The French novelist Pierre Mac Orlan (1881-1970), a very prolific popular writer (including sci-fi, pirate tale, critical essay, porno, and song) described the readers of adventure yarns as “passive adventurers.” They “savor the sweet anguish of thrills without consequences…Through the great suffering of men of action—incapable of common sense and caution–sedentary men obtain many delicate and varied little pleasures.” Mac Orlan’s tone is analytical rather than belittling toward adventure narratives, but it is also teasing (“varied little pleasures”), mischievous, and self-directed. He seems to be saying that his is the perspective the writer of popular literature needs to admire. “I yam what I yam”–Popeye. Or Shakespeare: “My nature is subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”
A narrative popular with an indiscriminate mass, enticed by blurbs featuring samples of hard-boiled prose, cover paintings of half-naked, gun-toting people, and “spicy” sex scenes, was, according to critic Dwight Macdonald in 1962, “sub-literary,” a “uniform product,” a low class “distraction.” Philosopher Theodore Adorno agreed, seeing popular literature as preventing people from thinking about where they stood in their social order. It suppressed the choices they had to evaluate “the public good.” Their shallowness, he thought, was the pernicious result of the vicarious pleasures of sex and violence on the movie screen, and in the spicy adventure magazine and the throw-away mass market paperback.
We’ve all heard that; we all know from what it diverted attention. Then, the “slave labor act” (Taft-Hartley); The Tuskegee Experiment; the abandonment of the working class neighborhoods within the industrialized city. Now, wars based on lies and recruited from youths of impecunious families; increased disparity in income levels; a military budget that takes up half of all government spending; rust-belt and rural alienation explained as the ignorance of a “basket of deplorables.” A staple in both time periods, old as the grim hills and the low life in the mean streets: the patronizing of back-woods whites and ghetto blacks who did not own property or earn degrees.
When publishers of “meta-realism” today advertise “county noir” or urban crime thrillers, they seem to be channeling Mac Orlan, as well as the paperback blurbs of the 50s: “Tales full of hard edges.” “Subtle and powerful within the darkness.” “Adultery, castration, suicide, and murder.” “Twisting map to redemption—or ruin.” “Whiskey soaked and sun scorched stories for the forgotten and lost.” “Dreamers, addicts, and lost souls.” “Brutal and fierce, the characters search for the humanity in themselves.” These energizing phrases were quoted from the paperback covers of books from the presses of Down and Out, Back Bay, 280 Steps, Picador, Honest Publishing, Shotgun Honey, Bottom Dog, Mysterious Press, Serpent’s Tail, Sunny Outside, as well as a few corporate level firms such as Scribner’s and Harper Perennial.
Today’s country, or urban crime noir writers do not have to work out subtle ways to avoid charges of political, sexual, religious, or legal destabilization of their readership. They can start with the building blocks of adventure and create without having to feign allegiance to ideals reduced to ragged clichés. They can write about dramatically observed, first hand, respect for community, awareness of justice, and allegiance to family. The sinister and subtle forces preventing these basic needs are part of the story. Writers get their readers thinking, “I wish I were him/her” and “I’m glad I’m not that guy/gal.” From the days of the dime novel, the locked-room mystery, the paperback original, the Spillane “puko,” the psycho boogieman, up to today’s noir adventure tales, passive adventurers want to vicariously take part in the lives of their active dopplegangers. “Every active adventurer has a corresponding passive adventurer, whom he will in general never meet.”
Another Mac Orlan nudge with a sharp elbow at the pulp writer. To meet a doppleganger is to lose yourself, at least temporarily. What an opportunity! The experience requires active struggle, which might lead either to emotional paralysis, or a rebirth.
The defining element of pulp is the fight for survival in America’s wild spaces. They may be in the as-yet-ungentrified “streets of no return,” occupied by militarized, shoot-to-kill police. Or, they may be in the mountains and plains of “the old, weird America” where people spend a lot of time finding what it takes to keep themselves strong, determined, and helping to maintain their culture (habitus) and that of their community. If they were cautious or prudent, or could repress their anger and desires, there would be no story. Nor would there be if writers of “minority literature” were not determined to use unexplored settings, authentic and thus unfamiliar colloquial language, and alien criteria for responsibility and individuality.
That is one benefit of not having to write for mass-market. Pulp is a way of embracing “difference” from “literature”: subversion. Thus it is a narrative of vagrants, hoboes, criminals, psychically damaged criminals, pure evil (Flannery O’Conner, Cormac McCarthy, more recently Daniel Woodrell, Denis Johnson, Mark SaFranco, Larry Brown, Chris Offutt) . The protagonists are outsiders: half-crazy perhaps. Consensus absolutes, religious, cultural, patriotic, familial, are for better or worse not part of their lives.
A pulp magazine writer knew about the substitution of looking, or reading, and imagining (fantasizing?) for acting. Pulp adventure combines crime, horror, grand guignol violence, daring choices, death-defying rescues, danger, and dangerous sex. The text and images substitute for the muscles used by the active adventurer. The readers want to be with him/her. As Mac Orlan wittily asserted, they “savor the sweet anguish of thrills without consequences…Through the great suffering of men of action…“
It should not be overlooked that pulp’s foundation was summed up by Mike Hammer:
You pick up a book and read about things and stuff, getting a vicarious kick from people and events that never happened. You’re doing it now, getting ready to fill in a normal life with the details of someone else’s experiences. Fun, isn’t it? You read about life on the outside thinking of how maybe you’d like it to happen to you, or at least how you’d like to watch it…Oh, it’s great to watch all right. Life through a keyhole…
Mac Orlan said something quite similar. The passive adventurer hates the thought of having to be personally susceptible to violence, blood, weaponry, and sudden death. “But his imagination evokes them lovingly when they apply to the needs of the active adventurer. The passive adventurer can exist only as a parasite on the exploits of the active adventurer.” That means the latter needs the former.
What more could a popular artist ask for?
Professor emeritus of English at Mansfield University, Jay A. Gertzman is the author of three books, including Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920–1940. Down & Out Books will be publishing his biography of David Goodis in late 2018.