Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bubble World: The Emptiness of Pulp

A few months ago MPorcius called me out for stating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is an empty piece of fiction. He’s right.  I didn’t qualify the statement.  A Princess of Mars is an ideologically empty piece of fiction.  This important detail aroused in my brain a discussion regarding the relative merits of pulp speculative fiction.  By coincidence just a few days later, I discovered an unpublished case study in Speculiction’s archive that is so relevant I’ve decided to post it word for word in an effort to shed more light on the subject.

Research Title: Reader Response to Juxtaposed Forms of Speculative Fiction


Joe: likes science fiction but despises horror
Sally: likes fantasy but hates steampunk and hard sf

Case study #1

Both Joe and Sally were provided Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, given time to read, and then brought together for a discussion related to the books.  Time limit for discussion: one hour.

Proctor’s Notes: Joe and Sally were initially full of energy to talk about the books they had read. Joe was eager to vaunt the qualities of the space opera while dashing to pieces the urban fantasy.  He cited the originality of the premise, the exciting plot, and kick-ass nature of the modified humans as things he liked about the Vinge, and the cheapness of horror, the excess of blood, and the predictability of the storyline as reasons the Meyer was bad.  Sally held quite the opposite opinion.  She felt the space opera was slow, the dialogue overblown, the characters silly, and, interestingly enough, reported having blown milk out her nose laughing at the incredulity of dogs piloting sailboats. With Twilight, however, she thought the love story between the heroine and the vampire was well developed, related emotionally to certain scenes, and greatly enjoyed the way which the plot surprised her time after time.  These points were discussed only briefly, however.  Joe and Sally intelligent human beings, each quickly realized they had differing personal interests in fiction, and that additional discussion would lead nowhere of mutual significance.  No further discussion arose, and the remaining 45 minutes were spent in silence.

Case Study #2

Both subjects were provided The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle, given time to read (a month for Ash), and then brought together for a discussion related to the books.  Time limit for discussion: one hour.

Proctor’s Notes: both subjects arrived at the discussion a little subdued. When asked why he was quieter than the first discussion, Joe stated that he was still pondering Ash, particularly the ambiguous ending, the novel’s intent, and the relationship of the modern portion of the text to the historical.  Sally responded with the idea that by structuring the novel as such, perhaps Gentle’s intent was to make history more subjective than we currently take it to be, and cited a few key passages to the effect. Joe admitted he could see the point, but answered that due to the fact the historical section seemed to contain elements of the impossible, he wondered at the underlying reality, regardless of era.  Sally citing Ash’s seemingly supernatural experiences as central to the novel’s reading experience, the discussion then dipped into Ash’s relative femininity and the differences in her relationships with the other characters, particularly treatment and deference. From there, the discussion shifted gears to Ash’s relationship to fantasy heroines in other works of fiction.  Joe and Sally speaking in calm, measured tones, both agreed that Ash was a far more realistically presented character than most women in epic fantasy, and that for this, derived not only empathy from the reader, but likewise evoked questions regarding the role of women in fantasy, the experience of being a woman, as well as the role of women in society as compared to those men typically occupy and whether or not the associated stereotypes have value.  There was barely 5 minutes left on the clock before the discussion shifted to The Handmaid’s Tale—something which both subjects agreed was not enough time, and therefore set a date at Speculiction’s coffee bar immediately after the session to carry on the discussion.  The last the proctor heard before the subjects left the room was Sally postulating that the fictional societies in both Gentle and Atwood’s stories, despite the centuries separating them, seemed to have more in common than were different, and as a result may have been commenting on our own society.  She was listing the ways as they disappeared around a corner.

Proctor’s Conclusions:

The caliber of discussion evoked by the two case studies was markedly different.  The discussion resulting from Case Study #1 was limited to the basic building blocks of story (plot, setting, character) and whether or not Joe and Sally liked or disliked how each author presented them.  Accordingly, the input each provided was more individual and preferential in nature.  Case Study #2, however, saw the discussion interact with not only the concrete qualities of each text, but likewise society and culture at large, particularly the manner in which gender is perceived in fiction and reality, as well as the objective reality of history.   The input each provided was noticeably more intellectual, socially conscientious in quality, and touched upon ideas of concern to humanity at large, particularly in the West. None of this type of discussion was observed in Case Study #1.

Dashing heroes, feats of the impossible, epic battles, cheesy romance, contrived relationships, splashy visuals, risky ventures, wooly aliens, wily villains, impossible twists, breasts and brawn, double-crosses, dangerous games, grand escapes, unlikely coincidences, gritty fights, damsels in distress—these are the main drivers of pulp science fiction and fantasy.  Unchanged since the dawn of time, they feature in stories with larger-than-life plotting, easily relatable (likeable/hateable) characters, and narratives that exist in recognizable, exciting, easily digestible fashion whose sole aim is commercial success. 

