Today I introduce a new, intermittent series here at Every Day Should Be Tuesday: The Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive. With each post I will look at the work of a particular author or at a particular series and discuss how good it is, how pulp it is, and how superversive it is.
There is a basic human tendency, when you come across a label you find very useful, to start slapping it willy-nilly on everything you like. The terms “pulp” and “superversive” get thrown around a lot by a lot of people who run in the same circles. But, at the same time, they are distinct aspects of storytelling with a certain amount of tension between each other. So I think it is useful to both attempt to define them and to attempt to distinguish between them.
A story can be good but be neither superversive nor pulp. A story can be pulp but be neither superversive nor good. A story can be superversive and good but not pulp. A story can be all three (easier said than done). A story can be none of the three (easy enough—the real trick is figuring out how to win awards for it). And so on. Think of it as a Venn diagram.
You know, good. This is both the hardest and easiest aspect to define. It is necessarily subjective, though if enough of the teeming masses like something, as some point you have to stop calling it “bad” and start calling it “not to my taste.”
The important point is that good is distinct from superversive and pulp. I like A Song of Ice and Fire a lot (well, the first three books). But it is neither pulp nor superversive in the least.
One other thing about “goodness” that will help you with my approach to pulp and superversive: it is a sliding scale. Some works are great. Some are good. Some are just serviceable, others bad. Similarly, a work can be very superversive, a little superversive, or not at all, and likewise for pulp.
There is a pro and a con to using the term “pulp”—pulp magazines were a thing that really existed. These were “inexpensive fiction magazines that were published from 1896 to the 1950s.” They were called pulp because the magazines were printed on cheap wood pulp paper, as opposed to the magazines called “glossies” or “slicks” that were printed on higher-quality paper.
My definition will necessarily be heavily influenced by the actual magazines, but I am not referring to them. “Pulpy” or “pulp-like” would be more accurate, but I will stick with the less clunky “pulp.” (I should also note that I’m not using pulp to draw a contrast with “literary,” as I have occasionally been known to do. That is a discussion for another day.) With dozens of titles or more, pulp magazines covered a lot of ground. For my purposes here, I am concentrating on SF titles like Weird Tales and Planet Stories and ignoring the detective pulps, the pulps that featured superhero precursors like The Shadow and Doc Savage, and so on.
The first thing that you need to know about the pulp magazines is that they were popular. Really popular. In the market’s heyday, the most popular titles sold as many as a million copies of each issue. Pulp magazines have a reputation as low quality, but this was a big market with a lot of readers, and it produced writers of towering influence like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft.
The pulp magazines were a product of both their time and the medium. Without TV or video games to compete with, the market was huge. And much more of it was working class than is the case today. These were not people who cared about impressing their friends with the books on their shelves. After a long day of manual labor, they just wanted to be entertained. The magazines were under 200 pages, so the stories had to grab and keep the reader’s attention. Novels were often first released (often only released) serially through a pulp magazine. Long dead stretches in the middle of the novel wouldn’t cut it. Many stories were in the novelette word range. All of this led to a bias toward action and adventure over characterization and intricate worldbuilding.
To say that the works were products of the time and medium doesn’t mean they were bad. Indeed, that way of thinking—automatically assigned a lower value to a work simply because it was written in a different context—is nonsensical. Nor is it to say that pulpy works can’t sell today. To the contrary, I think there is a market opportunity. For example, Americans don’t go to church as often as they did a hundred years ago, but the change has been much more dramatic among the class that largely fills the publishing industry than in America as a whole. It follows that traditional publishing is unconsciously biased against works that “echo” that Judeo-Christian tradition (this applies to superversive works as well, which tend to echo that tradition in different ways).
One final point about the pulp magazines: they did not recognize the lines among genres the same way the modern SF market does. Weird Tales mixed a little science fiction and horror in with its fantasy. And I don’t mean within a single issue—I mean within a single story. Just as important, the SF stories were not necessarily all that different from the non-SF stories. Robert E. Howard, for example, wrote stories for both SF and non-SF mags. All could fairly be labeled as “adventure stories.” The genre lines would only arise with the ghettoization of SF, Joseph Campbell’s push for hard science fiction (broadly speaking) and the immense popularity of The Lord of the Rings, and the rise of the book market.
