The author of Tarzan on writing fiction

Are you reading Letters of Note yet? If not you’ll have missed this interchange between a youngster (a boy named Forrest Ackerman who later went on to coin the term “sci fi”) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan.

Ackerman, at 14, wrote Burroughs after his English teacher spend a lesson decrying the author’s popular schlock fiction. He describes the tirade as follows:

Well with that she burst into a perfect tirade! “If I were to buy the highest priced box of chocolates obtainable,” she said, “and were to offer it to you along with a box of old cheap stuff, which would you take? Why the good candy of course! Yet you’ll go to extremes to pick up this horrid literature out of the garbage cans such as Burroughs writes.” — and she went on for hours and hours and hours. I got in a good word for you every chance I could.

And then signs off with class belying his age:

“I don’t expect you’ll bother to answer this–maybe you haven’t even read it–but anyway will you please autograph the enclosed card and return it to me. Thank you, so much!

And now I’d better sign off. I certainly envy the fellow–if there is such a fellow–that is friendly enough with you to call you Eddie!”

Burroughs did reply. With a lesson on good fiction and bad criticism.

“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.”