What I’m Reading: Sloane, Harris, Kincaid, Lovecraft, Jannson

At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid: This was easily one of the weirdest books I’ve read in the past few years and all the better for it. I first encountered Kincaid’s work through the long essay “A Small Place” and there are certainly parallels to that book and the autobiographical fiction in this collection: themes of poverty, family relations, and the legacy of colonialism. Kincaid is known as a protest writer but the short stories collected here are much more ambiguous in their intent. The prose is intensely varied from one story to the next, taking radical shifts in register and perspective within the space of a few pages. Boundaries between fantasy and reality, between inner and outer life, are not so much transgressed as they are ground to bits and used as mulch for Kincaid’s imagination.

Free Will by Sam Harris: On a recent podcast, the controversial neuroscientist and moral philosopher said that disbelief in free will was his most strongly held conviction. He would more easily believe in the Abrahamic God of Creation, for instance, than in an autonomous “I” that is the author of each person’s actions. His case is compelling. While the position itself can be traced back to antiquity, Harris brings to bear modern evidence. Experiments using brain scans indicate relevant portions of our nervous system activate well before we consciously decide something. Of course, absence of free will has massive implications for contemporary society. Many of our institutions, including the US legal system, are predicated on its existence. Harris doesn’t supply many concrete alternatives. He does counsel for more compassion towards other conscious beings.  This is wholly consistent with his model of human behavior, in which even the worst person can’t help but be themselves. But it also has the mixed blessing of being generally good advice. If we are really to parse out the implications of what a world without free will should look like, more guidance is needed than what this slim volume provides.

The Summer Book by Tove Jannson: Reading this was a treat. Jannson’s prose is direct, unpretentious but nonetheless incredibly evocative. This short novel relates discrete episodes in the life of Sophie, a young girl who has recently lost her mother. Somewhat reluctantly, she comes to live on an island in the Gulf of Finland under the care of her paternal grandmother. Their relationship, its joys and difficulties, is depicted with a sweetness that never becomes cloying. The island, the changes it undergoes with the seasons, parallels Sophie’s coming to terms with the beautiful and sometimes frightening world around her.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by H.P. Lovecraft: One of horror-master’s longest and, I think, best works, this novella follows the title character as he descends into inhuman madness. The trouble begins when Ward discovers that an ancestor had been conducting occult research in colonial Providence, Rhode Island. The young scholar resumes those researches—with predictably ghoulish results. But Lovecraft is more convincing here than practically anywhere else in his body of work. The setting of Providence and its environs, the author’s home town, is brilliantly realized. Lovecraft’s characteristic bigotry and overheated prose style are both present in abundance. But so is an obvious expertise in early American history. Whatever his limitations, stylistic or ethical, Lovecraft could be a disciplined writer when it came to background research.

To Walk the Night by William Sloane: This, along with another novel, The Edge of Running Water, form the author’s complete published works, gathered together by NYRB Classics under the title The Rim of Morning. A well respected writing instructor and editor, Sloan’s posthumous memory survived in the form of the ultimate SF writer’s-writer, as Stephen King explains in his introduction. His fans and publishers needn’t make such a hard sell. Slone’s prose is descriptive yet understated. His characters, particularly the female ones, are vivid to a degree that is sadly atypical in genre writers of the early 20th century. The difference between Sloan and Lovecraft is striking and instructive. The first novel in the collection, To Walk the Night, follows the narrator Bark Jones as he and his friend Jerry Lister investigate the mysterious death of an astronomy professor at their alma mater. The professor, whose body is completely consumed by fire, had been doing research in how to extend consciousness through space and time. The single person who can provide answers is the professor’s mysterious wife, who had wandered into town only days before the death. SF aficionados will probably recognize the tropes and plot twists that drive Sloan’s novel. They’ve been repeated and remixed a thousand times in novels, radio serials, movies, and television shows. It’s the sensitivity to character and place that makes this work special.


Is pulp fiction a genre? Why or why not?


Answer by Matthew Spencer:

Not specifically a genre, but a publishing model that supported many different genres. These included, but were not limited to, science fiction, horror, romance, westerns, adventure stories– in other words, the same mass market categories we see in contemporary fiction.

The pulp in pulp fiction refers to cheap paper that was developed in the late 19th century. That, along with more efficient printing techniques, made books and magazines more accessible to mass audiences. This in turn supported the growth of writers and publishers catering to popular tastes.

The terms dime novel and penny dreadful refer not only the cheap cost of these publications but also the overall quality of the writing. Pulp fiction was created and published on an industrial scale with little thought given to careful composition or literary taste. A single author working alone could churn out hundreds of stories or a dozen or more novels a year.

Though most pulp authors are now justifiably forgotten, there were aspects of the industry that encouraged artistic innovation, especially in fantastic or speculative literature. H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, are two prime examples of authors who worked within the pulp world and are still widely read today.

Then as now, publishers printed violent and, for the time, highly sexual content in order to boost sales. And also like today, educators, politicians and activists worried about the effect that reading these stories would have on children, particularly young boys. In the 50s, violent content from publishers such as EC Comics ignited a public reaction that led to the creation of the Comics Code, an important early example of a general rating system.

During the 50 and 60s, the trade in pulp fiction went partially underground, with more and more sensational subject matter. Magazines with stories catering to nudists, mercenaries, drug enthusiasts, beatniks and hippies, among other specialized demographics, appeared.

With the revolution in digital publishing  and the migration of print into the prestige  market, the term pulp is not completely accurate in describing the physical format of books and magazines, but aspects this publishing model do still exist today. Electronic publishing has lowered overhead costs and scheduling restrictions to such an extent that we might be seeing a contemporary renaissance in pulp fiction

View Answer on Quora