I do not mean stories that merely pull superficial elements from pulp stories, especially those that take a tongue-in-cheek approach. I’m not opposed to that sort of thing, but it is very un-pulp.
Jasyn Jones gives a pretty good what pulp stories are at their best, labeling them as red science fiction, as opposed to pink or blue. I would strip pink science fiction of the embedded value judgment (it can be good or bad like any other sort), but otherwise I like the distinction he draws a lot. If you want examples of modern pulp, there is no better place to turn than Cirsova Magazine.
So we are left with some traits of modern day pulp: it tends to be shorter, it freely mixes genre, it has a high idea-to-page ratio, it is heavy on action and keeps to a punchy pace, it is earnest, and protagonists are often heroic in the pagan tradition (not necessarily the same as heroism in the superversive sense). I will dig into a little bit more of what all this means in a modern story as the series progresses.
“Superversive,” on the other hand, is a neologism. It is best and primarily known in conjunction with the Superversive Press and its blog. The word superversive is a play on “subversive”: “As a subversive work strives to bring about change by undermining from below, a superversive work strives to bring about change by inspiring from above.” Rather than seeking “truth or beauty,” a subversive work seeks to “shock, to wound, to épater les bourgeois – to subvert the values of society.”
People associated with Superversive Press have written several posts that I will be drawing from that attempt to pin down just what the term means. The best are by Tom Simon, Corey McCleery, and L. Jagi Lamplighter. Each identifies particular traits of a superversive story. Simon points to moral high ground and courage. McCleery insists that superversive stories should be aspiring/inspiring, virtuous, heroic, decisive, and non-subversive. Lamplighter argues that, for a story to be superversive, it must have good storytelling, the characters must be heroic, and the story must have an element of wonder.
These are good starting points. You can probably guess which trait I like least. “Good storytelling” isn’t useful as a trait because it conflates superversive with good. The only other term I really don’t like is “non-subversive.” If you are defining superversive in contrast with subversive, as Simon does, then it is no more than a truism. And a superversive work may subvert, indeed, it probably should.
Simon uses subversive in a particular sense that is very useful in showing what superversive is by what it isn’t. But it would be a mistake to think that this means a superversive work cannot subvert tropes in the broader, TV Tropes sense. All great fiction subverts tropes because even the best written story simply must do something unexpected. Cast out subverting tropes more broadly and there is no longer any overlap between good and superversive on the Venn diagram. And, of course, if subversion has come to be the rule of the day, then superversive works necessarily subvert the tropes of the day.
My issues with the term superversive are less with how it is defined than with how it is used. The first major one is directly above. The second is a tendency to conflate superversive with what we might call “noblebright.” Superversive can be plenty dark so long as there is hope. You can’t spell eucatastrophe without “catastrophe,” after all. Even grimdark can be superversive. Ed McDonald’s Blackwing is probably the best example of this.
Of the traits listed above, I think the most useful is an “element of wonder.” It is too bad it is the worst label. It is something more than a little speculative flair; it is “the kind of wonder that comes from suddenly realizing that there is something greater than yourself in the universe, that the world is a grander place than you had previously envisioned. The kind of wonder that comes from a sudden hint of a Higher Power, a more solid truth.” Pulling a few other traits from above together, I think that a superversive work must also exist in a moral universe. This does not mean it must be a morality play, that characters must all act morally, or that all moral decisions must be rewarded (and vice versa). But it does make moral choices heroic, and immoral ones tragic (a lot of modern writers think they are writing tragedy, but are merely writing stories that are cynical at best and nihilistic at worst). There should be hope. I would also point you to Jim Valvano’s famous ESPYs speech: “To me there are three things everyone should do every day. Number one is laugh. Number two is think—spend some time in thought. Number three, you should have your emotions move you to tears. If you laugh, think, and cry, that’s a heck of a day.” If a book makes you laugh, think, and cry, that’s a heck of a book! A superversive work should try (succeeding is a matter of “good”).
As with pulp, just what exactly I mean by superversive will be better explicated in discussion of specific works than in my attempt to define the term.
To that end, I will kick off the series on Thursday with a discussion of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien through the Good, the Pulp, and the Superversive lens. I also have my eye on Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive and Miles Cameron’s Traitor Son Cycle. As I (slowly) continue this series, I will use this post as an index for each post examining a particular series or writer’s work.