Pulp poetry. Hmmm…
Sometimes, they creep out of nowhere and catch you unawares, even though you really shouldn’t be surprised. You’re enjoying a classic film noir or crime caper flick when suddenly (incredibly, for what was then considered comic relief) a grotesque bit of racial/ethnic stereotyping intrudes. It was just a few weeks ago that I watched Raoul Walsh’s 1941 High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino on TCM’s Saturday Night Noir Alley feature, having forgotten all about the scenes with Willie Best playing ‘Algernon’, the mountain resort’s resident ‘step-n-fetchit’ style porter/handyman. The bits are hardly unique, but still made me squirm and were almost enough to ruin the viewing experience. I still adore the film. I mean: Bogart and Lupino, come on.
Whether it’s a vintage movie, novel, comic, pulp story or even some 1950’s/60’s television shows, repellant racial/ethnic stereotypes rear up out of nowhere. Often, they’re not even intended to be demeaning, and that casual indifference almost makes them worse. At the same time, the prevailing dismissiveness about virtually all female characters in most 20th century mystery/crime fiction and film is so overwhelming that we can almost fail to recognize it. It just…is. Women (sometimes, even if billed as the lead) are relegated to secondary characters at best, mere eye candy, damsels in distress or potential victims, more commonly. Gay/lesbian characters? Well, barely acknowledged in retro film or TV, of course, and deployed mostly in vintage sleaze novels for titillation, popping up in vintage crime fiction as caricatures or presumed villains.
Different times, different culture. It was what it was.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in mid-20thcentury pulp fiction – specifically, the 1930’s through 1950’s mystery/crime pulp fiction magazines. Inevitably, a crime/pulp/noir fan has to wonder: How can I possibly enjoy these films, novels, magazines and comics when so many are riddled with disappointing ethnic/racial/gender dismissiveness, or worse, utterly offensive stereotypes? If I’m enjoying these works, even in part, isn’t that some kind of implicit endorsement?
W.M. Akers questions this in his terrific piece from the 5.10.19 Crime Reads (crimereads.com, link below), Hardboiled Noir, Pulp Favorites, And Problematic Art, subtitled: “Reckoning With Hateful Attitudes In Classic Crime Fiction”. Akers’ own first novel, the historical-fantasy Westside just released in May 2019, deals with amateur sleuth Gilda Carr in a re-imagined 1920’s New York City, and he explains how he turned to vintage pulps to capture the feel of the era, “the same way I used old newspapers and pre-code movies and Joseph Mitchell essays and any other scraps from the period that I could find as a portal to a city that, if it ever really existed, doesn’t anymore”. He points specifically to a Theodore Tinsley (creator of the groundbreaking 1930’s era Carrie Cashin female detective character) story from a 1934 Black Mask pulp magazine issue, “Smoke”, featuring the sleuthing NYC columnist Jerry Tracy. The tale, one of 25 Jerry Tracy stories the prolific Tinsley wrote, is tainted by casual racism and sprinkled with overtly offensive stereotypes. So Akers asks, “In a moment when lovers of problematic art are asked to be more critical of their taste than ever before, it is worth asking what it takes to enjoy sloppy pulp fiction in 2019 – and why it’s worth the effort.”
Akers realizes that each film viewer or story reader will need to arrive at their own conclusions and react accordingly, whether by foregoing the material entirely, merely ignoring the objectionable content, or finding some way to process it. He still finds much to inspire him in these 60 – 90 year old pieces. I get that, because I do, too. I won’t ignore their intrinsic flaws, which aren’t limited to ethnic/racial/gender issues, but also include outlandish plots, padded word counts, copycat characters and more.
But the language always lures me in. Give me any old mystery/crime fiction pulp reprint or omnibus collection and I guarantee that the period slang and vintage word-smithing will hook me, from their nearly comical descriptions of hard-to-choreograph action scenes, to snappy banter and dialog sprinkled with authentic vintage street talk, to frequent but cautiously handled love scenes and female character depictions, which can border on the surreal or just plain pervy and fetishistic. I’m hooked, I’m an addict, I admit it.
Pulp poetry? In a way, I guess that’s what it is. At least for me. So then call me a pulp poetry sucker if you insist, and I won’t argue, despite all the objectionable content that may be surrounding it.
Some months ago I speculated about nagging issues of complicity, sparked in part by a Megan Abbott essay about the then recent release of Raymond Chandler’s The Annotated Big Sleep (link below). The issues here are much the same. And as someone currently working with writing projects in a mid-twentieth century setting, it’s more than a matter of reacting to random squirm-worthy content in my recreational reading or film viewing, but becomes a challenge to achieve some sense of period authenticity without reinforcing outmoded attitudes or reviving offensive content in my own writing. I’m certain that I’m not alone in this.
Well, one thing I definitely took away from W.M. Akers’ Crime Reads essay: I need to get his novel Westside, because it sounds pretty cool! I’ll be checking the indie bookstore on my route home after work today, and if unavailable, will be online for a moment or two this evening to order it. I definitely want to read about Gilda Carr in Aker’s reimagining of 1920’s New York.