Pulp fiction has given us some of the best writing of the 20th century: Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, and Lovecraft. Even Tennessee Williams and Faulkner admired the form. Bradbury, Hubbard, Asimov, Dick, etc. are all honored alum of classic newsstand pulp fiction. This is not writing for children.
Two things I avoid with a passion: "funny" novels (if I want comedy I know where to get it) and "serious" literature. I keep reading reviews of books that are "laugh-out-loud" funny, humorous, or just damned stupid. If the book is a joke to the author why should I take it seriously? Chandler and Thompson are funny, between the violent murder, lies, fatal seductions, beatings and corruption. "Serious" literature isn't worth the paper it's printed on, or the bytes of an e-book for that matter. The best new writing seems to be by kids or emotionally arrested adults. It used to be by guys you'd swear were erudite, philosophically trained sociopaths. I'll take the latter any day.
I made it a point never to read anything I was told to read in HS, passing on Catcher In The Rye and The Diary Of Ann Frank for Naked Lunch, Justine and The Thief's Journal. Burroughs, Sade and Genet having more to say about the world I actually lived in, filled with ubiquitous violence, harassment by the cops, drugs, perversion, decadence, shady characters, the threat of prison and open homosexuality. Now after cutting my teeth in my adolescence on stuff like that why would I want to read some neurotic white bread suburban memoir of drab run of the mill people with drab run of the mill problems? "My mother was crazy and my father was crazy and a drunk and my sister has cancer, my brother is gay and I'm depressed, but we're all quite educated and well-off so our crack habits barely eats into our kids' college fund." Oh, boo-fucking-hoo.
One-dimensional cardboard characters and clichés driven into the ground have long been the province of so-called literary fiction. The sad irony is that they are actually dead-on descriptions of the people they are written by and for. I'll take the darkest noir you've got over unrelenting shades of gray. Unfortunately, it's always trendy for "literary" writers to write fake pulp fiction and then pat themselves on the back for writing what amounts to long-winded metaphors of how they caught VD.
Everybody knows pop culture is garbage culture. My only argument is that the old garbage is better than the new garbage. David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King, is 500+ pages (with footnotes) about tedious boredom and is universally hailed as...boring. On the other hand Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses Don't They? Published in 1935, also about tedium and boredom, is 129 pages, and has several pages that contain only a single sentence. Wallace's novel is praised like a New Testament of the Bible, while McCoy's was a flop in America only to be rediscovered by French existentialist hipsters. Wallace: dull, obscure, elitist, long-winded, did I mention dull. McCoy: suspenseful, shocking, truthful, unnerving, violent, sexy.
Let's compare pulp fiction to cop shows and literary fiction to soap operas. If you see one episode of a vintage cop show chances are you'll never forget it. If you see one episode of a soap opera you have no reason to remember it. I use cop shows and soap operas deliberately to stay strictly within the pop-pulp paradigm. I don't think its nonsense to write off pretentious out-of-touch academicians who only write for people exactly like themselves. It's naval gazing in the worst way. I'm firmly on the side of Chandler, who put it saliently: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
In a broader context, the cultural pendulum has swung from Merchant-Ivory Henry James worship to every B-string hero they can pull out of the frustrated nerd stoner bag. Allen Moore and Michael Chabon are the two most prominent writers trying to bridge the divide and God bless them. But let's not forget the new breed of YA authors and classic "banned" or "protest" literature. I mean the stuff that used to be the provenance of Grove and Olympia Press: Colette, Henry Miller, Jean Genet, Andre Gide, and, of course, the beats. Burroughs and Kerouac are literary pulp fiction, even a kind of long-form prose poetry. Contemporary literary fiction comes across as mere whining by well-networked and connected workshop writers who wouldn't know an original thought if it shot them.
I mean to point up the ambiguity in the very use of the term "literary". And yes, if the protagonist is a silver spoon fed lotus-eater living in the upper classes the story is inherently not worth telling. But maybe that's the Marxist in me talking. Danielle Steele, Stephanie Myers, Gossip Girl, etc. are pulp fiction, yes, like rom-com films, soap operas and old-fashioned weepies. It's not always about guns and dead end streets, beatings in interrogation rooms and back alley justice.
