Pixel fiction

When I first got an iPhone, I was thrilled to see the e-books and reading applications available and went a little download happy.

All of Shakespeare’s plays? Of course! Any bookshelf without them is barren. Joyce’s Ulysses? Well, why not? Perfect in a pinch . . . you know, for reference. Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown, one of the ur-texts of the age of electronic literature? What better way to read about the development of electronic bulletin boards and hacker culture in the 1980s? (Adding an ironic wrinkle for me was the fact that Sterling’s book focuses on AT&T’s efforts to police the net in its early days, and I had downloaded it via my AT&T cell phone. Have the hackers taken over from the inside, or just been co-opted?)

Outside of getting about 1/3 of the way through The Hacker Crackdown, a valiant attempt to re-read Coriolanus, and a quick run-through of the first few screens of “Telemachus,” I never got very far with these texts. It just seemed to be too difficult to read anything longer than an email or short news article on my favorite new gizmo. I began to think that I wouldn’t be swept up by the e-book craze, currently being kindled by new technological developments.


“It’s too hard to read a longer text on a small screen,” I thought, “and I love the sensation of opening a book, riffling its pages, sniffing the lovely combination of the odors of paper and binding glue as it wafts gently noseward.” The coldness of an electronic reader, the seemingly evanescent nature of books rendered as mere data, and other similar barriers hindered my initial ebullience from taking root and changing my reading patterns. (Some of you may also recall my analog tendencies.)

And then . . . and then . . . I discovered the Stanza reader and all the public domain e-books to which it offers unfettered access. Just like everyone, I like things that are cheap or free, so I started to explore their catalog.

Particularly exciting to me has been the availability of noir pulp fiction through Munseys. Over the last couple months, I’ve read — nay devoured — novel after novel by Charles Willeford, a pulp writer best known for Miami Blues, which was turned into a movie starring Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, both sporting terrible haircuts.

Willeford’s later stuff, including Miami Blues and all the novels featuring his most famous character, Hoke Moseley, are not available on Munseys, due to their being copyright protected, but his wild, weird, creepy pulp novels from the 50s are.


These period covers misrepresent the plots and writing, but not by too much.


Willeford’s world is violent, male-dominated, and sexist, but his central characters are complex and nuanced. In The High Priest of California, Russell Haxby randomly attacks a stranger in a bar, then returns home to work on his long-term project, a line-by-line interpretation of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Willeford’s men are after power, money, and sex, but often have a private moral code to which they adhere almost monastically. Frank Mansfield, the narrator of Cockfighter (yep, cockfighter), holds himself to a vow of silence for years until he wins the highly prized “Cockfighter of the Year” award.


Whip Hand, originally credited to W. Franklin Sanders, but later discovered to have been authored by Willeford as Deliver Me from Dallas, is a Faulkner-esque triumph. Written from five or six different perspectives, each character with his or her own subtle, distinct voice and vision, it reads like a fully-realized, unmade Coen brothers movie. If Joel and Ethan haven’t read it, I’d be truly astonished. Willeford’s influence seems to be all over Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and No Country for Old Men (both Cormac McCarthy’s book and the movie adaptation).


At first, I downloaded a couple of Willeford’s books out of curiosity, but reading them in (increasingly longer) snippets — commuting on the Metro, waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting on a plane — my relationship to my phone, and to reading, has changed.

Originally published as throwaway literature, these are the perfect novels to read in this new, disposable format. Willeford’s short sentences and snappy writing work very well on the small screen of the iPhone, and the gripping, bizarre plots and characters keep me riveted. The pulp has become pixels, but the spirit remains much the same. And I now see e-texts as just another format in which I can consume the written word. Printed books won’t disappear from my shelves, as vinyl hasn’t from my music collection, but e-books have found a place in my library.

8 responses to “Pixel fiction”

  1. lane says:

    and do you get the great cover art with the downloads?

  2. Jane says:

    Is there really enough space on your iPhone for all of that? Wow! Maybe I SHOULD have jumped on that wagon…

  3. Dave says:

    I’ve tried using the notes function on my regular iPod for reading, but it’s pretty annoying. It’s good to hear the iPhone is workable, since I’m bound to break down sometime soon and get me one of those bad boys. I’ve seen people on the subway using the Kindle, which looks pretty nice, but I still have the feeling that the implementation of the technology isn’t quite worth spending $400 on.

  4. Tim says:

    I haven’t really seen a Kindle in action, other than videos on the web, but I’ve read mixed reviews. Some people have found it difficult to navigate; others love it. Eventually we’ll all probably be forced to purchase some sort of dedicated e-reader, but for now I’m enjoying the liberty of having a multi-function electronic device. I listen to music on my iPhone at the same time I’m reading, can check my email inside of ten seconds, receive calls, etc.

    I’m wary of sinking that kind of money into a device that may end up being the 8-track of books and performs no functions truly independent of reading e-books (though you can download directly to the Kindle, follow links in texts, do a little bit of web navigation (in black and white), and check email (on a Kindle account)). The rumored large-format iPod Touch might just take over the market, but if its weight is proportional to that of the iPhone, it will be too heavy.

    The cover art does come with the downloads, though it’s not transferable from there and you can’t study it for long (it appears for a few seconds when you open a book). I took the images here from Munseys’ website.

    Jane, it’s not too late . . .

  5. lane says:

    i recently heard the netscape guy on charlie rose. they were talking about the 7 inch screen. i’d be wary of the kindle. let’s see what apple does with that. i’m sure they will continue to amaze.

    (and let’s all remember steve jobs and his weight loss condition in out prayers.)

  6. Tim says:

    In a bizarre bit of timing, Amazon announced today that they are releasing a Kindle app for the iPhone. Clearly they’ve decided to hedge their bets, in case Kindle 2 doesn’t take off, and/or they’re trying to lure iPhone users into getting a Kindle.

  7. Dave says:

    And Amazon sells Kindle books for $10 each, right? I’m sure they’re happy to take money from iPhone users.

  8. Jeremy says:

    I love the conflation of low- and high-tech here (reading old pulp-noir novels on an iPhone–brilliant)… but, while I love technology and I especially love my iPhone (a little too much), I can’t imagine reading a novel on that thing. Or that Kindle. I wonder if, someday, textbooks will all come that way; I’ll be the last teacher still ordering regular books for my students, and they’ll all groan because they want the e-version.