From time to time I pop up here trying to coax comment insights from the denizens of JCF that address the issue of what made the writing of Edgar Rice Burroughs special and different in comparison to, on the one hand, other pulp and sci-fi writers, and on the other hand in comparison to writers more generally. We are all familiar with the tendency of literary critics to take the position that Burroughs was “just” a pulp adventure writer and leave it at that. Yet the passion and lifelong appreciation of ERB that so many readers feel seems to be in conflict with the notion that he was “just” a pulp writer. There was something else going on there — something that most literary critics seem impervious to, but which millions of readers stretching across and entire century have recognized, understood, and appreciated.
My own sense of it has always been that Burroughs did something differently, and better, than just about anyone else — but whenever i try to put my finger on it, I struggle in articulating it. Reading Burroughs in my youth, the stories ignited my imagination in a way that was more vivid and more engaging than other, similar books. It was like the difference between a technicolor, surround sound movie (Burorughs) and a black and white, mono-sound movie (most others). There was botha greater vividness of the world created; and a greater engagement in the experience of that world as a reader. The former is easier to understand — one simply assumes that Burroughs wrote vivid descriptions and had a fertile imagination. The latter is not so easy to explain, because Burroughs has been accused of not writing “great characters” in the way that “great literature” creates great characters. John Carter in particular has been criticized as too “vanilla” or “Prince Valiant” (to use Andrew Stanton’s formulation) . . . .
My quest has for the most part been situated in the realm of literary criticism simply because that is how we tend to break down and analyze, well, literature. But increasingly, I’ve felt that this is not the realm in which I’m going to find the answers that I seek. This is more a matter of what I would call “literary psychology” than literary criticism — by which I mean the answers seem to live in the very detailed breakdown of how the reading experience works — how our mind assimilates the information on the page and converts that into images and emotions. Literary criticism is a little loftier than that. Literary psychology is more basic than that — what is it on the page that makes the reader feel the “thrill” of reading; what makes the reader feel the urge to hurtle through the pages and find out what happens next at a pace that is essentially “breathless”?
I have found two intriguing sources that are making me feel like my quest is on the verge of bearing some significant fruit.
First, fellow ERBophile Dr. Stan Galloway was kind enough to put me in touch with Dr. Charles Early, an academic cognitive psychologist who will be giving a presentation at the Bridgewater Tarzan conference Nov 1-3. The other i David Maas, a literary agent who came up with the concept of “micro-tension” as the fundamental characteristic of books that have that “best -seller -page-turner” quality that I associate with ERB, and which is also associated with other authors whose stories achieve huge global acceptance and have that “page turner” quality.
In the case of Maas, the full argument is available via his book “The Fire In Fiction” and various other writings.
There are many, many interesting aspects of Maas’s concept. One of them has to do with settings — which of course is one of the strong points of Burroughs work. Why is it that the settings of ERB seem more vivid and are more emotionally satisfying than other settings by other authors. Why is Barsoom so damned special? According to Maas, the key is to “link details and emotion” — that is, the description of place will be greatly strengthened by the linking of emotion to that description.
It is the combination of setting details and the emotions attached to them that, together, make a place a living thing. Setting comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that the story’s characters experience it. Either element alone is fine, but both working together deliver a sense of place without parallel.
Maas provides a somewhat simplistic but illustrative example:
For me the special summer place was my Great Uncle Robert’s farm on a hillside near Reading, Pennsylvania. “Uncle Locker,” as we called him, was, as far as I knew, born old. He loved his John Deere tractor but didn’t particularly like children, especially not after my younger brother dropped the tin dipping cup down the front yard well. Uncle Locker raised sheep. He stocked the lower pond with trout. He had connected a Revolutionary War-era log cabin with a Victorian-era farmhouse, erecting a soaring brick-floored, high-windowed living room between them. In that living room was a candy dish that each day magically refilled itself with M&M’s. (I suspect now that it was my Great Aunt Margaret who was the magician.) In the evenings Uncle Locker would read the Reading newspaper on the glassed-in porch, classical symphonies crackling on his portable transistor radio as summer lightning flashed across the valley. That, today, is my mental image of perfect contentment. When I hear a radio crackle in a storm, I relax. I miss my Uncle Locker with a sharp pang. Now, let me ask you this: Without looking back over what you just read, what do you remember best about what I wrote? Was it a detail, like the dipping cup, the M&M’s, or the lightning? Or was it the feeling of contentment that, for me, accompanies an approaching storm? Whatever your answer, I would argue that you remember what you remember not because of the details themselves or the emotions they invoke in me, but because both those details and personal feelings are present.
