Learning Techniques from Pulp Books

The memory goes something like this: I’m fourteen years old, sitting in my high school freshman English class. My teacher, Miss Persson, strolls over and sees me reading a fantasy novel. I don’t exactly remember what the novel was although it must’ve been pretty juicy because her next response was, “Oh you shouldn’t read that—that’s trash. You should read something good for you.” The tone in Miss Persson’s voice implied that since I was reading trash I was also trash and that the only way I could redeem myself was if I traded in my Princess of Mars for something with moral fortitude and gravitas (i.e: something boring), like Proust.

In any case, that was when I first started feeling ashamed of the books I read for fun. Books acquired the same moral slant that food sometimes does: if a book was bland and bitter (like Brussels sprouts) than it was good for me; if it was sweet and airy (like birthday cake), than it was bad for me and I shouldn’t read it. I spent a decade cultivating my palate to appreciate the more delicate flavors of Camus, Steinbeck, and Tolstoy; while I can appreciate the classics now, there is still an element of doing penance for the books I’d rather be reading.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I really started diving back into that forbidden side of the bookstore, where dragons and vampires decorate dust jackets. As I began revisiting my childhood favorites, it quickly became clear that not all genre books are created equal. There are plenty of genre books that are packaged as entertainment but are actually quite smart.

As a writer, there is something that can be learned from “trashy” stories…mainly how to use their techniques to convey something with depth. I think Miss Persson was selling trashy stories short. There are a lot of techniques in pulp fiction—cliff hangers, heroes and villains, plot-driven story lines, sex and violence—that can be used to explore deeper issues…in other words, to make a literary story more interesting.

“Discourse has its units, its rules, its ‘grammar'” and much like grammar it is possible to learn the codes that storytellers use to make a story compelling and addictive (Barthes 240). Michael Chabon writes in his introduction to his book Maps and Legends that we writers must “take stories back” from charlatans and give our audiences stories that are both entertaining and smart. John Gardner, the author and teacher, suggests an exercise for his students to list typical genre elements and suggest ways those elements “might be elevated to serious fiction” (197).

In the next few posts I am going to attempt to “decode” how TRUE BLOOD manages to bridge the gap between entertainment and substance so that I can learn how to bridge that gap in my own fiction. One of the easiest ways to learn how to do it myself is by deconstructing and imitating the techniques of others whom I admire (Gardner 142).

  • Barthes, Roland, and Lionel Duisit. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History, Vol. 6, No. 2, On Narrative and Narratives. (Winter, 1975), pp. 237-272. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org.
  • Chabon, Michael. Maps and Legends.
  • Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. 1933. New York: Vintage, 1991.
  • Ball, Alan and Charlaine Harris (creators). True Blood.  HBO. 2008-2010.
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About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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