Inoculate Against the Lurids: Language Is A Virus

I’m pleased to be participating at Amazing Stories by writing about pulps. But before jumping feet first into that discussion, it’s best to issue a warning: It’s always important for all participants in a conversation to make sure they understand the lingo.

That’s an obvious statement when the participants are from different cultures, or if some of the terms used have very specialized meanings. But pitfalls await if all parties are using relatively common words, and some participants assume a term means the same thing to all the engaged parties.

How does this apply to a discussion about pulps? As we’ve been told by William S. Burroughs–and as that message was popularized by performance artist Laurie Anderson–Language is a virus.

Richard Dawkins also has had a few things to say related to this concept in the field of memetics.

Again: What, you may ask, has this to do with Amazing Stories?

Besides sounding vaguely science fictionish . . . Language is a virus suggests that not only may language spread (like a virus), but meanings (like viruses) may mutate. So, just as the strain of influenza virus that swept through your community last year or a generation ago may have–probably has–changed since that occurrence, so a word I may use in discussing Amazing Stories may mean something completely different to you or to other readers. Why? Because I may be referring to a meaning based on a particular perspective or from a specific time period, while a reader may base his or her understanding of that word from a different perspective or context.

For example, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer describe (in The Space Opera Renaissance) a mutation of the meaning for Space Opera: from the disparaging meaning of the term used to describe action-oriented stories based on horse operas, but with rayguns and rockets replacing sixguns and horses; to the current description for the sort of literary and epic–perhaps even majestic–interstellar romances being published today.

In this case, the word to which I refer is pulp.

For instance, you’ll find some online definitions of the term pulp fiction (outside of its use as the title of a Quentin Tarantino film) running something like this: narrative with a particularly lurid slant. (One can see the association with Tarantino’s movie and its title.) Indeed, it’s easy to argue that this (primarily pejorative) denotation is the most popular connotation for pulp.

Otto Penzler and many other savvy anthologists have played well the pulp-as-lurid-fiction card in the titles for a number of story collections.

At this point, you may be wondering if we’ve gone far afield from a discussion that has the slightest association with Amazing Stories. Perhaps not.

When I mention pulp magazines to folks who live outside the hobby realm of collecting or reading pulps–or outside the realm of reading stories that first appeared in pulp magazines, or have no real understanding about what I even mean when I say the words genre fiction–typically the first notion that pops in their minds is that I’m talking about hard-boiled novels. Or magazines about movies notable for their over-the-top violence (ala Tarantino, again). Or magazines dedicated to such steamy subjects their pages tend to stick together, so maybe they should be hidden in the back of a closet.

But that’s not what I mean at all.

Let me say this: Amazing Stories, first pulp magazine dedicated solely to science fiction. Does that sound lurid to you?

Back to my first point: Everyone in the conversation needs to know the definitions for the terms being used. When I talk about pulp, I mean that pulp magazines were . . . well, pulp magazines because they were printed on rough wood-pulp paper, perhaps the cheapest stock available at the time. Except for the cover illustration, the presentation wasn’t really very flashy. (And even the designs on those wrappers could be a bit bland.) But the words! And the adventures and worlds they brought (and still bring) to readers! Lowly the ship (the paper), but boundless the ocean on which it sails.

So these days I can’t just use a word–pulp–to communicate what a pulp magazine means to me. I have to use other words to explain–first to erase the initial lurid image and replace it with an understanding that may lead to a realization of what sense of wonder means.

Actually, to allow the benefit of the doubt, the communication problem probably starts with me: I say pulp, and the concept that pops into my associate’s mind is pulp as content; what I actually mean is pulp as medium.

Here’s an example: I think back to the 1970s, when pundits disparaged television with terms like boob tube and idiot box, because the TV audience was perceived to be passive and the medium’s content was less than intellectually stimulating. The detractors were conflating the medium and its message. Their argument had some problems, because (1) it smacked of elitism, and (2) it ignored the notion that in the world of theatre and storytelling, the actors and storytellers don’t necessarily want the audience physically involved and inserting themselves into the narrative. Heck, we’ll throw in (3) as well: Even entertainment that is sneered at by one “I define what is good” group can fulfill the function of being entertaining (not everything has to be intellectually stimulating), can reinforce morals and cultural tropes (in the world of westerns and cop shows, good should defeat evil), and a narrative that may be one viewer’s intellectual wasteland may be another viewer’s yellow brick road to epiphanic catharsis.

Once upon a time, pulp–during its heyday before the television era–was the medium on which storytelling was transported to readers across the nation, across borders, across oceans. In recent years some of the more lurid and titillating elements from pulp’s years as THE Mass Marketed Popular Entertainment medium have been hyped more than others. As the profile of the shady side of pulp narrative has been raised in the public awareness, so also has occurred a conflating of the medium–pulp–with a particular message–lurid titillation. This sort of shorthand is common, and the culture relies on it more frequently as individuals are engulfed by greater volumes of information each day: to stay afloat in our society’s info tsunami, people need a shorthand method to maintain a communication flow with other people.

Such conflation isn’t anything to despair about. (I’ve done some conflating myself in this article, in my mentions of Tarantino and the types of films he creates.) In this instance, anyway: If the word pulp sends mixed messages, civilization won’t collapse.

But . . . without a proper (or, to avoid being elitist in my own fashion, more well-rounded) understanding of pulp, someone might lose out on learning about some other fascinating civilizations, such as that of the Boskone, or of the Tharks of Barsoom, or of Pellucidar, or Amtor, Asimov’s Foundation, the worlds of Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry, the Dorsai, the Psychotechnic League and the Polesotechnic League, and many others.

So, Burroughs (William S., not Edgar Rice–let’s stay focused on clarifying our communication here) was right: sometimes Language IS a virus. It can give you something akin to mental influenza and blur the edges of communication to the point that one word means something else.

If that is the case, you may just need a dose of Wonder to cure the Lurids. As we look at pulp fiction in upcoming columns, we’ll seek to do just that thing.

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