Maass, Donald (2009-05-06). The Fire in Fiction (pp. 82-83). Writers Digest Books. Kindle Edition.
Maas then asks to the reader: “Without looking back over what you just read, what do you remember best about what I wrote? Was it a detail, like the dipping cup, the M&M’s, or the lightning? Or was it the feeling of contentment that, for me, accompanies an approaching storm? Whatever your answer, I would argue that you remember what you remember not because of the details themselves or the emotions they invoke in me, but because both those details and personal feelings are present.”
I think, intuitively, we sense that Burroughs forged a very emotional connection to Barsoom through the experience of that planet by John Carter. But is this something that builds up slowly over time? Or does Burroughs somehow forge that emotional connection quickly.
I’m reminded of this passage from the frame story at the beginning of A Princess of Mars, as Edgar Rice Burroughs describes an observation of John Carter:
After I had retired for the night I have seen him from my window standing in the moonlight on the brink of the bluff overlookingthe Hudson with his arms stretched out to the heavens as though in appeal. I thought at the time that he was praying, although Inever understood that he was in the strict sense of the term a religious man.
Now, admittedly, this is just a tease — but such a good tease. The reader at a minimum knows he is reading a book about Captain Carter’s adventures on the planet Mars, and thus there can be no doubt about the object of the “arms outstretched” — and what does this do to our reaction as readers? For me, it creates that same pull . . . it’s one thing for an Earthman to have an adventure on another planet; it’s another for him to feel so connected to that planet that he raises his arms in supplication, presumably because he wants to go back there.
During the early portion of APOM, while John Carter is in Arizona, the descriptions of the locations are minimal and conveyed without emotion. As a youth, during my multiple readings of APOM, I always found myself skimming through this part of the story. Was it that I was just impatient to get to Barsoom? Or is there something fundamentally different about this section of the book. There is adventure to be sure . . .prospecting for gold, Apaches . . . . but it’s not the same as what will follow.
It is only at the very end of the Arizona portion that Burroughs, in building bridge from Arizona to Barsoom, begins to connect emotion to the setting.
Few western wonders are more inspiring than the beauties of an Arizona moonlit landscape; the silvered mountains in the distance, the strange lights and shadows upon hog back and arroyo, and the grotesque details of the stiff, yet beautiful cacti form a picture at once enchanting and inspiring; as though one were catching for the first time a glimpse of some dead and forgotten world, so different is it from the aspect of any other spot upon our earth.
Burroughs’ purpose at this point seems to be clearly to prepare the reader for what is about to come — to invoke the mystery and hint of an “dead and forgotten world” on Earth, to prepare the reader for the sudden transition to Mars.
In the very next paragraphs, Burroughs introduces Mars and in that introduction, emotion is injected forcefully even before the physical descriptions begin:
As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination–it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron.
My longing was beyond the power of opposition; I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space. There was an instant of extreme cold and utter darkness.
Thus before Carter ever arrives in Barsoom, Burroughs has created an emotional context — first in the mysterious “arms outstretched” in supplication description of the character Burroughs observing Carter; and now from within Carter’s own consciousness. His arrival on Barsoom “seals the deal” of the emotional connection:
I opened my eyes upon a strange and weird landscape. I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness. I was not asleep, no need for pinching here; my inner consciousness told me as plainly that I was upon Mars as your conscious mind tells you that you are upon Earth. You do not question the fact; neither did I.
So . . . three beats: First, Carter observed years later in supplication, arms outstretched to Barsoom, 2) In the moment before his “journey” to Mars, he feels “irresistible enchantment” and “overpowering fascination”, and c) Upon arrival, he observes a “weird” landscape, but knows precisely where he is.
Clearly, it’s going to take a few installments to work through this — but as noted at the outset, I think that between the psycho-literary insights of Donald Maas, and the insights of the cognitive psychologists — I’m going to make some progress in my quest.
To be continued.