Yes, pulp is a lot of fun.  The emphasis on eye-candy and transparency, it may be the ultimate in passive enjoyment.  Luxury of the purist, the reader knows the encounter is entirely separate from reality.  And it’s precisely this separation—the lack of relevancy to the real world—that renders pulp “empty”.  Taken away, the reader can relax while reading, no need to engage one's self save connecting the dots of plot.  No need to worry the writer may have a social or political agenda.  No need to think laterally in order to interact with some complex idea the text might present.

Like a soap bubble, pulp’s substance is insular.  Even with all of the flash and bang, there is little to nothing to transcend the page to achieve value or meaning beyond—to burst the bubble, as it were, and exist in the real world.  As here we get into the thorny semantics of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, best to make them clear.  Reading pulp from one’s youth can have meaning.  Looking forward to getting home, sitting down with a hot cup of coffee, and picking up the latest bestseller to get your mind off work can have value.   Ideas that stimulate wonder and awe are a quintessential aspect of being human, and therefore valuable.  But these are all individual.  Everybody has different books they appreciate for nostalgia’s sake. We each have different ways of spending our free time to relax.  And everyone’s mind is activated by personally relevant visions and concepts.  Looking at the reasons MPorcius states A Princess of Mars is a “full” text one finds exactly these personally relevant reasons, i.e. sustained “me” and “I”.  “I also enjoy [Burrough’s] Victorian attitudes,” “One reason I read science fiction and fantasy books is to explore a different world,” and “Most important to me, when comparing Burroughs and Brackett as entertainers (and of course their primary objective is to entertain) is how vivid and vibrant their settings are, and how thrilling their scenarios are.  To be fair, MPorcius does mention that Burroughs writes about “what role men and women have in society and family” and also “addresses important topics like the role of the state, eugenics, religion, and the virtues and pitfalls of modern and primitive societies.”  I would argue, however, the word “addresses”.  If by “addresses” MPorcius means to use as plot devices and elements of setting, then yes, these aspects are “addressed” in perfunctory fashion.  If, however, the meaning of “addresses” is to present, investigate, unpack, and comment upon, then I would beg to differ—with a pointy stick.  Burroughs’ writings (at least what I have read) have no agenda beyond entertainment—and this wholly includes A Princess of Mars.  The man was interested in selling copy via vivid, exciting yarns, and at no time directly addresses any issues in-depth warranting a combination of “investigation,” “unpacking,” or “commentary.”

This leads to the conclusion: none of the arguments MPorcius offers make A Princess of Mars a full text, i.e. that it has value beyond personal preference or that insular to the text.   What for MPorcius is ‘”vivid and vibrant” is for other readers dull and boring.  Likewise, what is “memorable, striking and ‘alive’” is forgettable by other readers’ standards. And what is “addressing the role of men and women in society” is just an incidental way of coordinating plot to achieve as much bang for the buck as possible.

Simply put, A Princess of Mars, and like-minded pulp, is devoid of material that transcends the page to incite further discussion, warrant deeper commentary, make a point artistically, or achieve more universal significance.  It doesn’t bounce and rattle with theories and ideas.  There’s nothing to sink one’s conceptual teeth into, nothing to mull over once the last page has been turned.  Little that might stimulate the intellect, get its gears turning.  The concepts and theories, assumptions and commentary, sub-text and layering inherent to a literary text, on the other hand, are open to critique and discussion.  It provides a springboard from which more fruitful, edifying discourse may arise, i.e. something that might have real relevance.  The goal more than dollars for smiles, it has meaning and value beyond entertainment—perhaps to raise awareness about particular issues or situations, comment with purpose upon society and culture, evoke discussion on the human condition and or where we’re headed as a whole, and, just possibly, initiate change or understanding.  After all,  Joe and Sally's second conversation was going somewhere.

Reading a simplistic space opera or epic fantasy is something that is an enjoyable, even a preferable experience, at times.  There are moments floating in the bubble—escaping  reality—is the best thing for mind and soul.  (And, I will concede, it’s every person’s right to argue whether or not Yoda would be able to defeat Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel.)  But let’s not make the mistake of putting pulp at the same level as fiction with literary ambition—of calling it a “full” text.  In its failure to transcend personal relevancy and engender discourse on ideas that touch upon significant aspects of society and culture in more universally meaningful fashion, pulp remains empty, oh so ideologically empty.


  1. This is fascinating and well worth the post... Although, do you suppose the differences come from behavioral cues rather than the books' content? The Handmaid's Tale practically has "Discussion Question" labels throughout, although not literally. It screams "I am serious, I have import, discuss me." Twilight, in the text and the marketing, is labelled "I am fun, cute, and romantic -- I am pop culture." There's still interesting stuff to talk about there. Whether or not it constitutes a reinterpretation of Mormon mythology/philosophy, for instance. Edward's place in the history of vampires, romantic leads, and male heroes. Who the author meant to be a role model and who was wish fulfillment or "just a character." I really dislike the book, but there's still stuff there to discuss.

