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Old 04-19-2010, 09:15 PM   #1
Steven Lake
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When does good fiction become pulp fiction?

Ok, one of the arguments I was in lately in regards to writing is one gentleman's argument that most good writers stop being good writers once they've written more than 3 books. After that it becomes nothing more than "pulp fiction". IE, books written that have no other purpose than to sell lots of copies and make a lot of money, but really are very low quality writing, and in many cases a waste of the paper they're printed on. Hence the name "pulp fiction".

With that in mind, at what point do you think an author's works stop being original and start being nothing but "pulp fiction"? Two examples I know of right off the top of my head are Clive Cussler and Orson Scott Card. Now some fans of these authors might shoot me for suggesting that, but let me explain first. I like Cussler, and I think his stuff is great. But the originality and quality of his books sorta peaked at "Fire Ice" and then have been in a steady decline towards pulp fiction ever since, with a few scattered beacons of quality in the midst.

Orson Scott Card however is an odd one. He wrote an awesome novel when he did Ender's game. Speaker for the dead was alright, but nowhere near the quality of Ender's game. The rest just went down the pooper from there. Oddly though, he seems to have seen what he did wrong and completely redeemed himself with his shadow series. There are some other examples I could put forward of that list, but those are the two I'll start out with. With those in mind, what's your thoughts on the point when an author stops making good fiction, and starts just churning out mindless pulp fiction?

(puts on flame proof suit ^_^;; )
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Old 04-19-2010, 09:49 PM   #2
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This is slightly off-track, but I quite like Piers Anthony's approach to writing - have a pulp series which makes the money, and the more serious efforts which may not earn much but are far closer to the heart.

I say that, because I understand why an author might want to go the pulpy route. If it sells better, brings in a better income... well, it's like legally printing money...
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Old 04-20-2010, 04:30 AM   #3
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It's a puzzle to me that so-called pulp fiction is considered unworthy, Steve. Chandler and Lovecraft are two authors that spring timmediately o mind whenever I hear 'pulp' mentioned. Dickens and Doyle are two who wrote specifically for publications that would end as pulp. And they've stood the test of time. Also, many authors take time to get into their stride and just keep getting better the more and more they hone their craft. Having said that, there are others who don't want to change a winning formula and do tend to become tedious to all but the most ardent fan. Cheers. Neil
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Old 04-20-2010, 07:29 AM   #4
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I guess I'm a bit confused. Is the term "pulp fiction" used with regard to the quality of writing, or for the motivation for writing? If the latter, then ANY of us who charge money for our work are "pulp-fictionists." I don't do my work for free.

Having said that, I strive (as I'm sure all of us attempt to do here) to put out quality work. So, in that regard, putting out cheesy tripe for the sake of a buck is foolish, because in the end it hurts me as a writer. Maybe that's why I don't churn out as much literature as others do, but I'm extremely self-criticial when it comes to what I display for others to see, either in my novels (which cost money) or my short stories (which are free). Those are both reflections of me as a writer, and if they're not worth the time to read, then the reader will ignore any future work I put out.
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Old 04-20-2010, 08:24 AM   #5
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neilmarr, J.Dean, let me try and make this definition as clear as possible. Pulp fiction, by my definition and understanding, is any low quality work specifically written to capitalize on existing fame for the purpose of profits only. No real care or effort goes into it's writing. It's merely there to make a buck, and nothing else. In other words, a story that's dumped onto the reader with no real care or effort being put into the stories.

Case in point. The Twilight series is a good example of this. While I myself don't like the series at all, a lot of people do. The first two books (from my understanding, as I've never read them) were apparently real blockbuster quality novels. Then they took off and the next two were cranked out as pulp fiction in order to capitalize on that fame and really sucked, and had nowhere near the quality of the first two books.

I hope that clarifies the definition a little.
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Old 04-20-2010, 06:58 PM   #6
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Note this is my experinces of pulp fiction in the U.S.

Hmm... Some years ago I read one of the old Gernsback pulp fiction magazines.

Some of the stories outclassed sf stories I read in the 1960s, by big name authors. Most didn't.

Pulps were printed on the cheapest paper possible, some even cheaper than newsprint.

Other sf magazines were printed on much better paper.

While some pulp fiction I have read, and the old Ace Doubles were some 1950s pulp fiction, was poorly written, had plot holes you could drive a universe through, etc. but some of it was very good.

For those unfamilar with Ace Doubles.

They had 2 short stories, by usually different authors, back to back. Think of it as a 2 story anthology, as just one of them was too short to be published alone. Some of them were rife with cliches.

The 2 stories were inverted back to back. half of each was one story. Flip it over, and you have a new cover and a different story.

Not all of them were sf, some were mysteries, some like Film Noir, some erotic or detective stories. Like Mikey Spillane's 'Mike Hammer.' One of those I read many years ago was definately pulp fiction.
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Old 04-20-2010, 07:43 PM   #7
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I think the original critic is getting "pulp fiction" mixed up with "hack fiction." Pulp fiction is what it is from the start - it has a very specific meaning that it isn't a matter of quality. It's a genre. It's written fast and cheap, and punches the reader's buttons hard.

Pulp writers don't skate on previous credentials - very often they were writing under pseudonyms in the first place. (The pulp magazines often worked up the covers and indexes long in advance with made up names and titles, and writers would compete to get the assignment.) Many of those writers were brilliant, and all were working for low pay in a very competitive atmosphere.

