Raymond Chandler on Pulp, on Writing, and on Readers


My wife’s been steadily devouring Raymond Chandler, pacing herself so she doesn’t read it all at once (there is, after all, a limited supply). The other night she started in on the story collection Trouble is My Business and read me the introductory essay by Chandler dated Feb 15, 1950. Some choice quotes follow:

On the genre:

[A scholar of the popular mystery story] will need sharp eyes and an open mind. Pulp paper never dreamed of posterity and most of it must be a dirty brown color by now. And it takes a very open mind indeed to look beyond the unnecessarily gaudy covers, trashy titles and barely acceptable advertisements and recognize the authentic power of a kind of writing that, even at its most mannered and artificial, made most of the fiction of the time taste like a cup of luke-warm consommé at a spinsterish tearoom.

The following description of the characters sounds like a description of the B Film Noir festival I’ve been going to every few nights:

[The] characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The streets were dark with something more than night.

Please note! I can’t agree with the following view of writing:

You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else. Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.

Although his view of a certain kind of writer is spot on:

As a writer I have never been able to take myself with that enormous earnestness which is one of the trying characteristics of the craft.

And what of the readers of a hard-boiled story?

There are those who like it when it is about nice people (”that charming Mrs. Jones, whoever would have thought she would cut off her husband’s head with a meat saw? Such a handsome man, too!”). There are those who think violence and sadism interchangeable terms, and those who regard detective fiction as subliterary… There are the aficionados of deduction and the aficionados of sex… The latter think the shortest distance between two points is from a blonde to a bed. No writer can please them all.

Indeed they can’t.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →