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 🙂