Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.

I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.

I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story.  And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.

I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.

Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.

But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.

I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many.  Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground?  Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.

Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant.  Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to  avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.

One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up.  In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conveniently forget to use them.  A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, instead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness.  This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.

There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again.  But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.

I’m not saying the book sucks.  But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency?  Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?

Okay, come at me.

* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds.  I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.

24 thoughts on “Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  1. Unfortunately, for your love of chaos, strife and argument, I’m completely with you. I gave up on Burroughs after the Gods of Mars or the next book.

    My wife plays Kingdom Rush and the various sequels. I’m just glad that such a cheap game entertains her for hours instead of a console game, wherein we’d actually have to buy a console :-D

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ERB created, in Barsoom and Tarzan, unenforced classics meaning people continue to read them a century later without them being assigned on reading lists or even being disparaged.

    That said, even at a young age I found ERB annoying in his heavy reliance on co-incidence.

    Yes, the stories have drive. They even have some topical political interests and some rhetorical sophistication. (A whole book, Tarzan and Tradition, looked at ERB’s use of rhetorical devices from Latin.)

    But the plotting …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s more a testament to the varying tastes and desires in a reader. I’m very aware of Burroughs’ reliance on plot-of-coincidence, but it doesn’t jar me from the story. I like the ideas, the world, the characters. And that allows me to overlook the plotting issues.

    That being said, in my own writing, I don’t model my plotting Burroughs. I’ll look to him for archetypes and worlds, but not for plotting.

    The more pulp I read, the less I’m all that impressed by their plotting. They were writing, it appears, for an audience who read for the excitement of ideas rather than plot – the audience who continues to make the Transformers movies financially successful. Howard isn’t as bad as Burroughs, but one can tell where his focus is on – sensible excitement.

    It’s the job of the writer today, I contend, to use this attraction to cool characters and ideas and infuse them with great plot and even profound ideas.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I mentioned this on Twitter, but just thought it bore repeating and expansion here – I don’t see ERB as the be-all-and-end-all of good SFF, though I’m a big fan. The Mars books were one of my primary gateways to Appendix N and a world of awesome older fiction. Some of this comes down to taste, pure and simple (as I’m sure is the case with Orcs! ;)). I agree that ERB did play fast and loose with plot, at times. And not everything is super realistic. I’m reading Tarzan of the Apes right now and largely enjoying it, but the two doddering professor characters are capital “A” Annoying.

    But I think it’s worth keeping in mind, along with Tomas’ point, that ERB’s stuff was one of the forerunners to superhero fiction. I believe JC was a direct inspiration for Superman. Superhero stories are crammed full of coincidences and perfect timing, usually to serve the building of cool characters and to advance the plot in a timely manner. The focus is usually on action and excitement and adventure and less on adhering to airtight realism.The purpose is to be fun, and though this doesn’t do it for everyone, judging from his legacy and the success of his literary career, I’d say this resonates with a lot of people.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Honestly, I felt the first Tarzan book kinda went to shit when Jane and her father showed up. I mean, it was still good, but it kinda came crashing down from heights of badass awesome to merely pretty good.

      I still don’t like Jane and every other female lead in every other Tarzan book has been a zillion times better.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. The weirdest thing is how the Disney animated movie turned the dorky loser guy Jane promises to marry into a trigger-happy psychopath who used the professor’s expedition as an excuse to shoot gorillas.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. One thing I’ll say, though – at least you can tell they care because they get so worked up by disagreement and they give fuel to discussion. As opposed to the Tor-ites and their ilk who just censor your comments and do not deign to speak of you if you oppose their orthodoxy.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m cool with it. I stand by every word.
      The thing is, I also acknowledge ERB’s later works are better. The Monster Men gets better the more I think about it, and in comparison to early Barsoom novels.

      That’s why I chose “frustration”. I expect and want his writing to be better, but his early stuff just isn’t. I can only conclude that the characters and settings were so novel (pun intended) that it carried him until his writing improved.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. *Shrugs*

        I am observing that ERB has an exalted place in yhe Castalia canon, not without reason; and that Deuce – a popular commenter, with agreement from others – is, yeah, giving bim a beating for criticizing him. So I made an analogy.

        I am not going to apologize for saying this, and it isn’t a big deal in any case. It is correct that it’s good they’re passionate about the discussion.

        It did happen, though.


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