What the original critic meant was that many writers, after reaching a certain level of success, just start repeating their successes - skating along on what they've done before. They become "hacks" writing to formula. IMHO, while this is sometimes true, usually when someone spouts a theory like that to blanket ALL writers, or all writers of a certain type, they're just posturing. Or sometimes they are just young and newly cynical. (Not speaking about the original poster here - but about the attitude he mentions in his friend.)

The problem is that we very often don't know the real arc of a writer's career. You only know what gets published and promoted, in the order they are published and promoted - you don't know the order it was originally written, and you don't know what the author has done that didn't appeal to his or her publisher. You also don't know what other issues might be affecting the author aside from purely creative issues. Scott Card wrote a heck of a lot before Ender's Game. I also knew him back then, and he has had quite a personality change since then, so... if you don't like what he writes now, is it really because of creativity, or is it that his vision is no longer interesting to you? (I don't like his current stuff, but I don't think it's because he's lost his creative edge.)

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Old 04-20-2010, 08:00 PM   #8
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I've often heard the term "pot boiler" used for a book that was written by a name author just for the cash. I am a fan of pulp fiction, quick easy reads that I don't have to think about. The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Perry Mason and Cool and Lamm. Gots to love 'em all.
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Old 04-20-2010, 08:25 PM   #9
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Alright, DaringNovelist, I'll go with your definition, as I see where you're going with this. I had always heard of badly written stories done purely for profit as pulp fiction, but I guess I understand your definitions as actually being better than mine. ^_^

So with that said, that still begs the question of when good fiction becomes "hack" or "pot boiler" fiction. I don't think we've argued that yet, as we've been sorta stuck on the semantics of proper terminology.
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Old 04-20-2010, 08:49 PM   #10
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I don't know that you can really draw a line between "good" and "hack." Most of the time it's a gradation, and even when it's cut-and-dried.... some pot-boilers and formula stuff is great. And some very original literature is lousy.

In the context you brought up - the sub-category of an author or series going downhill - I don't think we can generalize. I know authors who took ten books to really get great. I know others who go up and down from book to book. I've seen series where the first three books were okay, then a string of great books for three or four, then downhill.... and then around book twenty, the author "reboots" and gives us something great again.

I think, on a philosophical level, it would be great if authors could mix it up more and always stay at the top of their game, but the realities of the business just don't allow for that. In the old days, someone like Agatha Christie probably had the most power to do what she liked because she had so many popular characters and she was so prolific that she could jump from one to another. Publishers often want to rein in prolific authors and keep them on a managed and marketable path in terms of their book releases.

This is one of the reasons, btw, that you got people hyped about "pulp fiction." In my opinion, writing pulp is what kept so many writers really fresh in the old days. You write for the story and the readers, not for your reputation. Writers who wrote for the pulps developed so much skill and control, they could do almost anything when they applied it to their "real" writing.

And after all that, I do have a measure of quality. It's a rule Lawrence Watt-Evans quotes as the only rule of writing: "Thou Shalt Not Bore the Reader."
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Old 04-20-2010, 08:50 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steven Lake View Post
So with that said, that still begs the question of when good fiction becomes "hack" or "pot boiler" fiction. I don't think we've argued that yet, as we've been sorta stuck on the semantics of proper terminology.
My suspicion is that it hits when the author focuses on what will make the quickest buck - rather than on a quality product. Sure, the majority of writers are in the game to make money... but anyone who's done much writing can (I hope!) attest to that sly pull toward churning out something that's low quality but will ride a wave of popularity Like writing a vampire book because that's what all the cool kids are doing.
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Old 04-20-2010, 09:09 PM   #12
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I think it happens when an author believes all it takes to sell a book is to put their name on a cover and they stop listening to the story their characters are trying to tell. Like Alistair MacLean writing a sequel that starts where his movie ended (Guns of Navarone to Force 10 From Navarone), Laurell K. Hamilton's personal life getting in the way of her publisher's deadline so she gives us Micah, Ann Rice deciding not to use an editor cuz she knows what her readers want. These are all favorite authors of mine but they never quite came back after selling out.
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Old 04-20-2010, 11:25 PM   #13
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Ooo, I like the replies guys. DaringNovelist, you make some excellent points, but I think nomesque and waller4343 both hit this one right on the head. Or at least from my point of view anyways. That doesn't mean others aren't right, but I'm with them on what hack fiction is.
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Old 04-20-2010, 11:52 PM   #14
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From a reader's point of view, I think a favourite author descends into 'hack' when:

- the characters have different names and histories, but are recognisable from one book to the next (David Eddings)

- the plotlines follow similar paths from book to book, leading to severe cases of deja vu in readers
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Old 04-22-2010, 01:29 PM   #15
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The anti-pulp attitude is just elitism. I love a good book, but let's face it, a lot of book lovers are extraordinary snobs. Like someone else noted, Lovecraft and Dickens were "pulp."

Books are not art, sorry if some of you writers disagree with me. I do not consider myself an artist, I consider myself a storyteller. If there is a story to tell, whether it's a single "artistically done" drama or an action series, if there's a story to tell it's worth writing. People shouldn't have to worry about whether or not they are considered pulp authors.
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