Thursday, August 4, 2022

Death to False Pulp!

A lot of the time it feels like things change overnight, when it was actually a long slow process we just weren't paying attention to that lead to a shift. It happens all the time. Hair metal and grunge music (artificial terms) both disappeared seemingly overnight, but both were victims of the industry tossing them out for the next fad. However, the the unspoken truth that they were also starting to put out garbage by the time they fell off and were ditched. It wasn't one thing that lead to their fall, it just helped. Hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes it takes a while to gain that clarity to understand the past. It only makes sense when you see it unfold from a distance.

And sometimes said clarity never arrives, especially when you are paid the big bucks to not notice the truth. This, unfortunately, happens a lot, and is the main reason so many industries were allowed to sink to the depths they are at today. It did not happen overnight, despite how it might feel. It takes a long time to crack the foundation, poison the well, and keep out revivalists who wish to save it. Sometimes it can even take entire lifetimes to do this sort of damage. 

Nonetheless, reversing such a thing can take even longer, especially when there are groups dedicated to stopping this. Baked in subversion can only be purged, it can't fixed overnight. Therefore expecting instant revolution is simply not reality.

This is where we are today, looking at the scrapyard of a future that never was in a past that was much more hopeful. It's all gone now, and that's not particularly a bad thing.

We can't regain that sought after future--such a thing is impossible today--however, we can aim for something even higher. There are always greater heights that can be reached, no matter how low the depths. This is, after all, what the pulps told us.

But you can't build new temples while the high places are still around. Idols are meant to be destroyed, because they encourage unhealthy obsessions that distract from the Truth. Such things can only lead to soul death. Until they are destroyed, we cannot move on. Thankfully, the industry is doing a bang-up job on that themselves.

Can we even do that? Is moving on possible? First we should see if things are still as they were even a few years ago. Do you still think we are living in the 2010s? Do you think nothing has changed, at all? You might be surprised to discover how much things have already shifted from where they were in only a few short years.

End of the old era

A few years ago, I criticized the state of short stories by going over the way OldPub treated the form at the time. What was especially noticeable was how bad they sold, despite being one of the most influential and important forms of storytelling that helped build the industry itself. Half a century since the pulps vanished, and they were practically dead. There just wasn't much of a market for them in 2018. Unfortunately, there still does not seem to be one now.

OldPub has not learned their lesson on this subject. They never will, either. It is far too late for them to do anything about this.

This doesn't mean one can't find short stories anywhere. You simply have to move to NewPub. It is the future for the form, there is no getting around that. 

As an example, Cirsova, Pulp Modern, and StoryHack are still around (Cirsova is even taking submissions right now!), as are newcomers such as the Bizarchives and plenty of authors putting out collections of stories of their own (just look at about any signal boost post on this site to find them), but short stories have still not reentered the wider scene as a legitimate form yet. It's still a niche. To be honest, that will take some time to change. The industry worked tirelessly to alter the perception of storytelling to be logy, bloated, and obsessed with Fanatic concerns, over entertaining the audience. A change will not occur overnight.

There is too much damage to repair first. We're going to be working on this for quite a long time. Just another industry failure to correct. OldPub's lasting damage on generations of people is one that will take a long time to reverse.

Just like how the industry itself ruined reading for kids, we are going to be dealing with it for ages. Part and parcel with dealing with a rotten industry, I suppose.

This twitter thread is here

However, it also will not be like this forever. This world is passing away. As mentioned above, a magazine like Cirsova would not have been possible to even conceive of a decade ago. There would have been no space for them. That it has managed to truck along for as long as it has, even if it hasn't been the smoothest of roads (it wasn't easy for Weird Tales or Planet Stories, either), it still retains a readership and it still puts out new projects all the time.

The one thing we can say we have learned is that expectations for the form are starting to be more understood among writers and readers. It is not quite the wild west it once was, but it's not stifling wither. You cannot just put out anything you want to succeed--you need to know what the audience wants. Okay, you may be saying, so what is it they want? Can we just publish anything and retain an audience? Clearly, no.

However, you have much more freedom than you know. you certainly have much more freedom than the straitjacket of OldPub does.

