J.D. Cowan, The Pulp Mindset

In a world where people have forgotten what good entertainment looks like, author J.D. Cowan made a quick introduction to the new landscape of escapist literature, aimed at the crowd of aspirant writers, and ended up with a manifesto of what the movement called NewPub is, should and will be in the years to come.

You can buy it here!

The Pulp Mindset begins by stating a fact: the world of traditional publishing, OldPub, has been suffering a slow but unavoidable death that has only accelerated, now that the web has given creators more space to reach the public and avoid this painful rite of passage of going through agents and publishers to be accepted and allowed a small space in bookstores which no one pays a visit to anymore. As the market starts to move out of the corporate era, art is going through a transitional period.

In such a time, new writers feel easily lost. Accepting the change requires comprehending a confusing landscape, on the other hand the old ways rely more on the appearance of being a succesful business than on providing a good service. Hence they need for something that can help them find a way in the still-forming world of NewPub, the future of writing and independent publishing. They are often attached to outdated ideas and prejudices originated by the OldPub dinosaur, and Cowan proposes to help them free their art and unleash their creativity. This is not a guide on how to write or manage a creative process, but it is a book on how to take advantage of the transition.

OldPub’s bad art and business model has shrinked the number of readers all around the West. Following their steps is simply discouraged. To Cowan, the only way to win your place in this changing landscape is to acquire the mindset of a specific generation of writers, operating in a time were readers were copious and stories abundant: the pulp era.

What do you think of when you hear or read the word “pulp”? Tarantino? Cheap writing of low quality? If this is your answer, this book will tell you what pulp really was, because after the introduction Cowan proceeds with a quick history of how the pulps were born and what they were. If you are to follow their steps, you need to know them, read them and learn from them.

So, what do we have to learn from them? Their mindset, of course! Pulp writers did not write their stories checking a series of boxes prescribed by their publishers, but focused their art on wonder, action, and professionalism. Something happened that drove the industry away from these three pillars, and Cowan will tell you what it is: a mix of assaults on imagination, writing courses directed at selling wrong images and ideas of writers, attempts at subverting the industry to produce bad propaganda, and so on. If you have ever been interested in the publishing industry, or if you have ever searched for related news and information, you will see all of that.

A return to action-centered stories, wonder and professionalism is what you need to thrive in the incoming literary landscape. Cowan dedicates the next chapters, the core of the book, to these very topics. Resuming them is not the scope of this post, so if you’re curious go to read the book.

The Pulp Mindset ends with a call to action. Now that the advice has been given, and the stakes have been set, all the future writer needs is to join the revolution and start to work.

As a student who is compelled to read lot of poorly-written books to pass his exams, to me it is always a pleasure when a non-fiction work is written with competence. You will soon notice that the author is a fiction writer with a good amount of skills and experience: the prose is clear and fluid, able to convey information and keep your attention – and enthusiasm – high. He masters pacing in the same way a good pulp writer does. Moreover, Cowan has come up with a good way to make you ingest a pill that may be hard to swallow. He reveals the prejudices and failed tropes of the old book industry, and destroys them, all while keeping the reader hyped up for what is to come. He is not throwing rants and reproaches at the reader, he is not torturing you with a list of things you have been doing wrong. He is telling a story of the return of the pulps, a tale set in a revolutionary future you will help build up. Cool, inspiring, and effective.

At this point, though, you may ask: what does this book offer to new writers, if there is no direct advice on how to write? Put it this way: I remember, when I first discovered the so-called BookTube, finding out that most new writers spend years building their own fictional words to the smallest, useless detail; imaginary lands that are more or less a variation of Middle Earth or the Forgotten Realms. Those who manage to get through all that finally get to write the actual book, and here come two problems:

  • they do not know how to write a story: all they have done until then is writing notes that may be useful for the actual book, or may be not. After years of efforts to be a writer, they still lack the main skill.
  • once they start to elaborate their story, their plan is to produce another variation of the Wheel of Time series. This format is outdated. No one I know in my daily life has ever gone through books bigger than the seventh Harry Potter, most of them did it just because it was Harry Potter, and all of them will never do it again. There are many reasons behind this: sure, in this digital age people have access to much more product than ever before, and want to enjoy as much of it as possible. But there’s another reason, and it is that the format has become stale. Most books are big just because they have to be big, and are full of fluff.

The Pulp Mindset puts the reader in the ideal condition to think about all of this. It is not a book about how to write, but one about what kind of writer you should be if you want a place in the incoming cultural revolution. The best thing to do is read the book and plan upon it your future writing career. It will help you face hard truths with enthusiasm and a desire to accept the challenge.

Bonus point: Cowan does not limit himself to list a few of the old time pulp authors, but also suggests books which are similar in scope to his own. If you feel like you need more, you get a good amount of further information to check out.

Join the revolution! Until next time.

J. D. Cowan’s Amazon page

J. D. Cowan’s Blog

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