The classic division between English mysteries written by little old ladies and drug-addled gentlemen of leisure vs. American hard-boiled fiction written by drunkards is a self-contained conflict. Soviet sci-fi is famously dull excepting a genius like Bulgakov who can hardly be called a "soviet" let alone a Marxist. But dull in this case is the result of an entrenched dystopian society that is anything but fiction. American pulp fiction ala Hammett (a communist), Chandler (American born-English educated), James M. Cain (a former newspaper journalist), and David Goodis (a perpetual loser) is unique in its variety, its very Americaness, which is something that has been lost in the cookie-world that trade publishing has become. Literary fiction ironically panders to that very corporate world by producing colorless prestige writers that are more divorced from reality than even Dick could imagine, considering he himself has become fodder for mainstream corporate pop culture. Every pulp fiction writer is absolutely unique. Every literary author is interchangeable. I love Joyce Carol Oates but her writing is like an overdose of seconal.
Pulp fiction has had various resurgences since it was more or less invented by H.L. Mencken as a response to The Smart Set. That is, a literary magazine that everyone talked about but no one read made no money, so Mencken conceived Black Mask, filled with stories everyone read but no one talked about. That was in 1920. So, apart from dime novels pulp fiction can be seen as rooted in the Lost Generation along with Hemingway, Joyce and Faulkner, speaking of unique, since no "literary" author today would dare experiment in their writing the way those three did and Pico Iyer is no Jack London. If you're German than you are no doubt familiar with Karl May, a vastly popular writer of Western pulp stories who to my knowledge never set foot in the American West. American pulp fiction values individuality, corporate America values conformity, another age-old dichotomy. Lately world literature has been trying to ride pulp fiction's coattail, e.g. various "noir" collections from around the world. Now why is that? A friend who was reading "Haitian Noir" tried telling me it was a collection of stories about "dark side of Haiti". I then asked her seriously, what's the bright side of Haiti? I'm sure Beijing Noir is coming soon, following Cuban Noir, Mexican Noir, and Russian Noir. I won't be reading any of it but I'm sure someone will, if only to give themselves a break from memoirs about dissolute youths spent in stately country homes with loyal servants and alienation and depression at expensive boarding schools, or former aristocrats turned refugees turned middle-class American suburbanites.
As to a distinction between pulp and so-called noir fiction, the term "pulp" is to be taken as the real thing and "noir" as the ersatz literary version. Mass culture such as popular telenovellas somewhere along the line became pop culture, an appendage of advertising as bait to lure customers. Cheaply mass-produced and read by the actual masses was the way pop culture bred, but now "pop culture" simply means what corporations shove down peoples' throats through the media.
To clarify the point, there are at least two schools of pulp fiction (I say "at least" because technically anything that can fit into a dumpster is pulp fiction): one was the original pulp magazines beginning Argosy and Black Mask, which included the second or even third generation of so-called "mystery men", The shadow, The Spider, The Bat, Doc Savage, Conan, Phantom Lady, various detectives and notorious femme fatales, Tarzan, Zorro, and even Dr. Kildare, et al. The second school was came with the innovation of paperback novels that could easily fit into back pockets, i.e. Thompson, Goodis, Spillane, Cain, McCoy, Woolrich, Harlan Ellison, Erle Stanley Gardner, Max Brand and many, many others. Many of these books were originally published in the 30s and then reprinted. What the two schools did have in common was the famously lurid covers of scantily clad damsels in distress. Oh, how I miss those scantily clad damsels in distress! Thank God for TV cop shows where bondage, lingerie and violent sex crimes are de rigueur, but I happily digress. Pulp fiction as well goes hand in hand with the entire history of media in that many pulp writers also wrote for old-time radio and film, had their works adapted by Hollywood then and now (The Green Hornet with Seth Rogan for God's sake! The Shadow with Alec Baldwin, ugh! Zorro, Tarzan, blah, blah, blah). I'm not saying that literary fiction can't traverse the gutter with the best of them, just look at Peyton Place and Valley Of The Dolls; obviously certain female writers can do the drunken bitch slap with the same élan that the best male writers can do a pitch dark shootout or drunken bar fight. You don't see much of that nowadays just like some actresses have a "no-nudity" clause in their contracts, but the actresses willing to get down and dirty like Charlize Therone, Nicole Kidman, Milla Jovovich, Kate Winslet, Mila Kunis and Megan Fox can still turn violent quasi-porn B-pictures into box office gold, or whatever it is. Literary fiction can't touch any of this. Literary fiction has a guilty chip on its shoulder and is distracted by repression and neurosis. Literary fiction wishes it were pulp fiction so it could let its hair down. In literary fiction a drug addict is a drug addict. In pulp fiction a drug addict is a star.