Another thing I have gathered over the years is that there is a small but growing audience of people looking for short stories, and their expectation for what they want hinges on old PulpRev claims of action and adventure above all, whether they really know the terms or not. In other words, they want a similar experience one would get from opening a Golden Age pulp from the 1920s and 1930s, but obviously not carbon copied as some kind of pastiche or tongue in cheek sendup of other things. They want modern writers to tap into that old energy, albeit without the subversion and perversion that has so gripped the form since.

They want adventure!

One of the things Cirsova did to help themselves, which I would argue is what gave them the shot in the arm to break out, is that they changed their focus from their early days. They broadened their scope, while also solidifying what they were about. This meant reassessing the landscape, and changing accordingly. Confused? Let us go over it together.

In case you either weren't around at the time, or missed it entirely, they are currently in their second volume of existence. The first volume came with the subtitle "Heroic Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine" and ran for ten issues. Unfortunately, despite its quality actually rising with each volume, attention seemed to be drifting off the more they went along. There are theories for it, but they could not quite capture the excitement of early issues.

This changed, however, when fortune smiled upon them.

Then Cirsova got the rights to an unpublished Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs and used it as a flagship to relaunch with volume 2. They used this opportunity to rebrand. This second version of Cirsova was subtitled "Magazine of Thrilling Adventure & Daring Suspense" and according to P. Alexander, the editor, it ended up entirely changing the actual submissions they received. No longer were they getting milquetoast big men with screwdriver stories or generic elf and magic OldPub slabs, but actual off the wall tales and plunges into the bizarre. And it ended up separating them from the pack. They've been in volume two for years now, with no reason to shift.

Since then, they've put out quite a library of material, with no plans to stop. There is always palpable excitement every new issue, and it is always a good time.

Congrats as they get ready to move into Year 7!

The magazine essentially became its own thing, divorced from its Planet Stories aspirations or any sort of Weird Tales comparisons. It is no longer a wannabe of any sort, but its own thing. Somehow an issue of Cirsova always feels like an issue of Cirsova. Due to this, it has earned itself a loyal reader base and still manages to truck along after over half a decade running.

They did all this with pulp inspired stories, a form that was supposed to be outdated and hated, destined for the trash heap of history. And yet, it still goes on.

I bring this up because it feels as if there is a zeitgeist close by ready to burst out at any moment. It is at this point that one can't help but feel disappointment when you then so so many new upcoming magazines coming into NewPub repeating the same dumb mistakes that have sunk so many others over the past decade. If these tactics didn't succeed in the 2010s, then what makes you think it will succeed in the 2020s, especially when you are carbon copying the same exact blueprints that already lead to failure? You are shooting yourself in the foot before the game has even begun. Unfortunately, I see this happening a lot.

This time I wanted to take a look at a new magazine asking for submissions, and how one would to do it in the exact wrong way. Note that this isn't intended to specifically single out any one publication in general, but to show how so many attempt to construct themselves around a market that either doesn't exist, or one they wish did. Ignoring customers is an OldPub tactic, there is no room for it in the NewPub sphere.

To make sure it's not entirely negative, however, I do want to highlight the good things and what one should probably focus on when constructing a frame around what they are looking for. to stand out, you need an identity, after all.

Here is the beginning of the submission section:

This is quite good, but there are a few quibbles to be had.

My first issue comes with the "Accepts all genres" part in regards to "swashbuckling" because there is only one genre that really has anything to do with swashbuckling, this being the Adventure genre. I would include "Romance" as well but that title has been co-opted by an entire industry so it wouldn't do us a lot of good using it here. Basically, if you're writing a swashbuckler, you are writing an adventure story, regardless of setting or chrome plating. It's fairly clear cut.

I do like that they emphasized their definition of swashbuckler as focusing on small-scale conflicts and personal motivations, which is exactly what defines such a story and sets it apart. Giving story examples where this done right also helps a good deal for potential submissions and those with questions. The "drawing on other genres" point is a bit weird, though. As long as the story focuses on the central conflict they are looking for, I feel it's fairly clear it should be worth submitting. There is already comedy and romance pre-baked in to swashbuckling. It comes prepackaged in the style of story it is.

