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The International Writers Magazine: Literary Issues:

On Reading ‘pulp’
Dr Marwan Asmar

In the 1990s I began reading what somebody tried to derogatory term as pulp fiction. I then specifically read such to improve my style of writing and editing. Of course, and sadly, I don’t do that anymore, the 1990s was a very stimulating intellectual period, reading novels which I would never have expected to read and enjoy.

In between rewriting articles and editing newspaper stories which seemed to have dragged on all day and week, I would find myself time to open and read a book that I already started. I would read in bed, on the couch, kitchen table, and sometimes in the bathroom. I took these reading episodes as work-related and a source of enjoyment. I found these books very quickly got you into the jest of the story, the action and the technique.

As a newspaper editor, I needed to be able to be trained to look at the text, and edit not only for content but for clarity, succinctness and to make it interesting for the readers.

And so I quickly found out to my pleasant surprise that reading ‘pulp’, especially from the late 20th century onwards, allowed you to do that because its written in an easy style, one that gets you very quickly involved from the first page, even first word, sentence, and paragraph.

Indeed, I came to believe, and quickly got to be under the impression that story writings become very much like journalism, having all the attributes of excitement, trepidations, flamboyancy and any other adjectives you can think of. To compare and contrast: When I was young I used to read many novels to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Elliot and the likes, and although I might now be receiving a lot of flak from readers I didn’t find these as exciting as the novels of today.

And this actually may lie in the style. In earlier writings, novels have tended to be couched in a language that would make it hard for the reader to understand, to stay alert, or follow what was being said. In earlier times, there was an implicit mantle judgment that was involved both in the writing of prose and in the reading of it. On the whole this is no longer the case today with modern fiction.

Although cynics and critics say today’s writers, novelists and story-tellers are pandering to film, television and theater, and need to get out the story-line and message out to readers and audiences as quickly as possible, they overlook the fact that language itself has developed, its style is constantly changing, has new emphasis of clarity, approach, methodology, succinctness, brevity and easiness in prose.

Although of course writing is still influenced by paradigms of approaches not all of which maybe easy and clear, the stream, although I sometimes wonder, is towards slickness, easy style, grabbing the consciousness of the readers that has become influenced by the global communications system, the new pace of life, the way we interact with each other, but they, and in no way, lessen the quality of writing and mantle and literary productions as it is suggested by some no doubt puritan writers.

The writings and novels of today are clearly different from the past. Although novels like Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, or James’s Joyce’s The Dubliners remain unquestionable classics, they are hard to read and fathom.

Literary patterns, train of thoughts, fixed orders, or logical steps simple ideas are couched together of concocted stream of consciousness that is at times hard to decipher or to follow and of which is seen as literature and literary prose.
Such writings may have appeared in the past as justified as obscure linguistic and literary styles for a different breed of readers, the highbrows and intellectuals of past societies, because of the lack of a mass literary market. But they are no longer today because of the universal access to mass education.

But even for the highbrow a logical literary consciousness is required and asked for by readers in this day and age where the thinking span is dictated by modern life, and readers don’t have the luxury to dwell upon literary meaning, concepts, ideas, thought process as was the case in the past. Above all, reading should be for pleasure, and not a torturous exercise embedded in code words or Morse codes for the pedantic or the pedagogical of a prevailing view to take whatever you want out of the text and leave the rest in obscurity as somebody once told me.

But influenced in a political culture that tends to frown on outright freedom of thought and expression, some people may feel more comfortable with the code words and fishing-in-the-bag attitude of writing. But clearly writing and hence reading as well shouldn’t be seen from a cryptic perspective. It should be clear, logical, concise and precise, and written for reasonableness, for enjoyment, for development, transparency, to add to thought and not for the obscuring of it, not only to satisfy a whim but a way of life and intellect and if it is used as a means for modern communication and media so be it.

Modern fiction is the most outward manifestation of this save for the new featurish form of journalism that developed from the 1970s onwards. The new technique became as follows: Writers and novelists write stories and ideas for television and the silver screen. But this leads to another set of questions if this is the basis of the modern novel, and if it is fair to be called pulp fiction and indeed what is pulp fiction.

