A Literary Question

I have spoken of this before, but it continues to worry me. Should my fiction contain meaningful insights into the human condition? Or should it just tell a good story?

There may well be times when I have highlighted something of the suffering so many go through, or have even used metaphor to tell a greater truth, but if I have it has always been secondary to the plot in my mind.

I admit it! When I write, I don’t set out to edify anyone, or raise questions of morality or justice, or challenge the prevailing views of society. What I am hoping to do is tell a good story without my writing getting in the way of it. It’s true there is an underlying comment on racism and immigration in A World Of Assassins, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about a series of murders and the detective sent to another world to catch the killer. There are comments and views on depression throughout much of Hard Winter, but it’s not the driving force of the novel. I try to write believable characters that readers will invest in, and stories they can get involved in. If anything else hitches a ride at the same time, it’s a minor issue compared to the narrative whole.

Let’s turn the tables. What about me as a reader? Do I choose the fiction I read to be educated, to grow as a person? Do I f… no, I don’t. I read non-fiction books for that kind of thing. I read fiction to be entertained, to escape, to bury myself in a good story well told. A quick look at some of my favourite writers will show that. Wonderful writers and story tellers like Richard Laymon, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H Rider Haggard, Steve Gerlach, Brian Keene, Guy N Smith, William Meikle, Arthur C Clarke. It’s true that within the full (and growing) list of my favourites there are some “deeper” writers, people like H G Wells, Frank Herbert, Douglas Clegg, who often have some very serious thought and meaning behind stories (and the previous list are not above the occasional foray into more “serious” passages in their fiction) but the one thing they all have in common is the ability to tell a good story and not let the message get in the way. Ok, so maybe H G Wells was guilty of it occasionally, but not generally when it came to his science fiction, which is what I enjoy the most.

Where does this leave me? Well, if many of the authors above are considered “pulp” writers (as they are) then I hope I am worthy to be included, at some time in the future, in their ranks. Pulp is not an insult. Pulp is a history of writing where the story is the most important thing, not some hidden (or not so hidden) message, and not some attempt to be “literary” by focussing on the minutest detail with a plethora of long words that send most of us rushing to Google to find out what the hell they mean.

What set all this off? We’re beginning to see the lists of “best *** books of 2015 so far” (fill in the genre of your choice) and, as is so often the case, the books that tend to be chosen are the most “literary” of the genre – the ones with deep meanings or, alternatively, worlds so weird that the reviewer feels they must be deep and they are just missing the point (which they will never admit to of course). Where are the lists that are the great stories, the exciting tales? Believe me, this is not bitterness at never being on any such lists (I have a long way to go before I can even think of such a thing) but rather just the disappointment I feel when I read another list and find no books on there (or at least very few) that I would even read, let alone enjoy. The lists make me feel inadequate, then they make me angry for feeling inadequate.

In the end, of course, it’s all down to personal taste, and there is more than enough room for all types of storytelling in the world. But don’t look down on “pulp”. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to be a good “pulp” writer. It’s not easy telling a really good story and making sure your use of language assists, rather than hinders, the telling. I know. I’m still trying to get it just right.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, find and read some books by all the authors mentioned above. Every one of them is worth your time and effort (and your money). Good reading 🙂

Too Straight-Forward?

Is there a place for the straight-forward in genre fiction any more?

It’s a serious question with implications for me at least. You see, I’m under no illusions – I don’t write literature, never wanted to, never have done and never will. What I set out to do, and what I hope I succeed in doing at least sometimes, is to write good straight-forward stories that are easy to read, exciting and fun with believable characters that you feel something for, whether it be love or hate or just interest. Problem is, I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s a market for that any more?

This is where the problem comes from. I look at the books in horror and science fiction (the two genres I tend to write in) that are getting the rave reviews or being shortlisted in various awards (Stoker, Hugo, BFS etc.) and they seem to be almost universally clever or unusual books, or all too often the self-consciously off-the-wall book. I am not criticising those books, indeed I have read several and really enjoyed them, but they are not straight-forward, or what some people might call pulp.

I know the moment I use that dreaded word pulp there will be readers and writers (and particularly critics) who will immediately sniff and turn away as if they’ve just smelt something awful. It’s one of those strange things, pulp writers and readers seldom criticise the more literary among the genre, but the more literary often criticise the pulp. Why? In my opinion it takes every bit as much skill to write good pulp fiction as it does to write good literary fiction, it’s just a different skill. But I don’t think the critics or the people behind awards will ever realise or acknowledge that.

So, my question is whether there is still a market for good straight-forward storytelling when all the attention seems to be on the clever, more literary books? If there isn’t, my writing career is screwed before it’s even really got started.

I’m lucky as a reader that I like a fairly broad range of genre fiction. In horror I can go from the quiet, soft approach of Charles L Grant and T M Wright to the more in-your-face approach of Richard Laymon, Brian Keene, Guy N Smith and others. In science fiction I enjoy equally the books of Stephen Baxter, Arthur C Clarke, Jack Vance, Elizabeth Moon and so on. Surely there’s a place for all approaches to the genres?

Perhaps my greatest hope lies in the success of a writer like William Meikle, an excellent author at the height of his powers who writes exceptional pulp fiction (I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that). His popularity gives me hope that there are other readers out there like me who enjoy great story telling without the literary side-salad. And, of course, the grand master of pulp, Guy N Smith, is still writing, and authors like Steve Gerlach continue the work begun by Richard Laymon, so maybe, just maybe there might be an audience for my books out there – if my books are good enough of course. But that’s a question (and a worry) for another time.

So, to answer my own original question, yes, I think so and I hope so. To the pulp writers, keep writing the great stories and don’t be seduced by the temptation to be literary. To the readers, please keep buying and reading the books you love, doesn’t matter whether they’re literary or pulp as long as you enjoy them.

One thing’s for sure – I’m not going to be winning any of those literary prizes! 🙂