For a published writer, I realize I don’t read a lot of fiction.
Between my work and my other responsibilities, I don’t have a lot of spare time. A not-insignificant fraction of that time is usually spent chasing down avenues of research related to my current story. What little reading time I do have left is stolen from train rides, mindless chores, the odd half hour before bed.
Reading time is extremely precious to me. And I won’t waste it reading trash.
A common term employed in programming circles is garbage in, garbage out. Garbage input produces garbage output. The same applies to writing: if you read only garbage stories, the quality of your writing won’t rise beyond the level of garbage.
And, as a corollary, Sturgeon’s Law states that ninety percent of everything is crud.
Most modern fiction bores me. I spend most of the working week delving into operational manuals, management procedures and technical documents; the last thing I need from my fiction is even more of the same dry language. This right here disqualifies most of the modern ‘literary’ fiction I’ve seen.
It also disqualifies many Amazon bestsellers.
I get that light novels are popular, that indie authors have made a lot of money cranking out fast-paced stories written in simple language, that there are many readers out there who love such stories. I’m not going to knock on their tastes. But reading these stories remind me way too much of work; instead of drawing me into another world, they bring out the editor and writer in me, prompting me to issue edits and corrections and alternatives in my mind. The language is too coarse, the characters too shallow, the action too unbelievable for me to care.
Going beyond language, the premises and tone of other popular stories turn me off. Brutally nihilistic grimdark tales revel in despair and suffering; reading them is akin to wading through a psychic sewer. LitRPG stories set explicitly in game worlds where users can log off anytime they want have effectively zero stakes, as the player has nothing to lose even from dying. Harem fantasy stories are almost always wish fulfilment stories with hordes of beautiful women fawning over a passive or gamma male character, focusing on fanservice to the detriment of story and character. I could spend long hours complaining about the stories I’ve read and it still wouldn’t do more than scratch the surface.
There is enough suffering in the world that fiction shouldn’t add to it. If anything, fiction should strive to elevate readers above this fallen world and inspire them to work towards a brighter future. And yet, to be believable, fiction must reflect essential truths about human nature.
I may be a science fiction and fantasy author, but the truth is, my primary fiction reading is thrillers.
Thriller readers are a demanding lot. They expect authenticity from characters, action scenes and settings. The events in the story must be both plausible and exciting. Whether the plot follows a jaded detective hunting a twisted serial killer or a black ops contractor taking on a terrorist ring, the reader must be able to sit back and say, ‘This could really happen.’
Thrillers reflect truths. Truths about human nature and capabilities, especially at the extremes of performance were a gifted few soldiers and cops operate.
For a long time, I thought that was enough. And yet…
From the pen of Robert E Howard flowed vivid, mythical lands where adventurers and conquerors roamed free and wild. H. P. Lovecraft measured out cosmic horror drip by drip, line by line, before plunging the reader into the screaming abyss, far beyond hope of recovery. C. M. Moore infused her stories with heart, melding emotion and action in a distinctly feminine voice.
Once exposed to the power of the prose of the pulp greats, I realized I had been thirsting for beauty for all my life. The beauty of the written word, with the power to bring the reader to soaring heights and lightless depths and back again, to take him to worlds that never were but could have been, to clarify and illuminate principles universal to the human condition. The thrillers I’d read couldn’t come close; with rare exceptions, the prose is best described as ‘workmanlike’ — clean and simple to read, but no more remarkable than scaffolding or a delivery vehicle, and utterly staid in comparison to the craftmanship on display in the average pulp story.
The pulp masters were fond of literary techniques that would not pass muster today. Passive voice and awkwardly long sentences were commonplace. Lovecraft is infamous for run-on paragraphs that could easily stretch across pages. Howard’s portrayal of weapons rending armor and fighters throwing sword blows with all their might is factually inaccurate. Stories set in lost cities in darkest Africa or at the furthest ends of the world are no longer believable in an age of Google Maps and Infogalactic.
Times change. Tastes change. With every day science pushes back against the vast realm of ignorance, yet the growing illumination renders many old pulp tales implausible to the modern reader. Recreating the pulp age wholesale isn’t the path to commercial success. And I’m too detail-oriented to settle for unrealistic fight scenes. Reproducing old school pulp stories would leave that thirst for beauty unquenched.
This leaves me in the position of having to write the stories I want to read, to forge a path into the unknown.
This is the crux of the Pulp Revolution. To study from the pulp greats and adapt these lessons to modern times. To marry audience preferences and writing craft with literary power and cultural depth, and in so doing to revolutionise the field. This is the approach I’ve been seeking throughout my writing career, and only now have I the words and experience to describe it in writing.
It is the only way I have to slake the thirst within.
For pulp-style superhero action, check out my latest novel Hollow City!
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