    1. The Mormon idea I haven't heard before, and I suppose it is possible. But given the heavy focus on melodrama and rather mediocre writing style, I have to question whether it was intentional. The other things: "history of vampires, romantic leads, and male heroes" is precisely the kind of empty text I was discussing. Those three ideas have no bearing on anything relevant. Discussion points, sure, but they lack the real world impact of The Handmaid's Tale and Ash. Vampires have only fictional world impact...

      Not sure what you mean by behavioral queues. Could you explain, please? :)

    2. Ah, I beg to differ. Mythology is important, and legends are important, for what they say about us psychologically. Romance and gender ideas are also incredibly important psychologically and culturally -- just as relevant as the role of women in fantasy, which you brought up in relation to Ash and The Handmaid's Tale.

      I think I just mean The Handmaid's Tale signals it's a book to discuss. You come across lines of dialogue or description and it seems obvious "the author is making a statement about feminism here and wants us to discuss it." All of the book's marketing signals that it's a serious work and you're supposed to be serious about it. Twilight is the opposite -- all the marketing signals that it's "just for fun," and people don't generally think "This line indicates Edward's masculinity -- how do we perform gender?" or anything like that, even though they COULD.

      So, I'd argue that authorial intent makes a difference -- I'd definitely agree that there's MORE to discuss in The Handmaid's Tale than in Twilight, because it's designed to be that kind of "big sociocultural ideas" book. But I also argue that designing it to be a big sociocultural ideas book makes people more thoughtful and willing to discuss it. The fact that Twilight is a "low culture" romance/teen vampire book makes people less willing to share what they actually think. So, because of authorial intent, I'd agree the intrinsic discussability of the books is different (and I believe that's your main topic here), but I the marketing of those books and the authorial cues also make people react to them differently. :)

    3. I don’t disagree with the obvious. Every book contains something that can be discussed. "Joe met Sally" is enough to get into gender discussion. Yes, of course author intent makes a huge difference. And lastly, mythology, romance, and gender - as concepts in reality - are important. I just don't think that Twilight engages discussion on these concepts in important or significant fashion. Rather, their presentation focuses on superficial melodrama. Unless I have drastically misread the novel, Meyer’s intent appears nothing short of commercial success. Another way of putting this is, there's little material that transcends the novel to touch upon real world concerns. Forgive me, but the last time I checked, vampire rights and the emotional travails of a mortal loving a vampire were not major touch points of modern cultural or social concerns. They are insular to fiction. Were Meyer to have engaged with the history of vampires or took it upon herself to examine relevant social issues concerning gender through the vampire relationship, I would consider the text to have mythical or gender value beyond pulp.

      (By comparison, Mary Gentle intentionally positions Ash to be a character whose story transcends the novel. From commentary on the common presentation of female warriors in modern culture to the perception of women in society, Gentle wants to engage with real-world gender concerns, thereby giving her text value beyond the page.)

      Just to be clear, I’m not saying that the line between pulp and literary fiction is clear, and that I am the arbiter of that line. Only that in the case of some texts, their contribution to social and cultural movement is minimal, and for that should be looked upon as meaningful only in the personal, not social sense.

    4. Yeah, I think we pretty much agree. There's basically nothing of significance that Meyer was engaging with on purpose, and that puts some strict limits on the discussability. So, are you arguing that the author's intent (or success at accomplishing literary intent) is the difference, making a work "full"/cultural vs. "empty"/personal? Or perhaps that a literary work has more impact on the real world and pulp stuff is more a manifestation of existing culture, not something that affects/changes that culture? I'd mostly agree with that (defining literary and pulp as two poles of a spectrum rather than a clear divide, of course).

      (As full disclosure, I've recently written a senior thesis on the cultural effects of the novel Pamela in 1740 and am interested in that sort of thing more broadly... So this is a very interesting conversation, thank you. :) )

    5. I found myself shaking my head 'yes' to your summary, so yeah! - and I like the spectrum rather than divide remark.

      I'd never heard of Pamela, but just read a little about it. (Perhaps the original Lolita?) In the historical context, seems a very intriguing novel. Risque in its sexuality, and divisive in its plotting, (post) modern sensitivity to gender would only seem to heighten the controversy. in short, looks like plenty of material for a thesis! What was your angle?

    6. Thanks!

      My angle was that it set a cultural stage for human rights legislation. Talking about authorial intent is really fascinating here, because it's so unclear what he wanted to do! Here are the blog posts:

      Sorry for the delay -- Since I use Wordpress I don't get notifications for blogspot comments and always forget to come back and check!