Some of the fiction that is being written today is very complex in plot, character and story ideas based on real developments and events of what was happening in the world. Such includes Ken Follet’s Lie Down with the Lions and On The Wings of Eagles, Colin Falconer’s Dangerous, Stephen King’s Thinner, the various collections by John Grisham, David Lodge’s Nice Work and Thomas Thompson’s Celebrity.

These books, which span over a 30 to 40 year period, are representatives of many others that were being written in what may be called a cogent, succinct, easy style to read for the purpose of being made into films, either for the cinema or for television. And many of them were.

The other point is that tremendous amount of research was made before writing began and were made into books. Most glaring was Follet’s Lie Down with the Lions, the writer’s literary contribution to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the interplay of super-power rivalry at the end of cold war in the early 1980s and built around a love story between Russian and American spies amongst Afghan villages.

Follet had consulted many books as shown in the bibliography written at the end of his novel which shows that he wanted to know everything about the Soviet entry into Afghanistan and the subsequent development before talking about the characters, the plot, and the relationship between them.

Other books have been equally interesting. Take Thomas Thompson’s Celebrity. While it centers around Hollywood preferred trivia, the novel has insight on different aspects of life, and the journalistic line that follows through one character is very revealing for its originality as the author takes you to different scenes of how news material is made, story collection, story writing, about telling it how it is and news setting.

The author realistically takes you into the news room, serving as a very valuable book of those interested into going into journalism despite the unfortunate name of the novel since like Follet, Thomson served for many years as one of the editors for the long-running American Life magazine.

In addition, the novel was written using similar stylistic writing techniques that bordered on the adoption of narrative and prose designed not only to keep the reader going, but flipping the pages as quickly as possible, getting into tune with what was happening on the ground. The novel as well as other writings were subsequently being made into films, sometimes successful and sometimes not, but the almost inevitable reactions that was being made and heard was that "it wasn’t as good as the book," or the "book was much better."

That actually takes us back to the previously stated issue that even though most of these may have been written with the silver-screen in mind, their written quality continued to be much better than when they were being adapted into screen plays. Indeed some films turn out to be real flops.

Attitudes were being heard, even today, is that "the soul of the idea in the book was being ripped apart", or the "film is vacuous" or "some books are just not meant to be adapted into films."

All this means that the written word continues to reign supreme, and that the late 20th century, and now 21st century novels rely on basic words, semantics, verbal construction and ideas which you can’t possibly turn into moving images or moving pictures. This might be also because novel writing and film-making require different techniques which they obviously do, and whilst a story written as a novel can very well find itself being made into production, this doesn’t necessarily work all the time.

Despite the "easiness" of story and novel, it has to go into another phase of screen play writing for television in which different ‘artistic’ and technical process are involved to do with characters, dialogue, scene settings and transition from different camera takes.

This is why transition from the text to animated images becomes especially hard, and sometimes does not work or is not appreciated by the audiences and watchers?

Does that mean these two mediums—novels and films—are meant for different receivers? The answer, and as implied in the above, "yes" and "no" taking into account the literary and technical implications that are required, but it does suggest writing for publications as a novel, and for readers to appreciate still has its own locai, schools, methodology and approach.

And this means as well today’s novels are part of centuries-old development that may have started with Geoffrey Chaucer, moving on to Shakespeare, Milton, Henry Fielding, Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence and ending with what might be termed negatively as pulp fiction.

© Marwan Asmar July 2008

The author is the Responsible Chief Editor of Jo Magazine, an English monthly based in Amman. From 1993 till 2003, he served as the Managing Editor of The English language weekly, The Star. Marwan Asmar calls himself an "ambidextrous writer" divulging into anything that tries to provide a buzz from politics, economics, culture or society. He received his Phd from the University of Leeds in 1990 with his dissertation on "The State and Politics of Labor Migration on Kuwait". Today he works as a media consultant in Jordan.

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