Sometimes I get asked why I write Sword & Sorcery, and why I have this whole blog dedicated to it. There seems to be a pervasive idea that S&S is essentially a juvenile medium, wallowing in sexist tropes and quasi-racist archetypes that are only acceptable in light of the time period when the genre was created. The thinking is that Sword & Sorcery fiction is outdated, and is like Sword & Planet or Edisonades – a relic of a bygone era, doomed to niche appeal to only a small audience of enthusiasts.
Obviously, I don’t feel that way or I wouldn’t be here. I am often frustrated by the wider public view of Sword & Sorcery as an immature genre that began and ended with Conan the Barbarian, and is not allowed to grow and change. I even find a lot of fans fall into this mindset, seeing the old works as the best, and not allowing as much room for new innovations or directions.
Fans are, of course, allowed to like what they like. I myself have a shelf full of Howard collections, owning damned near everything the man ever wrote several times over. I have my shelf of Moorcock and Lovecraft and Burroughs and Brackett and Moore and Leiber – all the greats of the old days have a place on my shelf. I am as guilty as anyone of preferring the old ways.
But the very success of the style in the early years worked against it. After all, S&S started out as a pulp genre, and pulp it remains even today. You can dress it up all you like, but the genre deals in violence, iron-muscled heroes, and black-hearted villains. It lives on pulp tropes, and you can’t really change that without making it into something else.
Pulp gets a bad rep these days. The association is that pulp means “juvenile” when really, it was never a genre aimed at younger readers, it was rather seen as more lurid and intended for adult readers who liked action and excitement. Pulp is vivid and intense by nature. It can use subtlety, but that’s not its main strength. It stands in opposition to the slower, talkier high fantasies that got more mainstream respect out of the gate. Not that it is their enemy, but they are both doing very different kinds of things.
So rather than wonder if a pulp genre has any place in the modern landscape of genre literature, we should stop treating “pulp” like a dirty word. Plenty of stuff is pulp, but just stopped calling itself that because of the associations with trash literature. Star Wars is pulpy as hell, Superhero movies are pulp, crime shows like Breaking Bad are pulp. Pretty much 90% of all horror stories and movies are pulp, and so are romances. Pulp means vividly giving the readers what you know they want, and certain kinds of creators and critics hate it.
There was something in screenwriting that William Goldman called “The RX Factor”, and by that he meant that a movie had a leg up on awards if it was seen as “good for you” - in other words, a movie that Teaches You Lessons or makes you think Deep Thoughts or is About The Human Condition. There is a deep impulse in the American psyche that feels like the arts should always be to elevate and improve people, not just for fun.
And yet pulp is supposed to be fun, first and foremost. Pulp is about gratification. About giving you what you are here for, and there’s a cleanliness and a purity to that. It’s not about subtle lessons, or commentaries on the human condition or politics or any of that. It may address those things – because writers put themselves and the things they believe into their stories – but they are not the reason it is here. Pulp is here to fucking entertain you.
Once Sword & Sorcery was tarred with the pulp brush it never got free of it, and all subsequent works were therefore dismissed out of hand as not “real” literature. The clinging to the old masters has done a lot to make this worse, and it is kind of an uphill battle for new creators to make a name when a lot of the potential audience is just here for the stuff they already know they like.
I believe that S&S can be more than it has been, and there is plenty of room for the genre to grow and evolve without losing sight of what it is here for and what it does. I don’t mean that it should stop being pulp, I just think we should be unafraid to say it is pulp and that we like it that way. We should not bastardize S&S by trying to make it “respectable”, but rather find out all the things we can do with it while still keeping it bloody and fierce. Sword & Sorcery should never be ashamed of what it is.