despite what you might think, pulp fiction wasn’t just an early 20th century literary phenomenon. Crime and Western writer Elmore Leonard (the man behind AMC’s Justified) kept the train rolling well into the 1980s, ‘90s and beyond.
Although his best works number too many to count, my personal favorite is Rum Punch, which was adapted into Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 crime drama Jackie Brown. You thought pulp was the domain of gruff, hardened, white-guy private eyes? Think again.
6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Pulp isn’t just limited to American writing, either. Swedish crime writer Stieg Larsson’s 2005 global best-seller swept across the Atlantic and captured minds with adrenaline-pumping twists and turns on par with the best American pulp masters.
7. Jurassic Park
Michael Crichton’s pièce de resistance launched one of the most beloved movie franchises of all time. Little do people know that, before the world-famous dino-thrillers, Crichton wrote pulp novels of the pulpiest variety, and any close reading of Jurassic Park illuminates just how fluidly the style bled over.
8. The Pelican Brief
John Grisham is unarguably the master of modern pulp. The Pelican Brief, possibly his most popular work, is the perfect specimen of the kind of legal suspense-thriller he is best known for. The assassination of rival Supreme Court justices, muck-raking journalists, a street-smart Southern lady-lawyer — The Pelican Brief flourishes with all the hallmarks of a great Grisham read and a fine piece of pulp.
9. The Runaway Jury
Another Grisham work, and my personal favorite: The Runaway Jury was adapted into a 2003 gun control drama starring John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz. In the book, Grisham takes on the tobacco lobby, not the gun lobby, but that doesn’t mean its lacking in his signature fast pace and sharp turns.
Nick Easter infiltrates the jury deciding on the case of Celeste Wood v. cigarette magnate Wendall Rohr. With the help of a mysterious woman named Marlee, he sets in motion his own investigations to tip the scales in the little guy’s (or in this case, little woman’s) favor.
10. Fight Club
Yep, I’m going there: Chuck Palahniuk writes pulp. The first-person narration of an anonymous protagonist, the noiresque backdrop, the anarchist cult subplot — Fight Club is pulp, indisputably. And like I said, that’s okay.
The term “pulp fiction” was coined to describe afterthought books cobbled together by publishers looking to use excess materials (i.e., paper pulp), and that serves as a pretty apt metaphor for the whole genre: Pulp isn’t natural — it’s processed, it’s generic, and at first glance, it’s not altogether attractive. But its origins are organic, and upon further consideration, we find it’s weirdly fundamental. After all, you can’t make paper without pulp, and you can’t publish highbrow literary fiction without a stable of high-selling Grishams and Larssons to pay the bills.
Jake Flanagin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., where he does story research for The Atlantic magazine and writes about pop culture and social issues. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from New York University and thinks the bagel situation in D.C. is deplorable. In his free time, he likes to watch reruns of Growing Pains and remains steadfastly ambivalent on the issue of Kirk Cameron.
KEEP READING: More Literature
- Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
- 10 Crazy Literary Families That Will Make You Feel Better During the Holidays
- Donna Tartt & Allan Gurganus on Writing, Inspiration & the South