The tone point is one that might be considered strange in any other era but this one. Unfortunately it is also completely necessary to write out. We live in an era of two dichotomies: snarky irony and grimdark nihilism. Swashbuckling cannot work in either mold when you need lighthearted back and forth as well stakes that actually matter to make the conflict interesting. It's one of the reasons we haven't seen much proper swashbuckling in a long time. Such a thing cannot work in the framework of modernism we are trapped in right now.

Tragedy has its place in a swashbuckler, but only if it is done right. It requires talent to pull off. A story of a duel where the hero dies can only work if he engages in a higher moral victory. What is important, in the end, is uplifting the audience. Swashbucklers live for this.

But then we get into the weeds that drag it all down.

This is a bit much. It is limiting on creativity, including the reason the writer might think of for said characters to engage in a sword duel. I get the impression reading this that whoever wrote it does not have much faith in the writer to deliver what is desired of them. This, despite the fact that "Swashbuckling" is an easily understandable term for those who care about it. If you didn't then why would you even be looking at submitting to a magazine for it?

For an example, I wrote a story called "Lucky Spider's Last Stand" (available in both the PulpRev Sampler and Someone is Aiming for You & Other Adventures) which involves gangsters, superpowers, and a life or death duel. The entire thing works, despite not following any of the suggestions above. You should have more faith in your writers to figure it out. Part of the appeal of NewPub is that you can do practically anything.

Many of these guidelines just feels like over-explaining for either people who already know all this, or for people who didn't care to begin with. It seems fairly pointless, as a one sentence description of "Swashbuckling" would have been more than enough for anyone interested to get it. The longer descriptions go on, the less anyone is liable to pay attention, as we already learned with genre definitions.

The key thing to remember is to keep it simple and straightforward! The simpler it is, the less you risk needlessly alienating anyone.

The fact of the matter is that you can write a story about anything for whatever reason, as long as it remains internally consistent to the reader. You can find a reason to do just about anything. Editors should know and encourage this.

For an example of how to deliver quick and concise submission guidelines, check out how StoryHack handles it. It is very to the point yet strong in voice without needlessly puffing of chests or getting into the weeds. Give them action, and they are satisfied!

In contrast, this is where our mystery magazine goes off the rails. Any goodwill is lost when one reads the next passage.

This is where the entire project falls on its rear. Whenever a so-called "pulp" production says something like this you can guarantee they don't know anything about what the audience wants or even what made the old pulps appeal in the first place. It comes prepackaged with assumptions about your ancestors, including both those who read and write these sorts of stories. Even worse if you're claiming to be the "New Edge" while spouting unhip and safe classroom jargon that completely misses the point of writing to begin with.

It also feels really out of date with the times, which is very ironic.

In the 2020s, today's pulp writers and readers know they were lied to about the old stories and magazines. They were told all sorts of unsavory lies and libel about the era, all from people who hated and wanted to erase tradition and adventure from the record. The only people who still parrot any of the above nonsense has either never read a pulp story or couldn't possibly understand what people liked about them to begin with. You cannot continue on a tradition if you hate the tradition. What is the point of a pulp magazine that hates pulps? How do you expect such a thing to succeed, because we have ample proof that it does not.

Moreover, rejecting a story because it contains historically accurate terminology is just plain creatively bankrupt and cowardly. There is no way around this. Writers and editors that are scared of words should not be allowed anywhere near them, for both their safety and ours. You are out of your depth, and cannot handle classic pulp storytelling. Leave it to the adults.

Now, the last point here is strange because it's simply just a virtue signal. There is no reason to have this in any sort of submission page, unless you are trying to impress people. Cirsova, for instance, has stated they get submissions from everyone and everywhere, and it just happens without them asking for it outright. Adventure is already universal, and everyone already knows it. Why would you need to specifically single this out on a submission page unless you wanted people to know how openminded and great you are? It does not come across as professional.

This is a remnant from the failure of OldPub. Such a thing has no place in the world of NewPub, which we can tell from audience response. It is time to leave this sort of attitude behind in the dismal 2010s where it belongs. What do you expect from a dying industry that refuses to cater to normal people and lift them up, but instead sinks in depravity and juvenile moods. That is how one gets nonsense like the below image. 

