Anticipated comeback of pulp fiction


I have always been a avid reader of detective/crime fiction. Reading fiction however, has taken a back seat ever since college life started and along with it, brough its academic pressures. The pandemic gave us all a reason to stay inside and while some discovered new talents and hobbies, some went back to old one. I belong to the latter category because I went back to reading for leisure and entertainment. The genre of detective and crime fiction is a pandora’s box which contains several other sub-genera within it. One such sub-genera is the genera of pulp fiction. Over the years, pulp fiction has lost its fame, popularity and dedicated reader-base. However, I assert that we can reasonably expect a comeback of the genera.

In order to write this article, some research was required.  In the age of internet and its vast resources, I turned to google pulp fiction and start collecting information. This proved to be way more difficult than I had anticipated. Not because there is a scarcity of literature which falls within this particular genre, quite the opposite indeed, but the search results pointed to the fact that it has been essentially replaced in popularity by ‘Pulp Fiction’ the 1994 movie, or articles and videos related to the process through which wood pulp is extracted to make paper any other associated word with pulp fiction lead to altogether different routes, altogether unassociated with the topic in question. Frustrated about the lack of useful information available, I came to a conclusion and this is this the first point that I wish to make in this paper; it is that there is very little literature and theory on pulp fiction. Adding to this difficulty, many of the accessible articles of authors who have written about pulp fiction genre seem to mostly restrict themselves to talk about its golden age and its supposed death. A genre whose contents no longer appeal to the present reader population. Assuming this to be a popular, if not a correct conclusion, this article aims to consider if a comeback of this genre is possible.

Pulp fiction literature: what, how, when

Cambridge English dictionary defines pulp fiction as: “Books about imaginary characters and events, produced in large quantities and intended to be read by many people but not considered to be of very good quality.” (“Pulp fiction”)

Most people today, if at all familiar with pulp fiction genre, would perhaps have a similar definition to give with some more added adjectives such as ‘action-packed’ ‘sleazy stories’ ‘lurid’ ‘cheap books’ etc. Contrary to the popularity of the genre reflected through its consumption in sales, there is an air of ‘hush-hush’ when talking about the genre. Literary critics and other gatekeepers of the literary world seem to suggest pulp fiction genre to be very low on the hierarchal rung (preservation of pulp fiction on track).  However the common definition of pulp fiction genre other than indicating its character by the paper quality it is being printed on and the length of the stories written, largely fails to point it out as wide encompassing genre. Pulp literature has evolved into an enormous mega text today which cannot possible be defined with such restrictive words. Pulp fiction was the beginning of all- crime fiction, detective fiction, romance novels, science fiction, fantasy etc., to name a few. Why it is so, will be discussed later on in the paper. It is not just limited to the popular understandings of pulp literature based on the topics described as ‘racy’, ‘erotic’ etc. This is not to deny that pulp literature does not encompass such genre, of course it does but stereotyping an entire genre through such narrow ideas would be a gross injustice. While its genre cannot be defined, pulp ‘aesthetics’ are still very much characteristic of this body of literature. Gritty, fast-paced, short stories and an abundance of content.  It is asserted that just because the epic pulp stories are no longer in print today like it used to, in the manner mentioned above, it doesn’t necessarily reflect its ‘death’. Evolution of the genre and its medium of being published should not be taken to amount to an end of a genre. Because if that were the case, then all form of literature which have taken digital form as a necessity, would have to be called ‘dead’ in the same sense as pulp fiction genre is said to be.  Therefore, it is established that a misunderstood definition of pulp fiction genre has led to it being misrepresented and misunderstood.

  • Origins of pulp in the west

The first pulp magazine was pioneered by a gentleman named Frank Munsey who revamped the Argosy magazine with a view to give more content to the readers by compromising on the paper quality of the magazine (Madison). He realized that people did not care much about the quality of paper being used as long as they were getting the content. Therefore, he started production of magazine made up of cheap pulp paper thereby drastically reducing the production cost of making the magazine and then sell at cheaper rates than the other magazines available in the market around that time, beating market prices and attracting more and more buyer of the ‘pulp’ magazine. This, coupled with the emergence of an educated middle class really took off the world of pulp fiction. This increased production of stories in pulp paper and an ever bigger emerging educated population who desired to buy and read gave rise to new writing styles and thus revolutionizing not only the readership demographic, but also the literary culture (A history of pulp magazine: An introduction). Pulp fiction was thriving. However, the onset of WW2 and paper shortages led to increase in production costs and in turn increase in the prices which they were sold as. The readership of the genre decreased. Thereafter, from what started as stories in pulp magazines, began to be published and sold in paperback and thus marked the ‘end’ of pulp literature published on pulp paper. Some other parallel sub-genres that developed out of pulp fiction genre such as the hardboiled crime genre, also often used interchangeably with pulp fiction, and noir genre have achieved and continue to achieve recognition.  

  • Pulp fiction in the subcontinent

Pulp fiction in south Asia, mainly in the context of the neighbor countries- India and Pakistan is attributed to prolific Urdu writers such as Ibne-Safi and Akram Allahabadi etc. Safi’s most popular detective series jassosi duniya remains a topic of deep interest among those who were fortunate enough to witness his writings. He wrote over 200+ books in his lifetime and inspired many more to continue his legacy of short pulp stories. While his most popular series was a detective/crime genre series, his contemporaries in modern day Hindi pulp fiction writers and even filmmakers, have aopted a variety of genres. Modern day Hindi pulp writers such as Sundar Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma and Amit Khan still enjoy considerable readership in the country. India and Pakistan, two newly independent countries and a growing literate population, was indicative of this rise of interest in reading stories which provided drama, suspense, thrill, with an abundance of supply (Pandey).

