Monday, September 24

The Joys of Pulp

I have been reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars lately. ERB tends to get laughed off a bit, since he authored Tarzan, and most people don't even know about his sci-fi.
Why didn't anyone tell me that Burroughs is such a good writer?? I don't think I've enjoyed a pulp book this much since I went on my H. Rider Haggard jag! (and yes, I loved both She and King Solomon's Mines.)
I wish I had found some of this classic pulp stuff in junior high; I think it would have prevented me reading a lot of total junk. I can't tell you the plot of a single Bsbysitters Club book (though I read quite a few of them), but I know I'll always remember the dread as the stone door slides shut, sealing the party into the tombs of the kings in King Solomon's Mines. I'll always remember Ayesha (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed!) leading Alan Quatermain and his companion into the depths of the earth, and seeing her shriveled body fall as the eternal youth is taken from her. Who could forget John Carter in among the Green Martians, watching the moons of Mars speed across the sky and dreaming of Dejah Thoris?
Is pulp "good literature"? Not really. It's pretty light fare. But as Chesterton says in his excellent Defense of Penny Dreadfuls,  
"These common and current publications have nothing essentially evil about them. They express the sanguine and heroic truisms on which civilisation is built; for it is clear that unless civilisation is built on truisms, it is not built at all. Clearly, there could be no safety for a society in which the remark by the Chief Justice that murder was wrong was regarded as an original and dazzling epigram.

"If the authors and publishers of Dick Deadshot, and such remarkable works, were suddenly to make a raid upon the educated class, were to take down the names of every man, however distinguished, who was caught at a University Extension Lecture, were to confiscate all our novels and warn us all to correct our lives, we should he seriously annoyed. Yet they have far more right to do so than we; for they, with all their idiocy, are normal and we are abnormal. It is the modern literature of the educated, not of the uneducated, which is avowedly and aggressively criminal. Books recommending profligacy and pessimism, at which the high-souled errand-boy would shudder, lie upon all our drawing-room tables. If the dirtiest old owner of the dirtiest old book stall in Whitechapel dared to display works really recommending polygamy or suicide, his stock would be seized by the police. These things are our luxuries. And with a hypocrisy so ludicrous as to be almost unparalleled in history, we rate the gutter-boys for their immorality at the very time that we are discussing (with equivocal German professors) whether morality is valid at all. At the very instant that we curse the Penny Dreadful for encouraging thefts upon property, we canvass the proposition that all property is theft. At the very instant we accuse it (quite unjustly) of lubricity and indecency, we are cheerfully reading philosophies which glory in lubricity and indecency. At the very instant that we charge it with encouraging the young to destroy life, we are placidly discussing whether life is worth preserving.

"But it is we who are the morbid exceptions; it is we who are the criminal class. This should be our great comfort. The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just as there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists. But the average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets. It may be a very limited aim in morality to shoot a "many faced and fickle traitor," but at least it is a better aim than to be a many faced and fickle traitor, which is a simple summary of a good many modern systems from Mr. d'Annunzio's downwards. So long as the coarse and thin texture of mere current popular romance is not touched by a paltry culture it will never he vitally immoral. It is always on the side of life. The poor--the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life-- have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a "blood and thunder" literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men."

(The entirety of this excellent essay can be found at

1 comment:

Marcy said...

I recently shelved a collection of pulp stories. I read a bit of the intro, and it had some good points. There were a lot of low quality stories in the pulps, but also some very good ones. Many major sci-fi writers started out in the pulps (Asimov, I think?). And, of course, this was affordable fiction for the masses! Getting people to read is most likely a good thing, even when the books they're reading aren't written very well. And when they ARE written well, then...