Writing Entertainingly (Edgar Rice Burroughs on telling interesting stories)

Time for another writerly quote. I wrote a post recently on Literary fiction versus Pop Fiction, and the issue I have with “literary” folks who put down widely read works, so this quote struck home with some things I’ve been thinking about lately:

I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly. – Edgar Rice Burroughs

Burroughs’s Tarzan and John Carter stories are still some of the most beloved stories ever written. And I love how he puts this. Not only does he admit he knew nothing (Yeah right, Edgar!), he attributes his success to accepting this fact and instead focusing on telling a good story.

Because that is the point, isn’t it? To tell a good story.

I am not saying it is not helpful to try to learn about writing and prose and using good grammar. But you can have profound knowledge about how language works, and you can even write gorgeous prose, but it still not be about anything at all.

You can write well, and still be a crappy storyteller.

Burroughs may not have been the most profound writer, but he could write a gosh-darn entertaining story!

The writing helps, but in my mind, the story is what matters. Learn what makes a really good story good. What makes it gripping or interesting? In other words, why should people care enough to read it?

Come up with something interesting. And write it entertainingly.

I can’t speak for everyone, and the reasons why they read books. But I read to be entertained, largely. I read to be wrapped up in a story, to feel like I am experiencing the story as the main characters, to be left wondering what will happen and how, to care so much about the characters that I must reach the end. That is entertainment, and it is the effect I would much rather master, over gushing prose. Maybe I’ll learn a little of that someday, but for now, I am going to work on becoming a better storyteller.

“Literary” versus Fiction that Sells

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I hate it when “literary” folks bash popularized works of fiction and the writers of popular fiction.

What is popular fiction? I would call it fiction that sells. There are works that are deemed literary that might fall in to that category. Cormac McCarthy sells a lot of books, for instance. But mostly it is genre stuff: King and Crichton and Clancy novels, courtroom thrillers, books about boy wizards, books about psychotic married couples and so forth.

I read a post by James Scott Bell, the awesome writing coach, about this lingering snobbery toward popular writing by the literary snobs. The snobs hate how much we like King and Rowling and Koontz. They think its a sign that people are dumbing down the literary world and ruining the publishing industry. They think it is ruining the art and turning it into entrepreneurship.

But since when was writing not entrepreneurial? Writers have always had to promote themselves, whether to a publisher or a newspaper or an agent or whatever. What writer has ever not wanted readers or to be paid? The starving artist who just sits around and creates experimental work for himself is a rare thing — romanticized far more than it is realistic, or even all that artsy —  and making work for yourself doesn’t mean it is better than work created for other people.

For that matter, who says it can’t go both ways anyway? As if creating works people will like cannot also mean creating art for yourself?

When asked why he chose to write horror, Stephen King remarked, “Who said I had a choice?”

When I was studying writing and literature at college, I met a snob or two. In one critique group, while everyone else was writing essays exploring their mostly mundane personal lives, I was writing action scenes for stories about teens with supernatural powers. In a previous critique group, my stories were considered the best in the class, and suddenly students were talking my stuff down. Ultimately, it came down to the “literary” thing.

Now I still learned a lot from the class, but nevertheless, it rubbed me the wrong way then, and it still does.

I love the sort of stories I write. They are the sort of stories I love to read too. Sure, I read some literary stuff at times, but sci-fi and fantasy are what I love. And when people talk that sort of writing down, it rubs me the wrong way.

Just because something is popular does not decrease its merit. Just because a book isn’t a slow-paced character study does not mean it does not have something to say about humanity. Just because a story is entertaining does not mean it is no longer art.

In fact, I would prefer to find that place where the stories I love to write are also entertaining to an audience who loves to read them, and if I can not starve along the way, I tell you what, I am all for it.