WARNING! This article is NOT about politics. It is about WRITING and WRITERS. Here at NPT we have taken vows that seem akin to those of the Night’s Watch which prohibit political discussions. Of course,
This article is NOT about politics. It is about WRITING and WRITERS. Here at NPT we have taken vows that seem akin to those of the Night’s Watch which prohibit political discussions. Of course, we do live in a time of political saturation and the older I become the more I realize it was ever so. There were never any ‘good old days’.
Many of the texts I studied during my time at Seton Hill taught me writers are not immune to the issues of their day. Pulp fiction writers were affected as much as anyone. In chapter 3 of ‘Gumshoe America’, titled ‘The Pulp Writer As Vanishing American’, by Sean McCann, he begins with a 1944 quote from ‘Democracy on the March’ by David Lilienthal of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In it, Lilienthal expresses a need for, but a deep apprehension of, a centralized government in Washington D.C. that loses touch with “the everyday life of ordinary people…for in this citizen participation lies the vitality of a democracy.” McCann then follows with a quote from Fletcher Pratt, “[The pulp writer belongs to] the long list of vanishing Americans.” Holy crap-o-ly! Are Fletcher and McCann saying Pulp Writers were no longer writing about the current state of affairs? Were they becoming extinct? To answer those questions, we have to see how Pulp fiction evolved.
With the industrial revolution came rising literacy rates and mass migration to cities. This exponentially increased numbers of readers. With this increase, writers responded with stories that engaged audiences with newer, less ‘classically liberal’ views of society. Not liberal in the political sense, mind you, but classical liberalism, as in the traditional way of doing things. Many of these stories were written not just with endings that reset the “order of things” as was the tradition of puzzle, cozies and malice domestic types of mysteries, but presented newly arrived bumpkins affected by high rent, rising food costs, unsafe working conditions, pollution, spreading disease, and high crime rates with something new. The vagrancies of a commoner’s life were becoming increasing complex, and mystery authors responded with more and more relatable tales that reflected these realities. Pulp fiction reflected that discourse about a more complicated life with graphic violence and punchy language.
Then, as now, writers did not live in a vacuum, and arguments of centralized vs. decentralized government, the formation of unions, and collapse of the world economy between two world wars pushed the evolution of storytelling, at least for the detective genre, through different phases at the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th centuries. For one of many lists of mystery sub-genres and their evolution read this short blog, What’s in a Name? Mystery Subgenres Explained, by Elizabeth Foxwell, co-founder of the Malice Domestic convention. It’s not bad, but I disagree with her portrayal of Chandler’s essay “The Art of Murder” as an example of the rules of fair play, normally associated with cozies and amateur detective mysteries. I will address that shortly.
As American society became more complex, so did its detectives. The tranquil idealism of ‘everything in its place, including people’ of Agatha Christie’s settings was not the backdrop for Chandler’s protagonist Phillip Marlowe. Los Angeles, Marlowe’s home, was and is today a maelstrom at the intersection of big business and big government. During the late 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, these massive self-interests were trying to convince the local population of a benevolent decentralized government interested only in improving their lives, all the while it continued to corral assets of land, water, and mineral rights. While the greatest generation was off killing Nazis, the rest were having a tough life in the mean streets of cities like Los Angeles. Chandler wrote about that life using language the lower classes understood and violence they wished for.
In The Art of Murder, which you can read here, Chandler’s position about the changing mystery/detective landscape was the need for reality in detective fiction. That was the point of his essay – in Phillip Marlowe’s world there wasn’t a lot of fair play, but there was plenty of reality that readers could relate to. Chandler knew life couldn’t be wrapped up pretty and tied with a bow. McCann’s Gumshoe America confirms how Hard Boiled and Noir responded to a changing political culture echoing Chandler’s point.
Furthermore, writers didn’t stop writing about their society with the passing of Hammett, Chandler, Cain, etc. Within the mystery genre, the trend of Hard Boiled and Noir provided commentary on real life with a new generation of authors, like Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Walter Mosley, and Robert B. Parker. Others, Sue Grafton, Ian Rankin, Louise Penny, John Grisham, Kristin Higgins, Katie Carlisle, Donna Andrews, and many, many, more, also put protagonists into a harsh reality with the challenges of ordinary citizens. But the language had started to change; people didn’t speak the same way. In any event, whether they were heavy on social commentary like in Hard Boiled and Noir, or used a lighter touch, as in cozy mysteries, they commented on current life. Janet Evanovich’s protagonist Stephanie Plum may have a more humorous take on today’s environment than Robert B. Parker’s Spencer, but the commentary is there just the same. Modern writers are not shy of commenting on politics, current events, issues of the day, you name it.
So back to the Holy Crap-o-ly. What do Fletcher and McCann mean when they suggested Pulp writers were vanishing? Flectcher made his comment in 1939 and McCann quotes Lilienthal’s 1944 words. Can we assume the publishing world had begun to change? I think so. America’s move into a more technological world dispelled lingering myths of ghosts and goblins and science brought the universe into the living room. The Pulp masters’ tales that gave readers fantastical protagonists fighting overwhelming odds against corrupt governments, Cthulhu, Shoggoths, Martians, robots, creatures at the center of the earth, monsters of the Hyborian age, and all other weird manner of things, began to fade. Perhaps McCann was just trying to point out the ebb of this particular style of writing. Today’s society is quite violent on its own, while our government is now in disarray. This doesn’t stop good writing for the average Joe through metaphor of monsters or strong men with a code, far from it; there are plenty books for readers to enjoy giving modern society the villains they want and the protagonists they need, using a different, more modern idiolect.
Just as fairy tales passed from adult lore used as teaching tools to watered down DVDs to keep children occupied at night, Pulp fiction moved from a popular hip pocket and comic mag endeavor to a niche market within the publishing industry. But it hasn’t made it any less marvelous to read.