burroughsWhile 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.

Burroughs wrote:

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.


  1. Quote: “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.”

    I know what he means. When I started college, my English courses forced me to read Albert Camus’s The Plague and The Stranger). Fortunately, that did not turn me off to reading altogether. But I did acquire a distaste for Camus, for French existentialism and (perhaps unfairly) French philosophy in general. Professor (like those) who think they can indoctrinate students with their ideas may find themselves doing the exact opposite.


    The high literature versus low but popular debate has been with us a long time, as those long-ago quotes illustrate. Over a century ago, G. K. Chesterton was defending the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that young boys like to read against their critics. One of his points was that whatever their literary merits, those books taught boys to be brave, to face adversity, and to protect the weak. He contrasted that with serious literature that was often filled with lies, deception and adultery.

    Interestingly, there was also a heated debate at the time over whether nationalism should be taught in the schools. Chesterton response was that he thought that schools should have kids read about the national heroes of other nations as well as their own. Knowing how much a Frenchman loves his native soil would make a German less likely to invade France. He had nothing but contempt for internationalists who, he sarcastically remarked, “love every country but their own.” That too has a modern flavor in our debate over American exceptionalism.


    My own feeling is that in addition to being well written, good literature should teach us to love good people and their deeds, while loathing foul people and their deeds. It is OK to show people forced into doing wrong by difficult circumstances, but don’t romanticize evil.


    Those who’ve not read any Edgar Rice Burroughs might want to read his marvelous Barsoom series, set on Mars and starting with A Princess of Mars. If you like audiobooks, LoyalBooks.com has the ones that are in public domain.

    His Mars isn’t the one we know today from science. But he has created an incredibly interesting world and peopled it with fascinating creatures.

    –Mike Perry

  2. I second the recommendation. The Barsoom series may not be exactly literary fiction, but it’s still better written than a lot of modern literature, and is surprisingly intelligent sci-fi in places, even gaining social overtones now and then.

    The pulp literature of the 1930s is vastly underrated nowadays, when some people use the term in a derogatory manner. Let’s leave the false dichotomy between entertainment and enlightenment to the literary snobs, and just appreciate books for what they are.

  3. I’ve read five ERB novels (two Mars and three Time Forgot); they were light, amusing science fiction, and he’s correct in his assumption that they’re not fine literature. Where his is dead wrong is his claim “No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment.” Entertainment is just one way to read fiction.

    Williams S. Burroughs (maybe not an author of fine literature either, depending who you ask) said (sorry no direct quote, I remembering) people should read for erudition – to experience something new; for example, the Lost Weekend to learn what it’s like to be drunk for days on end. (Not a problem for WSB.)

    So there you go: ERB says read for entertainment, WSB says erudition. Who’s right? Dig a little deeper and there are probably other authors with other reasons to read. Personally, out of the two, I’m closer to WSB most of the time, but I delve into the entertainment side now and then.

    Also, there is an amazing conceit saying that “literature” is boring and discourages reading and that “genre” is fun and makes kids want to read. Michael W. Perry says he has a distaste for Camus, but I’d rank The Stranger as perhaps the most influential novel of my life – causing me deep regrets that I’m not fluent in French to read the original.

    Likewise, I read four of the Harry Potter novels for a book club and found the first slightly amusing, then the rest were increasingly banal. GOOD little boy wizard will save the world from the machinations of the wicked, bad, naughty, EVIL wizard. Oh please, not THAT again! Sure, the books became very popular, but they have no more substance than Ronald McDonald in McDonaldland, IMHO.

    So the battle goes on.

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