In Praise of Entertaining Fiction

Burroughs“I have been writing for nineteen years and I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing, and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.”

So wrote Edgar Rice Burroughs in an article for Writer’s Digest in 1930. The full text may be found here. I love the up-front honesty of the statement. It resonates with me because the first “real” book I read all the way through was Tarzan of the Apes. I still remember the feeling of being gripped by a story that wouldn’t let me go. When I finished, I knew I wanted to do the same thing someday.

I can even remember the precise moment I got pulled in so deep I put everything aside–playing outside, watching TV, riding my bike to the candy store–just so I could finish that book!

Allow me to share that moment with you.

Chapter One begins as a narrative frame, the voice telling us that he cannot vouch for the truthfulness of the tale, but what he is about to reveal is based upon the “yellow, mildewed pages of the diary of a man long dead.”

The man is John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. The text continues:

We know only that on a bright May morning in 1888, John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice sailed from Dover on their way to Africa.

A month later they arrived at Freetown where they chartered a small sailing vessel, the Fuwalda, which was to bear them to their final destination.

And here John, Lord Greystoke, and Lady Alice, his wife, vanished from the eyes and from the knowledge of men.

I was hooked for sure. But the best was yet to come.

We are introduced to Black Michael, a mutineer, and I loved pirate stories as a boy. In Chapter Two, Black Michael takes over the ship and instead of killing the Claytons, as heTarzan_of_the_Apes_in_color was wont to do, he spares them because John Clayton had saved Black Michael’s life in Chapter One. Instead, the pirate sends Clayton and his pregnant wife to the jungle shore, where they will be on their own to survive!

But the best…not yet!

In Chapter Three the baby is born, a son, as John tries valiantly to make a safe home in the jungle for them, hoping against hope that a party from England will eventually find them.

Alas, it is not to be. Poor Alice dies. And the baby! The baby must still be nursed! The chapter ends with the last, sad journal entry of a man soon to be dead himself:

My little son is crying for nourishment—O Alice, Alice, what shall I do?

Great heavens! I was so into the story now. But there was more! I fell indelibly under the spell of Burroughs with the beginning of Chapter Four:

In the forest of the table-land a mile back from the ocean old Kerchak the Ape was on a rampage of rage among his people.

Wow!

The younger and lighter members of his tribe scampered to the higher branches of the great trees to escape his wrath; risking their lives upon branches that scarce supported their weight rather than face old Kerchak in one of his fits of uncontrolled anger.

The other males scattered in all directions, but not before the infuriated brute had felt the vertebra of one snap between his great, foaming jaws.

A luckless young female slipped from an insecure hold upon a high branch and came crashing to the ground almost at Kerchak’s feet.

With a wild scream he was upon her, tearing a great piece from her side with his mighty teeth, and striking her viciously upon her head and shoulders with a broken tree limb until her skull was crushed to a jelly.

And then he spied Kala, who, returning from a search for food with her young babe, was ignorant of the state of the mighty male’s temper until suddenly the shrill warnings of her fellows caused her to scamper madly for safety.

But Kerchak was close upon her, so close that he had almost grasped her ankle had she not made a furious leap far into space from one tree to another—a perilous chance which apes seldom if ever take, unless so closely pursued by danger that there is no alternative.

She made the leap successfully, but as she grasped the limb of the further tree the sudden jar loosened the hold of the tiny babe where it clung frantically to her neck, and she saw the little thing hurled, turning and twisting, to the ground thirty feet below.

With a low cry of dismay Kala rushed headlong to its side, thoughtless now of the danger from Kerchak; but when she gathered the wee, mangled form to her bosom life had left it.

Oh man! That was it! I was left hanging with a baby, all alone in the jungle, in the last chapter. Now I am completely into the story of…an ape! An ape who has lost her baby! And this villain named Kerchak. I wanted him to get his just desserts! I knew this poor ape Kala would find the Clayton baby and take him as her own. And that sooner or later, one or both of them would have to kill Kerchak in a duel to the death.

This was more than mere entertainment. This was magic. A story world unlike anything I’d ever seen, even when watching the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies I loved so much.

Burroughs, no doubt, influenced generations of boys to become readers, authors, or perhaps flat-out adventurers. But when I mentioned the Burroughs quote at the top of this post to an online group of veteran writers, I was delighted by several women saying the John Carter and Tarzan books were favorites of theirs, too.

Which proves that great storytelling is great storytelling. That’s what we writers must aim for, every time we sit down and clack the keyboard. As Burroughs himself put it in that WD article:

“I have felt that it was a duty to those people who bought my books that I should give them the very best within me. I have no illusions as to the literary value of what I did give them, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave them the best that my ability permitted.”

So what author carried you away like this when you were a kid?