The parallels of the development of pulp literature in both the west and south Asia is noticeable. Remarking on the influence of the literature, Antonio Gramsci noted the value of pulp literature indicates the “philosophy of the age” or the general atmosphere of a society. Pulp and popular fiction are the cultural forms that effectively express a range of preoccupations largely ignored by or inaccessible in literary fiction (Joshi). So evident in Safi’s characters in the series of Jassosi Duniya. The setting in the books is of post-independence era and the characters are written with an air of dignity and patriotism. A reading of The poisoned Arrow makes it obvious to the reader of its reminiscent colonial past in the locations mentioned. Being the popular choice of the working class, pulp literature has always had themes which the ordinary man can relate to or fantasize about. In the introduction to the book The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp fiction, the author, Aurnava Sinha points out this exact observation. She says that the English inspired detective fiction stories although sell well among the privileged, the middle class with has their eyes on the mix and match genre inspired Indian pulp.

Why a comeback of pulp fiction is possible

Before, I begin this section, I would like to clarify that these indications are based on general trend observation which point to a possible comeback of the popularity of pulp literature and not a geographical analysis.

  • Pulp fiction as a means of social change

In the introductory paragraph of this paper, I asserted that all literary genres that occupy space today have evolved out of or once was a part of the pulp literature collection. David Morgan in his thesis, presents a history, beginning from the invention of the printing press to the modern day position of the body of literature known as pulp fiction. From the beginning, starting with first printed bibles to the modern day printed paperback pulp literature, it has always been a source of conversation, proving to be indication of social and political change. This therefore, is a criticism to the thinking that pulp literature does not have anything meaning to add and therefore, not considered good enough to be held in high regard. The print and spread of new ideas and information, in ancient times was very much dependent on the circulation of these printed books and pamphlets. The quality of paper used back then was also pulp. Printed on this pulp paper, ideas revolutionized thinking around Europe and the world. At a time when state sanctioned censorship was prevalent, it acted a means of communication and spread of ideas in secrecy. Therefore, all notions that pulp literature did not create any impact on the society gets misspelled from the very beginning. It brought about political changes when philosophers and other revolutionaries circulated their ideas and questioned the existing established system. Being the starting point of all form of information, it is now not difficult to decipher that the now well established genres, happened to break-away from the larger subset of pulp literature itself.

  • Pulp literature as a reflection of contemporary ideas

Famous Indian screenplay writer Javed Akhtar, in praise of Safi, gives credit to Ibne Safi for introduction of characters which were ‘larger than life’ and therefore it might be said to have formed the basis of modern Bollywood. He says this especially in the context of how he imagined the characters of Mogambo and Gabbar. Similarly, while mainstream literature shyed away from controversial topics, especially according to the standards few years ago, homosexuality was openly represented in pulp stories. In fact gay and lesbian pulp fiction enjoyed equal amount of popularity and were read in large numbers. In the US, the advent of the gay and lesbian pulp can be placed around the era when censorship was levied against printing and sale of obscene material. It is today considered as an important era in the fight for equality and recognition of homosexuality (Bronski). Used as a mechanism for dismantling sexual repression, it served a validation for homosexual desires. Along with it other common themes included normalization of same-sex relationships, not being ashamed of having a homosexual identity, usual themes about find love and creating families were also regularly seen. The concept of femme fatales was also popular within the pulp literature community. By creating female characters capable of things like murder through her seducing skills, it is said that pulp fiction, especially written by women displayed protofeminist roots (Smith).

  • Retro aesthetic and digitalization of pulp

Even though the popular consensus might be that pulp novels are dying as readership decreases, I assert that republication of these novel in English in the case of the exciting vernacular pulp fiction stories could very well be proved to be a comeback of pulp. The characteristic short stories will keep people on the edge and encourage more reading in the digital era where attention spans of average individuals have lessened. There is also a return to comic books. Animators and illustrators, with the help of developments in technologies have let the market for comics die down. Pulp literature, with its vibrant and shocking covers in order to gain attention of its readers can use same to its advantage. Everything vintage and retro has an added value in today’s markets and if not the same printed pulp, a digital version of the same pulp aesthetic will be a welcome move.

Works cited

“A history of pulp magazine: An introduction” accessed 21 June 2021

Bronski, Michael. “Fictions about Pulp.” Gay & Lesbian Review 8.6 (2001): 18-20.

Madison, Nathan. “The Argosy”. accessed 21 June 2021

Morgan, David. Pulp literature: A re-evaluation. Murdoch University, PhD Thesis. 

Pandey, Mrinal. “The life and death of Hindi pulp fiction” Livemint 21 June 2021

“Preservation of pulp fiction on track” The Economic Times Penache accessed 21 June 2021

Pulp fiction”. Cambridge English Dictionary, 21 June 2021, Cambridge Dictionary 21 June 2021

Sinha, Arunava. The Moving Shadow: Electrifying Bengali Pulp Fiction. Aleph Book Company, 2018

Smith, Dinita. “Pulp fiction by women with Protofeminist roots” The Newyork times accessed 21 June 2021.

Joshi, Priya. “Genre Fiction in India” The novel in South and South East Asia since 1945, edited by Alex Tickell, Oxford University Press, pg 201-211

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