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.


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?




Once More With Feeling: Revisiting The Art v. Commerce Debate

Crumbling Wall

Last Christmas I watched the 1938 Henry Fonda movie called I Met My Love Again. The plot: A woman returns to her Vermont sweetheart ten years after running off to Paris with a writer. Those dang writers! Love ‘em and leave ‘em!

Joan Bennett plays the woman. She meets the writer during a snow storm. Her sleigh overturns and the horse runs off. She finds a cabin and knocks on the door. An Errol Flynn lookalike answers. He has a roaring fire going and a page in a typewriter.

Joan comes in and warms herself. They talk a bit, and he tells her he’s renting this cabin to get some writing done. This dialogue follows:

“You’re a writer?”
“Do people really publish what you write?”
“Yes, the wrong people. You see, I’ve got to make a living, so I write trash to keep alive.”

She looks down at the page in the typewriter and reads:

Then I picked up the knife and sank the sharp steel blade into his chest. He sighed gently, and turned his great eyes – those eyes I once loved so – to mine. That was my first man.


I Go Straight

The writer admits:

“That’s the trash, a confession story, slated for the March issue of I Tell All. It’s the true story of a gal named Lyla Rigby. I am Lyla Rigby.”

I snorted. What a great example of the old bias against “writing for a living.” Such a “trashy” thing to do! A real writer wrote novels, labored over them, and did it mainly for art’s sake. Those who slummed in the world of pulp fiction were to be scorned, which is why many of them hid behind pseudonyms.

That kind of thinking was certainly widespread back in the day. But its tentacles still exist, as evidenced by the hissy fit Harold Bloom threw several years ago when Stephen King was given a major literary award. There is also a steady vibration of snark in articles such as The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. Here’s a clip:

Yet the notion of the artist as a solitary genius—so potent a cultural force, so determinative, still, of the way we think of creativity in general—is decades out of date. So out of date, in fact, that the model that replaced it is itself already out of date. A new paradigm is emerging, and has been since about the turn of the millennium, one that’s in the process of reshaping what artists are: how they work, train, trade, collaborate, think of themselves and are thought of—even what art is—just as the solitary-genius model did two centuries ago. The new paradigm may finally destroy the very notion of “art” as such—that sacred spiritual substance—which the older one created.

The article posits that the concept of the artist changed drastically in the 20th century. “As art was institutionalized, so, inevitably, was the artist. The genius became the professional.” This awful turn of events has led to the crumbling of “mediating structures” like publishing companies, who were once the gatekeepers.

[W]e have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.

Which, the article concludes, leads inexorably to the death of art itself:

It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favor work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please—more like entertainment, less like art. Artists will inevitably spend a lot more time looking over their shoulder, trying to figure out what the customer wants rather than what they themselves are seeking to say.

There it is, the old “art v. commerce” angle, complete with hidden assumption that something popular cannot be art, and something artistic should not be popular.

Yet Dickens, Dumas, Dostoevsky—The D Boys—all wrote great artistic works for a popular audience. Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe certainly desired a wide readership. In the pulps, Chandler and Hammett and Dorothy Hughes had the readers, but also said meaningful things about the mean streets and the human condition.

None of these authors wrote without the desire for financial return. As Dr. Johnson so eloquently put it, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Out on the edges, sure, you have the solo artist who doesn’t give a rip what others think. And so creates experimental pieces that don’t sell, except on rare lightning-strikes occasions.

On the other side of this divide are those who “write” monster porn (yes, it really exists) and somehow find people willing to pay for it.

But in the great in-between are those who want to entertain an audience. For some that is enough. Others want to add a little more heft to their style or theme, and that’s a good thing. Still others want to transcend genre conventions and reach for the stars. I especially like that.

So isn’t it about time to put the “art v. commerce” debate to bed? It was okay for cocktail parties in 1965—“Honestly, are you comparing Mailer to Hemingway? How droll.”—but was it ever really a substantive discussion?

How many artists are there, truly, who don’t care a fig about income? (By the way, if you do want to “suffer” for your art, it’s very easy not to make money, so have at it.)

Is the disdain for “popular art” productive or even valid?

And here’s the big one: how concerned should we be about the “crumbling” of the mediators—publishing companies, critics, agents?

The discussion may now begin.