Some years ago a friend asked me why I didn’t like pulp — why, in fact, I pretty much loathed it.
It gets stuck in your teeth, and makes the orange juice too thick, I replied. Admittedly, I can now confess my sense of humor still needed work at that time. What can I say… I was younger then.
Haha, very funny; you know I mean pulp fiction, my friend said. Why do you despise the genre so?
At the time I simply said it was because there were no good action roles for women, and the fortuitous events which occurred to the protagonist went well beyond coincidence, instead being more a cruel destruction of one’s suspension of disbelief. As an example of this stupidity (which, alas, was not unique), in the book I’d just read the protagonist just happened to arrive at the unpassable mountain pass on the one single day per year that it was even remotely passable. Further, upon learning that special suits would still be required to forge through the pass, the protagonist was delighted to discover just enough suits waiting there for he and his small group of companions — and look! What a coincidence — they all fit perfectly too!
Okay, my friend said, that does push the boundaries a bit. But was there anything else that was bothering me about pulp fiction?
Yes, I replied, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. We shelved the conversation for the moment, years passed, we lost track of each other… and I didn’t think about it at all until the movie John Carter of Mars came out. I went to watch it (somewhat under duress) to see if I still felt the same about the pulp genre. I found I did — it still gave me that unpleasantly squidgy feeling inside, though I still hadn’t been able to put my finger on why precisely.
Just the other day, however, it hit me: I find pulp fiction dull and tediously predictable because it is nothing more than a White man’s self-aggrandizing daydream — at everyone else’s expense.
Thinking about it, and to be fair, I have not read an exceedingly large amount of pulp fiction. I am therefore basing this conclusion on what I have read: all the John Carter of Mars stories (which I almost immediately regretted wasting my time on), most of Robert E. Howard’s oeuvre, some of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series, most of H. Rider Haggard’s short stories, and some of the Doc Savage and The Shadow stories. I think I read a few Westerns that would qualify as pulp as well, though I’m not sure they’re truly part of the genre.
So that’s my bona fides. Now an explanation of why I feel this way:
As I said earlier, I intensely dislike pulp fiction as a genre because it is a White man’s self-aggrandizing daydream — at everyone else’s expense. The protagonist — I can’t bring myself to call him the “hero” — is invariably a square-jawed, two-fisted White man. Everyone else is there to look up to him in awe, to loyally serve him well past the boundaries of good sense, to stroke his ego without demands, to fall dramatically before him due to being an Evil foil to his clean-cut Western self-righteousness.
No, really: anyone Asian is an “inscrutable Oriental menace” to be defeated by the superiority of that previously mentioned clean-cut Western self-righteousness. Blacks get to be either loyal but comedic sidekicks, or primitive savages to again be defeated by Western blah blah blah. American Indians don’t even get to be comedic sidekicks — they’re all just more of the primitive savage typecasting — cardboard villains the protagonist can mow down without remorse or reflection.
That’s the non-White men — women get the shaft in other ways. White women can be either the love interest — often killed for tragic effect — or vile temptresses. Asian women only get to be dangerous dragon ladies or subservient and nameless servants. Even worse, unless Black or American Indian women are “princesses,” they’re completely erased! Further, princesses are there solely to fulfill Ariadne’s role: fall in love with the leader of the enemy of her people, turn her back on everything she’s ever known in order to aid him in escaping — and then, Theseus-like, he’ll dump her and successfully flee.
Yes, I know there are individual cases which can be dug up to disprove one or another of these assertions, but the problem is that the general pattern holds true for the genre. Pulp is a very simple, limited writing style, to the point that once you know the pattern you can invariably predict the ending — and for me, at least, that way lies stultifying boredom.
Frankly, I’m really glad the pulp genre fell by the literary wayside. Give me stories with well-rounded people in complex situations any day.