Art does not exist to pander and talk down to people. It exists for higher reasons. NewPub knows this, and you should know it too if you want to thrive here.

This is where such junk thinking lead OldPub:

They spin their wheels while the audience shrinks. No one stops or changes course, because they don't care if anyone reads. They just want to impress their peers.

As for our "nouveau pulp" magazine, the rest of the submission page is fairly obvious after this, mostly focusing on PG13 level of violence and word count, but by this point most interested writers or readers have tuned out. One can easily surmise that there is no higher plan here, no attempt to reach people. It is just yet another attempt to subvert an older tradition.

All this is done to cop strong aesthetics and hop on a trend train while also continuing all the poisonous practices and trends that led to people preferring pulp over OldPub slop in the first place. There is a reason these projects fade away very fast. No one is asking for pulp that removes everything from it due to a modern misunderstanding of what adventure is.

Here is the reality: pulp is in. It's the new fad. It has been for years now, which is why so many are trying to co-opt it. Pulp has been steadily gaining in popularity over the past decade, and it has gotten to the point that readers want fresh new stories in the style of old traditions. They do not want modern stories with a cheesy old aesthetic.

If they wanted modern OldPub garbage, they would already be reading that. But no one is reading that. No one is really reading at all, and that is the point. Going back to the pulps, the last time mass literature and reading existed as a concept is paramount to understanding what has been missing and grow the industry again. It is not an excuse to continue failed tactics and philosophies that no one wants today, only with a new coat of paint. Your ways have failed, the audience has spoken. It is time to move on.

If you want pulp, then aim for pulp; if you don't want pulp, then stop pretending that you do. There is no more room for poseurs in NewPub. We need to right this ship that OldPub and their acolytes, such as the above, have steered into the rocks over the decades.

The future is pulp. Get used to it, and adapt accordingly.

As Christopher says: Death to False Pulp!

We don't have to worry so much about this anymore. It's already on the way out. The 2020s have just begun, and already we're facing major disruptions to the way things have been for so long. All the old rules of modernity no longer apply when tired modernity is on its death bed. We have to be ready for better ways.

We don't need an industry of creators that hates their past and misunderstands and disrespects its customers: we need one willing to connect with all of that. Art needs this to thrive, never mind survive. Things will change, because that's how the world works. We just have to make sure we do it right this time.

I truly hope you are as excited for things to come as the rest of us authors, writers, artists, and entertainers, in these new spaces are. With false pulp and usurpers finally out of the way, we can finally look forward to brighter times. Fandom is over, remember. You no longer need them to get what you want. You never really did. Fandom is not a way of life, it is a grave.

You need a past worth cherishing, and a future worth striving for. We will have the latter again soon enough, as long as we continue to work for it.

Death to False Pulp! The real stuff is here now!

"Ever wanted to know why the fun and wonder has been sucked out of sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure? JD has the receipts. Essential reading." ~ Alexander Hellene, author of The Last Ancestor


  1. I ought to look into submitting to Cirsova, they sound really interesting. One thing I think gets overlooked in the discussions about modern pulps is fanfiction. Fanfiction has zero barrier to entry and therefore zero paying market. Anybody can write it, anybody can read it. I'll bet you those kids who hadn't read a book in the past year spend all their time reading fanfic. I see people say this all the time on r/fanfiction. "I can't find anything I want to read, because I want to read specific tropes, and books aren't tagged that way." There are tags for every kind of tiny genre slice and trope, and people hunt those and read them, the way they used to read the pulps for the particular experience they wanted (spaceships, cowboys, romance, etc). A lot of authors have taken fanfics, filed off the serial numbers, and published them as books. It's kind of this subculture of booming creativity that nobody talks about. Probably because it's not a paying market.

    1. Yes, fanfic has changed several times in perception over the decades to the point where now most of the people in the industry basically write it with their own headcanons instead of engaging the audience with a story.

      Don't get me wrong, I think fanfic is a good place to start, especially if it gets you passionate, but there should come a point where you want to explore your own worlds with your own words.