Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Entertainment is Fiction's Purpose

We live in an age where the proper role of science fiction and fantasy, according to the publishers and critics, is propaganda. Where the color of an author's skin and who is playing with her genitals at night is more important that the quality of the work. Where each new day, another group of people issue their own version of the fourteen words, trying to ensure the future and existence of white people, black people, gays, STEM majors, etc.. in science fiction, fandom, and even the greater society as a whole. The audience must learn, must be taught, must embrace whatever virtue is being hawked from the shelves this week. So many words are spent on what the audience ought to read, without a thought on what the audience wants to read.

So the audience, as usual, walks away, seeking their diversions elsewhere.

Recently, Sad Puppies became a voice crying in the wilderness, "Where the hell is the fun?" And, like the arrival of any prophet, the stones flew.

This is not new. Back in his prime, Harlan Ellison had to remind the authors of his own day that before one could educate, they first had to entertain. And for those who treat politics like football, Uncle Harlan is on the other side of the aisle from your typical Puppy.

Science fiction and fantasy have had to repeatedly learn over and over again Ellison's lesson. The genres have only survived the repeated downturns by embracing adventure and entertainment instead of the propagandist's scolding. But the lesson never sticks, so every ten years or so, the field must learn it again.

Unfortunately, this mulish tendency to lecture from the paperback has its roots in the birth of modern science fiction. Whether it was Gernsback shilling for science education, Campbell for technological progress, or Pohl for social progress, science fiction was split off from the rest of fiction by people who wanted it to server some greater good. But even back then, there were giants championing the cause for the reader.

In the course of giving advice to would-be authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote in Writer's Digest in 1930:
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.
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.
He who has an ear, let him hear...

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