While it’s a few days too late to claim “on this day in…” today I learned that in August 1931, a 14-year-old Forrest J. Ackerman argued with his teacher over the literary merits of Tarzan, and subsequently sent a fan letter to Edgar Rice Burroughs describing his side of the argument. To his astonishment, Burroughs replied.
Thanks for your letter. Tell your teacher that, though she may be right about my stories, there are some fifty million people in the world who will not agree with her, which is fortunate for me, since even writers of garbage-can literature must eat.
My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, or its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.
Last year I followed the English course prescribed for my two sons, who are in college. The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment, rather than a pleasure.
There are so many insights encapsulated in just those three paragraphs. For example, even Burroughs was aware of the dichotomy between so-called “literary merit” and popular demand (which persists even to this day, and even within the genre, as Eric Flint aptly observed). Just look at what Stephen King said about various prolific genre writers. Or, heck, look at today’s “trashy” popular writers. Twilight’s Stephanie Meyers, or her fanfic imitator, Fifty Shades’s E.L. James. How many people put those down for their popularity or subject matter without even bothering to read hem?
Burroughs was perfectly fine with being thought “garbage” because he was making an excellent living—which is, as they say, the best revenge. He believed that it was the act of reading that was important, not necessarily what was read. I imagine he would have been perfectly thrilled with seeing works like Harry Potter become runaway bestsellers because they meant kids were interested in reading them. And he saw higher education as trying to turn people off of reading by assigning them the most boring stuff possible.
Making a living or not, in some ways it must have been hard to be Burroughs, back in that era. We can read books like Parnassus on Wheels or The Haunted Bookshop today and laugh at how quaint the bookstore owners’ distaste for Burroughs and other pulpish contemporaries was, but just consider that back then, the actual authors in question were alive, and would have had to suffer the indignity of seeing themselves reviled in print. That must have stung. I would bet that every letter he received from a young reader who stuck by him despite what his teachers might say must have meant a lot to him.