The Pulp and the Unpleasant

Nathan Housley, the Pulp Archivist, had something on Gab about a video response to Jon Mollison’s reviews of Pulp Nova:

Most criticism of #PulpRev tends to come from the closely related #Superversive viewpoint. Here’s a critique from well outside the usual suspects. Is Grim right?

I don’t know about superversive but I think Grim is making a mistake by equating a story having certain elements in it and those elements taking over a story.

Characters can be gritty, unpleasant, and immoral and yet the world they occupy isn’t. The story doesn’t leave a nasty taste in your mouth. The plot and ending of say, The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (which I just finished), handled differently could have been exceedingly unpleasant. Yet that ending was satisfying. Sure, it’s grim and one villain walks away scot free. Justice doesn’t come from the law and Marlowe doesn’t follow the law anyhow. It’s gritty, full of immoral people, lies, murder, and blackmail. But it also has a moral center. Marlowe, despite his foibles, is a noble man willing to risk his life and career to protect a woman he doesn’t know. He gets himself in trouble for it and gets nothing in return.

I also just read Black Amazon of Mars by Leigh Brackett. The hero is a snarling savage who bites someone’s wrist so hard he breaks it. A horde of barbarians take over and loot a city and… well, that’s okay! The barbarians get to keep the city. But our hero, despite being mostly a savage, saves the world from ancient evil. Not only does he but he saves his two companions as well. How many modern stories allow that to happen? No, if you save the world, you’ve got to sacrifice something. Can’t save everybody.

There’s a difference between a story having nasty things in it and the story being nasty. It’s like the difference between Kolchak and Night Stalker. Unpleasant things happen in Kolchak. Nice old men get eaten by monsters. College fellows get the life sucked out of them. That show is so much fun. The remake sucked. It had no fun, no humor, and no heart in it.

The old stuff has something about it. Something wonderful. Something fun. Something that makes you want to keep reading and finding more like it. I mostly stopped reading for fun during college and then it took me a very long time to get back into it. I’ve always been very cautious about trying new authors and I couldn’t find much that interested me. I’d try new things and even if I finished the book would rarely go on to read more by that author. Reading The Three Body Problem was a bit of a shock. There was something incredibly imaginative and amazing about it, a feeling that I hadn’t gotten out of a book in a long time. And there’s more than a few unpleasant things in that book.

Pleasantness has got nothing to do with it. Modern works have lost all sense of wonder and what it is to entertain. And how can you have those when you know that the world is a filthy, nasty place full of wretched people? People who have no moral compesses, not even imperfect ones. A world where there are no good choices. Morality only comes in shades of dark gray and black. Nobody and nothing is good.

The world isn’t actually like this. It might suck, it even might suck most of the time, but the world is still beautiful and people can still have fun and do good things.

And even if the world really did suck utterly and completely all the time, why the hell would I want to read about that?

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