Damien Walter 

New pulp fictioneers are ready to rock’n'roll

Damien Walter: Hundreds of authors are reviving the ethos of the great writers of pulp fiction such as Jack Vance, Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison. But it's a brave new world of blogs and ebooks
  
  

Imagine a scale of literary productivity. At one end, place current darling of the American literary scene Jeffrey Eugenides, bating a steady average of one book per decade. At the other, put Jack Vance – at 95, perhaps the last of the great pulp fictioneers – who has produced 60 novels across the SF, fantasy and mystery genres, as well as hundreds of stories for pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories. Label one end of the scale great literature, the other pulp fiction.

It's a mistake to think that the writer of pulp fictions must be a hack. Pulp author William Wallace Cook once banged out 54 novels in one year, a feat (made possible only by his encyclopaedic plot knowledge) which he later recorded in the classic Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, containing 1,462 plot recipes for all occasions. The pulp writer must have craft to match the greatest literary author, but like a prize fighter he has to keep the next fight in mind.

The greatest pulp authors capture a rockstar status that few writers can dream of. The young Harlan Ellison, who went on to march beside Martin Luther King and allegedly slept with more than 300 women in the heyday of his literary superstardom, survived the early years of his career in New York by writing short stories overnight and selling them the next day to cover food and rent. Philip K Dick famously wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in six weeks while high on speed, thereby becoming part of the legend which continues to sell millions of books, despite or perhaps because of their frequent clunking literary mishaps.

Adam Christopher might just be out to channel some of that rock'n'roll pulp fiction chic in his debut novel Empire State. If the history of the 21st-century pulp fiction revival is ever written, Empire State might well be seen as its starting point. Super-heroes? TICK. New York City? TICK. Parallel dimensions? TICK. Hardboiled noir? TICK. Prohibition gangsters? TICK. Empire State is a homage to all things pulp, a multi-genre mash-up of a novel that collides fictional tropes such as a literary particle accelerator, while hoping like hell the thing holds together – which on the whole it does quite admirably. And with its sequel, The Age Atomic, joined by three other novels all to be released before 2014, Christopher seems set not just to write pulp fiction dreams, but to live them.

Then there's Chuck Wendig. Some would be satisfied just to be the author of Dinocalypse Now – but not Wendig. The American author has built on his growing cult following with the crowd-funded and self-published Atlanta Burns novellas, and the outstanding urban fantasy novel Blackbirds from UK publisher Angry Robot. Wendig's books, which blend noir and urban fantasy tropes with the gritty reality of contemporary America in a unique trailer-trash gothic style, are proof positive that pulp need not lack depth, emotion or originality. He's also a prolific blogger; an essential criteria for today's ambitious pulp fictioneer, when your readership are only ever a tweet away.

The old pulp was born of a world where fiction was the mass home entertainment of the day. Its deathknell came with television and all the spectacle that brought to the living room. Video games have now displaced television with even greater spectacle, immersing people in the very fantasy worlds they turned to pulp for a century earlier. The book, at times, seems a poor competitor to the games consoles that dominate home entertainment today. Those little black marks scratched on wood pulp (or even on the screen of a Kindle) can hardly challenge the spectacle of a quad-core processor projecting at 1080p on a 52 inch widescreen.

And if the new pulp is not mass entertainment, neither is it great literature. In a world where anyone with a blog and an ebook is a writer, putting yourself up on the pedestal of great literature is a good way to get yourself knocked down again. What makes you better than me, shout the pitchfork wielding mob of self-published Kindle authors as they loom over the prostrate figure of the fallen literary genius. The new pulp looks the mob square in the eye and says, hey, I'm just ordinary folk like you. But I got me this idea for a book about zombie-vampire-ninja-supersoldiers that I thought y'all might enjoy, want to hear it? Just 99p in the Kindle store for the next 24 hours!

The old pulp is dead, all hail the new pulp. I've barely scratched its surface here. There are hundreds of authors reviving the ethos of pulp greats such as Jack Vance and Philip K Dick. Maybe you know them, or maybe you are one yourself. Tell me about your pulp fictions in the comments below, or on Twitter using hashtag #AllHailTheNewPulp. I'll share the most fun and outrageous there on @damiengwalter.