 

 

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31 thoughts on “In Praise of Entertaining Fiction

  1. Once, my public school had a fire drill, but my head was in a book, and I didn’t hear anything. When the teacher noticed I was missing, she returned to the classroom and said, “Sheryl, you missed the drill.”

    I didn’t hear her. Apparently she repeated my name several times, and I still didn’t hear her. Finally to get my attention she had to actually touch my shoulder.

    I think I was 10 at the time.

    I loved the Black Stallion series and the Nancy Drew mysteries. I’d gobble them up so fast that my mom was convinced I couldn’t possibly be reading them, so she got one, read it first, and then gave it to me. I read it in couple of hours, and then she tested my knowledge. After that, she left me alone.

    For me, narrative drive is so important. While I don’t think that entertaining and literary are mutually exclusive, I’ll take a well-written good read over an esoteric, rambling work any day! The dream is to find a great story that’s also beautifully written, but the story is king and queen for me.

    • I love that story, Sheryl. So engrossed you missed a fire drill. Wasn’t that a very cool feeling? Good thing the school wasn’t actually on fire.

      I loved the feeling of time passing…I’d be caught up in a book at 3 and the next thing I knew it was 6 and my mom was calling me to dinner.

  2. Jim, great post.

    Isn’t that what every reader wants, to be “pulled in so deep.” And isn’t that what makes a book successful and keeps readers coming back for more.

    Isn’t that what makes readers go back and read an entire series, or with a series like Ty Buchanan, ask for new ones.

    For me, as a child, it was Franklin Dixon and the Hardy Boys. I read every book I could find in the series, in our small town library. The elderly librarian, concerned for my literary education, took me aside and directed me to “the classics.” But I still managed to find and read every Hardy Boy book the library had.

    I just checked Amazon, and found that a complete set of Hardy Boys (66) is available. Hmm. Now that I’m starting to read to grandchildren, I’ll have to think about that.

    Thanks for the memories, Jim. And I still think another Ty Buchanan story would be received successfully. I’m enjoying the Jimmy Gallagher series, one more to go. And ready to start the Force of Habit series.

    • Thanks for those kind words, Steve. I was a Hardy Boys kid, too, and passed that on to my son, and I’ll never forget his excitement at discovering something. He was maybe 9 or so, and came in and said, “Dad! I know why these books are so exciting!” I asked him to tell me the secret. He said, “Every chapter ends with an exclamation point!”

      What a great thing to notice.We as writers do try to end chapters with exclamation points, only not the grammatical mark, but the feeling of it!

    • Me too Steve.
      Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boys series pulled me behind the veil of mystery. Seduced me with adventure, and upset me when I came to, The End.
      But, by that time, I was ready for the next adventure… when my small allowance, and lawn-mowing ventures could afford it.
      Dave Powell

  3. Mr. Bell~

    Once again, great post~ thanks for digging up great recollections ~ I wasn’t an avid reader till middle school, but remember reading hand-along copies of the Hardy’s and Tom Swift – and yes, Tarzan – and losing complete track of the clock-
    I think so much of what passes today is “labored” instead of “fun” – maybe we ought to take what we do seriously – for the readers’ entertainment- but not so much to heart – so as to lose the joy of what we do – ( and let the reader in on that joy in the process).
    Not like me to pontificate ~ so thanks for the opportunity ~ 🙂

  4. Great post. The wondrous sense of discovery you described was much like I experienced as a young reader. Brought back memories of flashlight under the blankets long after My parents insisted I “needed” to sleep. Jim Khelgaard, Jack London, Daniel DeFoe, Jules Verne and many more. Thanks for the reminder of those early days with the magic of great story!

    • Ah yes Tom, The Call of the Wild was another of those books for me. And the flashlight thing, I remember reading my beloved Classics Illustrated comic books that way, with the occasional Superman or Archie thrown in.

  5. I have always been an avid reader. I loved disappearing into the world of the book. Still do.

    When I was young I really got into Roald Dahl. It was the first time I went out of my way to search for an author, and realized that people wrote books not just magical book faeries. I read everything he wrote serveral times over, even his more adult short stories.

    What a great topic!

  6. Boy did this post strike a chord. Falling into a novel, becoming emotionally engaged with the characters and their struggles, and being compelled to continue reading by the narrative drive of the story, this is what I live for as a reader. In other words, being entertained is key for me when I read fiction.

    In the 6th grade Jack O’Brien’s Silver Chief Dog of the North and Return of Silver Chief grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Next came Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

    The summer I was fifteen my mother loaned me her set of ERB’s Barsoom novels and I plowed through them in a few weeks. Her encouragement thoroughly hooked me on adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, and romance in one heady gulp.

  7. Although there were quite a few books that captivated me, the one that comes mot vividly to mind was Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the sequel The Moon of Gomrath. Garner brought fantasy to life in a real setting, much as Charles de Lint did when I was older. He made everything so real for me. Where were these mysteries hiding in the back garden and the fields?

