By: Matthew Silkin  | 

Stuart Woods, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pulp

I’m an English major. Ostensibly what this means is that I sit around dressed in tweed jackets in libraries filled with old manuscripts, holding a snifter of my bourbon of choice and talking about my favorite Percy Bysshe Shelley poem (Buffalo Trace and Adonais, by the way). Unfortunately, quarantine has left me without tweed, large libraries, and/or bourbon, and I must make do with other pieces of literature. So, once I finished my more highbrow literature, I turned to my family’s growing collection of Stuart Woods novels.

For those of you not in the know, Stuart Woods is, well, to say “a prolific author” would be a tad bit of an understatement. He’s written 85 novels since 1981, a vast majority of which prominently feature the character Stone Barrington, an NYPD detective turned somewhat private eye. I haven’t read every single thing he’s written —that’s a bit too ambitious, even for me — but I’ve read a good handful of his books, my siblings have read others and I’d say that I’ve developed a sense of what his work is like. And I have to say, my tweed-wearing, library-dwelling, bourbon-sipping, Shelley-reading English major brain… isn’t liking it all that much.

For starters, it’s pulpy — it’s mass-produced, easily digestible, sensationalist, a bit trashy and hits the major cliches of its genre. While the strict definition of pulp extends to the cheap sci-fi rags of the early 20th century (the kind of places you’d see early work from H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov originally published), I think I’m safe in extending the definition to Woods’ works. They’re permeated with cheap thrills, somewhat abrupt and less than satisfying endings, gratuitous descriptions of characters’ wealth, and sex — a lot of sex. In fact, I’d wager to say an obscene amount of sex.

So why do I keep reading them?

I suppose, on the one hand, I’m a bit curious to see how bad they can get. Much like the ironic enjoyment one gets from watching The Room, or the schadenfreude of seeing a prominent public figure get their just desserts, or watching a dumpster burn. But as I put down my Stone Barrington novel this afternoon and reached for the next one, I realized that I could easily drop the “ironic” from my description of enjoyment for his work. Which led me back to my question: Why the heck do I enjoy these so much?

I suppose, in a way, the same reason I enjoy cheap American beer, or eat junk food, or watch stupid YouTube videos — I need to turn my brain off sometimes. Yes, every time I turn the page in a Stone Barrington novel, my English major brain is yelling at me to put it down and read some literature of higher caliber and quality, but my English major brain needs to shut up every once in a while. And besides, Wells and company are all high brow literature now, so why should I let the quality of the paper on which their writing is printed determine my enjoyment of it?

And to give Woods some credit, he does know how to write a chapter-ending cliffhanger worth his salt. Sure, the payoff at the beginning of the next chapter isn’t all that much great in retrospect — one example comes to mind, in which Barrington opens his room door to see his current paramour with a gun, only for the next chapter to open with her stating “This is for your protection” and handing it to him — but it’s at least enough to keep one turning the page.

So yes, sometimes I’ll take off the tweed, exchange the Buffalo Trace for Budweiser, and put away Ozymandias for Stone Barrington. Because darn it, we’re in quarantine, and sometimes my brain needs a break.

And to Stuart Woods, if you’re reading this — first of all, how did you find The Commentator? Second, hi! And third, go write more Stone Barrington!

Photo Caption: So once I finished my more highbrow literature, I turned to my family’s growing collection of Stuart Woods novels.
Photo Credit: Matthew Silkin