IS FICTION'S PURPOSE
Compiled and Transcribed by Bill Hillman
Edgar Rice Burroughs
To frame an article on writing that will "be instructive and of real value to writers" requires something that I do not possess -- a conscious knowledge of the technique of story writing. The best that I can do, therefore, is to discuss frankly my own methods, which will be utterly valueless to professional writers and of doubtful value to any one else.
I find that a considerable part of my work in writing fiction has nothing whatsoever to do with fiction. It is based upon the belief that highly imaginative fiction, such as I write, demands the retention of a youthful and elastic mind, to achieve which one of my principal aims in life is to keep my body physically fit and my mind responsive to a diversity of simple stimuli.
For me, temperance is essential to good work. Simple amusements are the most desirable, and so far I have successfully avoided the acquisition of any sort of a hobby.
I understand that many men consider the acquisition of a hobby as absolutely essential to perfect mental contentment and consequent nerve rest and relaxation. My own observation leads me to believe that a single hobby is too narrowing an influence for a fiction writer, and I should rather suggest the greater value of an interest in many things. I find it is better to have a little knowledge of one, and the reason for this is obvious if you will consider the plight of the fiction writer -- to reduce the example to an absurdity -- whose hobby is the collection of postage stamps. It is necessary to give a great deal of time and thought to philately if one is to become expert in it, as I know by experience. Practically all of one's leisure time might be entertainingly devoted to his stamp collection, yet how seldom could this knowledge be used during the course of a writer's lifetime in the production of fiction?
The fiction writer should read most anything but fiction. He should be able to find entertainment in every form of sport, whether he is able to take an active part in it or not. He should enjoy a variety of games and other activities that keep his mind young and supple.
Please remember that I am speaking only of writers of highly imaginative fiction; concerning the others I know nothing. But the fiction writer to whom I refer should be what my two sons call monkey-minded -- that is, have the tendency to caper erratically through the forest of human knowledge, swinging form tree to tree, tasting the fruits of many.
There is one thing that I would constantly impress upon the young writer -- and possibly with greater reason upon the established writer -- that he should not take either himself or his work too seriously. Except for purposes of entertainment, I consider fiction, like drama an absolute unessential. I would not look to any fiction writer, living or dead, for guidance upon any subject, and, therefore, if he does not entertain, he is a total loss.
Every possible advantageous function of fiction may be found in history or biography, but for pure entertainment and mental relaxation nothing can take the place of fiction and drama, with the advantages all on the side of fiction since it may be had economically and in comfort at home.
The man who takes himself and his work too seriously is certain to attempt something for which he is not fitted, with the result that he soon loses whatever following he may have created, or if he is a beginner, he never achieves any such following.
In fiction the reader has a right to expect entertainment and relaxation. If obscenities entertain him he can always find fiction that will fulfill his requirements. If he wishes to be frightened or thrilled or soothed, he will find writers for his every mood, but you may rest assured that he does not wish to be instructed. He does not wish to have to think, and as fully ninety per cent of the people in the world are not equipped with anything wherewith to think intelligently, the fiction writer who wishes to be a success should leave teaching to qualified teachers and attend strictly to his business of entertaining.
I have been writing for nineteen years and I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing, and have merely tried to tell and interesting story entertainingly. But there is another reason for the continued success of my books which I should like to impress upon younger writers. From the beginning I have adhered to a policy of ordinary business honesty t hat was instilled into me by my father. My first stories were the best stories that I could write, and every story that I have written since has been the very best story that I could write. I have felt that it was a duty to those people who bought my books that I should give them the very best within me. I have no illusions as to the literary value of what I did give them, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I gave them the best that my ability permitted.
The result of this policy has been the continued interest of my earliest readers in all my subsequent novels. Unquestionably they have not liked them all equally well, but I think not many of them have ever been keenly disappointed.
It is the reading public that either makes or breaks you, and if you are fortunate enough to have one successful book, redouble your efforts to write a better one the next time.
This article is intended for people who are writing or hope to write for their livelihood, and to such it is probably unnecessary to state that publicity is essential to success, no matter how much one may shrink form it -- or pretend to shrink from it. But there is a matter of professional ethics involved, as well as ordinary good taste, which I believe should always be in the mind of every writer. I have no patience whatsoever with he man who does a rude, unkindly or discourteous thing for the purpose of obtaining publicity; nor with the writer who makes a fool of himself in order to obtain it.
It is perfectly proper for your publishers to buy publicity for you. That is their business, not yours. And it is perfectly proper for you at their request, to furnish them with any material that they may require for this purpose; but outside of this I consider it unethical for a writer to seek publicity.
I have had close personal and business relations with newspapermen all over the United States, both publishers and editors, numbering among them many good friends, yet I have never, either directly or indirectly, asked or expected any personal publicity from them; nor have I ever paid for any publicity. Perhaps I carry this principle to an extreme, since I will not permit my name to be inserted in any directory or encyclopedia which solicits either money or subscriptions as a price for representation in their work from any one appearing in it.
If this article leaves any thought with you, I hope it is that the profession of fiction writing should be carried on upon a high plane of business integrity and professional ethics, without any vain and silly illusions as to the importance of fiction outside of the sphere of entertainment.