21 June 2006

...and ere long the old man would emerge, gripping at the iron banister, to help his crippled way. Some considering touch of humanity was in him; for at times like these, he usually abstained from patrolling the quarter-deck; because to his wearied mates, seeking repose within six inches of his ivory heel, such would have been the reverberating crack and din of that bony step, that their dreams would have been on the crunching teeth of sharks.

This, my friends, is Moby Dick, and reading it has taught me for the first time exactly what distinguishes pulp (glorious though it may be!) from epic literature. A long time I was adrift without really knowing what was the difference. I considered many of the books I had read in all shapes and sizes, trying to find out what set them apart. But I never could quite discover it. I've always been a lover of pulp, so I know that type of book pretty well. Books which were deemed literature I read not quite so often, but enough examples had found my way that I should have been able to discern the differences.

To no avail. But it took only the first fifth of Moby Dick to make the answer ring truer than ever. Disregarding that the book is the purest form of poetry in prose (noting that I have little love for poetry, but a great love for poetic prose), its way of telling the story, the unfolding of the narrative, the way personages are introduced and maintained all speak clearly of a tale that flies high over the -in comparison- simpleton heads of pulp fiction.

Analyses of the epic I am sure there have been far more ingenious and perceptive than I can now put down, but I will try to explain some of the features that inspired the realisation. Pulp books are usually simple stories with one or two or maybe three tracks with various characters running about, most often towards a single goal in the end. I am taking the archetypical fantasy pulp novel as an example here. The lead character will undergo a journey during which he will have minimal character growth, exposed in a sort of hapless, predictable way and feeling rather tacked on altogether. But since great stories do not depend on wild character development per se, a deeper underlying thing must also be of the essence in defining the quality of narrative. The theme must obviously be of import, and it is here that the real issues start to arise. Thematically speaking, pulp will most often amount to next to nothing. Either it has no defining theme or morale or symbolism at all, or it is again tacked on as an afterthought. This is related to the third feature we find inherent in pulp: the emphasis will be primarily, if not exclusively, on the actual events that are happening in the world. The physical actions of the characters, the spinning of the plot.

It was this third aspect that gave way to the others; for as I read Moby Dick I encountered many chapters that weren't about the narrative at all, but helped to set down the psychology of the characters or -even further abstracted- fleshed out some of the themes or subjects of the story, written down in a way most sparsely linked to the 'plot'. I then realised that this was one of the things that defines literature. And from there I went backwards through all the steps I just described. And discovered it was really quite simple all this time.

As I'm sure that you'll find all this the most straightforward common knowledge ever. A moot point, perhaps even. But funny, no? That it should take such a time for these things to dawn on me. I still adore my pulp. Though I think that now that I've tasted the poetic qualities literature can take on, it'll be hard pressed to cast its spell as before!