Few 21st Century writers will relate to this topic. What was called “pulp fiction” is so yesteryear. Its heyday, to the extent it had one was in the first half of the last century, say from the 1890s to the 1950s. It was “fiction” about lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp. We don’t do that anymore—now we write lurid, sensational stuff on paper. Pulp is a primary material used to make paper. Paper is used for writing or printing. Paper is made with cellulose fibers from wood chips. Pulp is moist, shapeless matter, like unethical writers.

Pulp fiction never made it to genre status, but it was the title of a move in the last century. Pulp Fiction is a 1994 American crime black comedy film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who conceived it with Roger Avary. It had mainstream stars and told fanciful, lurid stories about crime in Los Angeles. And of course in included graphic violence and punchy dialogue. [1]

By the 1990s American fiction writers were no longer constrained by quaint ethical notions about violence or raunchy dialogue. And by then, pulp fiction was a forgotten non-genre. While the fiction part disappeared, some writers continued to write “pulp.”

This new age pulp writing isn’t a subgenre. Pulp is now more an approach to storytelling. It might even be an approach to disciplined writing that today’s agents and indie publishers might wink at. Today’s writers often face “challenges in finishing their work and distributing it to an appreciative audience . . . pulp writing can teach modern authors.”[2]

Pulp aims for visceral reactions. It’s a focused effort to elicit excitement, horror, arousal, primitive, instinctive responses that increase your heart rate.  Its writing designed to elicit raw, emotional, and even criminal emotions. It makes no pretense about peripheral blood vessels—it bites your jugular.

So, what ethical norms might apply to pulp writing? At the very least pulp writers must be very clear with readers about what they are about to experience. Clarity is an ethical norm. Lack of clarity in presenting a piece of writing, “potentially manipulates audiences primarily through either strategic or unintentional omissions of critical information.”[3]

Writing pulp uses an emotional appeal used to sway the emotions of readers. In some cases, this rises to harmful or dangerous action by readers. In extreme cases, emotional sway can lead to breakdowns, tantrums, rants, raves, and attacks. Per se unethical. 

Ethical writing is clear, accurate, fair, and honest. Some pulp writing passes all four tests. But other pulp writing implicates only one or two of the essential four imperatives. Arguably, one recent pulp-writing example is January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol. It took a base level of emotional appeal to get a political base aroused enough to do an unthinkable and clearly unethical act. They breached the hallowed halls of Congress to appease an unhappy President. Much of the written product spewed out over the Internet was pulp, by any definition.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulp_Fiction

[2] https://www.standoutbooks.com/pulp/

[3] Nate Kreuter, “The Ethics of Clarity and/or Obscuration.” Composition Forum 27. Spring 2013. http://compositionforum.com/issue/27/

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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