  8. For me it was Tintin, and Illustrated Classics when I was younger. Then I graduated to Louis L’Amour and an Illustrated Encyclopedia of the History of the United States, 24 volumes, that I nearly memorized.

    I realize that an encyclopedia is not typically considered entertaining reading but those articles and entries filled my mind with fact based stories that fueled my imagination to create my own world.

    I still have that encyclopedia set by the way, and still crack it open from time to time and transport back to 1978, in my parents basement absorbing the lives of those who made our nation what it is today.

  9. After reading the opening of “Tarzan” that you posted, I had to go back and find when it was published — 1912. And I can’t believe that anything so enticing could be so…well, old. What a GREAT opening couple of graphs, a lesson for all of us even today. Thanks for including it.

    As for me: EB White’s books got me going (Charlotte’s Web in particular). Then a teacher started reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books to us aloud and I was hooked. My itinerant childhood left me haunting every town library, and there I found Edna Ferber’s “So Big” and “Giant.” Which let to John Jakes’s Kent Family Chronicles, which led to James Clavell, Leon Uris, and Jean Auel. I have a weakness for melodramatic family epics even today, especially those set in foreign locales. And yes, Texas qualifies.

  10. You’ve inspired me to read Tarzan now – I had now idea how gripping it was! As for me, so many books held me in their thrall but the one that really did it was The Chalet School series. Starting in the 1930s in Austria it was full of thrilling adventures, exotic foreign food and places and ‘girls own’ fun (including fleeing across the alps when the nazis came to power). Elinor M Brent Dyer wrote over 60 books in the series and many were out of print for years – I was still trying to collect them and read them all in my 20s. I would dream of being in a bookstore and discovering a shelf of titles I hadn’t read!

    • Wow, I have not heard of that series, Clare. What a great thing to pursue, and wouldn’t it be so fun to find some you hadn’t read yet. Good luck!

      • Sadly I know I have every book she published in the series but that hasn’t stopped some other fans from writing their own stories that help fill in the gaps between some of her books! I’ve been tempted to buy a few! Shows you the dedication of the fan base. My aunt adored them, I adored them and my younger cousins got addicted too – my mission is now to convert my niece to them (my boys for some reason aren’t interested in girl boarding school stories – can’t think why?!)

  11. Jim, for me it was the Tarzan books and Jules Verne. My mom got me a library card in 3rd grade, and I’ve haunted those aisles ever since. Funny, my dad was always reading western books, but they never interested me. In 2000, at Dad’s funeral, my brother put a paperback of L’Amour’s “Beyond the Pale Blue Mountain” in his coffin with him. I got a copy that week and didn’t stop until I had read every Louis L’Amour book I could find. I can’t believe it took me fifty years to “discover” him.

    • Jules Verne is another of those great old imaginative writers who inspired folks like Bradbury and Heinlein. And L’Amour, what a legacy he left behind.

  12. I loved Charoltte’s Web as a child. When I was a bit older, I discovered the Nancy Drew series and read them and reread them. My best friend was also a fan. I remember sitting in the rocking chair with her and her mother. I would be on one side, and my friend on the other. She would slowly rock and we would take turns reading aloud. This instilled in me a love for mystery. Then, I discovered Agatha Christie. She enthralled me with all of her twists and plots. I always tried to discover the murderer by the end and most of the time I was wrong. That was when I knew I wanted to write too. I wanted to write mysteries for the feel and excitement it gave to the readers. I don’t reread many books. There are so many that I haven’t read, that I focus my attention on the unread books in my TBR. The exception is anything by Agatha Christie and some of the classics. I can reread Agatha Christie’s books and never get bored. Yes, it is a different time and the style was much different than contemporary mysteries, but to me, they are masterful. Great post, thank you! 🙂

    • Rebecca, my wife was a huge Agatha Christie reader as a kid. We have a nearly complete set of her paperbacks. What an amazing author. I recently got the book about her writing methods and notebooks. I can’t wait to dive in.

  13. I can’t really say I had an experience like yours, JSB. I have been reading since 5, everything I could get my hands on. I did have an experience Sheryl’s, later in life. Back about 20 years ago I used to walk the five or six blocks to work in the morning, always with a book. I could tell from the sound of traffic when I had to look up to cross the street. Once a woman I saw at church told me, “I see you walk by the house every morning and you never look up. How do you do that?” And it was fine. Until the day I was reading Tom Clancy’s “The Cardinal of the Kremlin,” and was so intent as I walked down the street that I walked into a street sign, “No Parking.” Well that got my attention. I had a little cut on my forehead, but what really annoyed me was the I dropped the book and lost my place.

  14. Many books captured me as a child, The Black Stallion, Nancy Drew, and when I was 14, I stayed up all night one school night to finish Exodus by Leon Uris. That book still stays with me.

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