Friday, August 15, 2014

Book Review: Pulp Fiction by Robert Turner

This week’s forgotten book was almost truly forgotten. The fragile pamphlet on crumbling pulp stock was found in an old bookstore, rescued from obscurity, and is now available (for cheap) as an e-book. The pulp fiction how-to first came to my attention as one of blogger Randy Johnson’s entries into the Friday’s Forgotten Books event, and now it’s one of mine. After reading Pulp Fiction, I believe it deserves even more attention, especially from those interested in the age of pulps, whether as readers, writers, or both. 

Click to order Pulp Fiction—a penny cheaper than when it was published.

Robert Turner was a prolific writer for the pulps in the ‘40s and ‘50s, turning out stories for a list of magazines as long as your arm: Manhunt, Dime Detective, Thrilling Detective, Crack Detective and Detective Tales, for starters. He also wrote for dozens of romance and western pulp titles, comic books, and later, for slick publications like Playboy. He produced some stand-alone novels under his own name, and ghost-wrote some action series titles like those in the Shaft and Mafia series. Turner also worked as a Tv screenwriter, most notably for Mike Hammer.

The bottom line is, this guy could write. And he did. A lot. He was a real, working writer who produced more stuff in the ‘50s alone than a lot of writers will produce in their entire lifetimes. It stands to reason that he’s got a few things to say about the writing biz. He gives an insider’s view of the pulps that’s entertaining, readable, and surprisingly relevant to modern writers. The pulps may be gone, but the world could still use compelling writing. Turner also worked as an editor for a few titles, and his insight into the pulp slush pile is a nifty look into history.

Perhaps the best thing about Pulp Fiction is that Turner dispenses all of his writing advice with humor, style, and a lot of action. It’s easy to get a sense of why he could write a good story. I started off highlighting interesting lines as I went along, and ultimately abandoned the idea—because almost every line was interesting.

I’m sure you’ll find plenty of favorites of your own, but here are some of my favorite examples of Turner’s advice (and often: wit).

On technique:

“So I say, right here and now, phooey to technique, as such. Too much importance has been attached to the bare mechanics of story structure and not enough to injecting life and blood into a yarn and making it pure and simple entertainment.

On characterization:

“You don’t need a lot of fancy pyrotechnics to attract the editor’s attention to your characters. They don’t have to jump and stomp around, or blow bubble gum. Just make a character some poor slob, with troubles and emotions, even as you and I.”

On why you don’t need fancy words:

“If you have read a lot from the time you were a kid—and if you haven’t, chances are that you wouldn’t be interested in being a writer, anyhow—your vocabulary will see you through.”

On varying the action:

“Emotions harden. If you stay too long, fooling around with one particular emotion, or keep working on the same one in the same way, too many times, it will lose its effect. If you saw a child knocked down by a car every day for a long period, if this were a usual, ordinary occurrence, your emotions would become numbed; they would harden.”

On the typical advice to “make the dialogue advance the plot”:

“That is another nice, pat bit of instruction that is sometimes taken too literally. I am a bit leery of putting it to you so baldly. After a writer has had this tidbit of advice hurled at him, I’ve seen scripts written wherein every time a character opened his mouth, brother, does he advance that plot.”

As is the case with most books on writing, different bits will resonate with different writers. To those who simply read pulp stories, I think there’s still plenty here to like, especially for the price. It’s like peeking into the office of a pulp writer. Highly recommended.


Written as part of the Friday's Forgotten Books event.

In looking for information on Robert Turner, I found that there’s little online. If you know anything at all about the man, please share.


  1. Well, as noted in an apparently gobbled up comment, in reply to your query on my blog about "The Parasitic Hand," boy does Muttkowski advance the plot, however clumsily, with every line.

    Kelly, "The Parasitic Hand" is written in awkward gosh-wow, but does get right to its point, in being a surgeon's account of removing a suddenly maturing extra hand, growing from a patient's ribcage, which the doctor diagnoses as being the remnant of an absorbed twin. The hand had been baby-sized for years, then suddenly underwent a growth spurt; upon removal, its ghost? ghostly twin? began scratching and grabbing among the patient's internal organs until succeeding in squeezing the heart to death. So, half baked and definitely malevolent.

  2. Thanks for getting back to me on that. Even if half baked, it seems like something I might want to reference in my article.

  3. Kelly, Robert Turner's pulp fiction sounds good to me and more so since I have never read any. Frankly, I haven't read much of pulp fiction either. I like a little wit and humour in all the books I read, which is not always the case.

    1. Given your penchant for Wodehouse, you should really check out 1066 AND ALL THAT (which we were discussing at another blog). I think you'd love it.