Guest Blog by Abraham Sherman: Edgar Rice Burroughs is often regarded as a “pulp writer” who is not to be taken too seriously. His stories are fast-paced and highly imaginative and not focused on the introspection often seen in “literary” works. But, does the absence of the “literary” label mean that ERB’s writing is of any lesser value? Or is there a different type of value in Burroughs that is largely overlooked by the literary critics? What makes one written work literary and another not? Literary writing generally seeks two things – reality and complexity. Burroughs, with his made-up worlds and clear heroes and villains, flies in the face of that, at least on the surface.
Literary works are focused on catharsis, on bringing up the darker side of humanity in a conflicted protagonist and putting him through real life in a way that the reader can say, “See, nobody is perfect and we all have it rough, but there is hope.” In contrast, ERB’s wish fulfillment literature is about providing unmistakable role models, people we wish we could be – examples to aim for in our life and personal character.
ERB’s writing, in comparison to literary writing, demonstrates a unique but equally substantial method of exploring themes and aspects of human nature. His books are no less worthy of note because of their pulp trappings. Pulp is as valid of a form of writing as any other, and it is unfortunate that it is rarely taken seriously by literary establishment critics. The critics often give nods to pulp for its importance in pop culture, for its ability to entertain the average reader, but the vaguely condescending acknowledgment usually stops there. Though some critics look down their noses at ERB’s “wish fulfillment literature,” and though ERB himself described his works as “rotten entertainment”, albeit in a self-effacing manner, that doesn’t account for how his works have endured when so many other authors of “wish fulfillment literature” have been forgotten or passed into obscurity. What is it about ERB that continues to resonate? Could pulpy wish fulfillment literature last as long as his works have lasted? Aside from the obvious answers of his extraordinary imagination and knack for adventure storytelling, some of the answers are found in his characterizations, particularly in his heroes, but in his villains as well.
The reader feels safe with ERB’s protagonists. No matter how wild the world, no matter how high the stakes or dangerous the circumstances, the reader knows that the hero will be extraordinarily competent, will make the best choices, and take the best possible actions. ERB’s heroes are selfless. They fight for causes that are bigger than the individual. They can always be counted on to act in situations of need. The “literary” protagonist, by comparison, is often conflicted and hesitant, and spends much of his time and energy working through his doubts about his moral code. He may take heroic action eventually, but only after battling with himself. In light of that contrast, the “wish-fulfillment” aspect to ERB’s heroes is unmistakable. They are the utterly dependable best friend or father or protector that we wish we had in real life. And they are who we wish we could be, in our most ambitious moments.
ERB’s antagonists are typically cowards, manipulators and lechers. They assert and increase their power at the expense of others. They take, rather than give. They seek to control rather than to set free. Literary antagonists, on the other hand, are typically portrayed as having at least one sympathetic motivation or redeeming quality. The reader may find some of the literary antagonist’s means and/or goals agreeable, others highly questionable. While the literary protagonist is often working to sort out his moral ambiguity, and seeks to make the best choices he can despite his personal failings, the literary antagonist is often fully resigned to the ambiguity and has no scruples about using whatever loopholes he can to pursue his ends. ERB’s antagonists do not usually have redeeming or ambiguous qualities. They exist to provide the opposing force that provokes the hero to action.
Not many of ERB’s characters fall in between the virtual polar opposites of his heroes and villains. But that does not mean that Burroughs denies the reality of human complexity. Rather, there is a method to his portrayals, a method as old as storytelling.
Here is the core of what is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of ERB’s writing. He presents a clear morality through his characters, making them generally very distinct adherents to either good or evil, and in so doing, he creates a picture of the forces at work inside every one of us. One undeniable aspect of humanity is the experience of conflicting desires. ERB, in his works, externalizes and separates the different forces that tug on each of us. And he does it in what are some of the most imaginative, adventurous and entertaining worlds ever created. One of the reasons ERB’s books resonate is because we have in our inner being both John Carter and Matai Shang, both Tars Tarkas and Tal Hajus, both Sola and Sarkoja. ERB brings them out for us, gives them separate identities useful for contrast, and encourages us to take a good look.
The way in which ERB celebrates his heroes encourages us to believe that goodness is a worthy pursuit, that we can be a John Carter or Dejah Thoris that remains on guard against the Tal Hajuses, Than Kosises, and Matai Shangs in ourselves and in the world around us. In this way, ERB’s writing serves a purpose for fiction alluded to by English writer G.K. Chesterton – “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
In the “literary” framework, the battleground is predominantly within one’s self, with external conflicts being secondary. In contrast, with ERB, the external conflict is primary. The types of conflicts and characters that ERB created were well suited to the scope of his stories. For ERB, the battle was often for the safety of the jungle, or for a civilization, or for an entire planet. In his 150-to-200-page novels there wasn’t much time for introspection. ERB needed to raise the stakes as high as possible through conflicts between clearly contrasting agendas driven by individuals of fundamentally oppositional character.
ERB’s heroes, for how clear they are, are not necessarily flat or one-dimensional. They have eccentricities and fears, and still have to puzzle their way through situations. John Carter is awkward in his pursuit of Dejah Thoris, agonizes at the thought of losing her, and must use all of his smarts and courage and skill to save her from Than Kosis and Issus and Matai Shang. John Carter has exemplary moral character, but he isn’t all-knowing or all-powerful. He still faces challenges from within and without. It’s just that he faces them with an unbeatable resolve.
In contrasting the pulp style and the literary style, it is worth remembering that we need ennobling, inspiring examples as well as honest self-reflection. We need cautionary tales about the sordid qualities of humanity, and we need encouragement toward the good. We know that both ends of the human spectrum are real, since they both continually tug on us. In the midst of that complexity, the heroism in ERB’s stories rings true like the good advice of a trustworthy friend.