Tarzan versus Frodo

My favorite book is either Tarzan, Lord of the Apes or Jungle Tales of Tarzan.  I don’t know what it says about me as a writer, but there it is.  Edgar Rice Burroughs is my favorite fiction writer, and I once spent a year consuming every Burroughs paperback I could get my hands on.  In terms of storytelling construction, Burroughs is prone to using contrived coincidences to get his characters out of tight scrapes, and his writing is a bit rigid and dry.  But none of that matters to me because, despite that, he managed to create cool characters and cool worlds and bold adventure with a human touch.

Despite the goofiness of his premise, Tarzan is a fantastic character.  His supporting cast is solid too.  Jane is more than just a pretty face, and any character that shows up more than once in the Tarzan series is usually worth knowing.  I love the John Carter stories as well, though Carter himself is a bit flat as a character.  The Mars stories make up for that by having a great setting and some terrific characters.  Some might prefer Conan, but Tars Tarkas is my barbarian of choice.

I feel guilty sometimes about loving these stories.  As a professional novelologist, I feel like perhaps I should have more love for the classics. Yet I can’t wade through The Lord of the Rings without getting bored by it, and so much classic science fiction just doesn’t interest me.  I wouldn’t say it was bad or overwritten.  I’m just not excited by it, and I’ve never been the kind of person to care much about believability in his fantasy.  No doubt, Middle Earth is a far more plausible world than Barsoom.  But Barsoom is so much fun to visit, I couldn’t give a damn.

Tarzan is much the same as a character and series.  Burroughs never even went to Africa, and it shows.  Snakes are described as slimy.  Wolves live in the jungles.  Apes behave how someone might think they should, not necessarily how the would.  And the native tribes of Africa are not presented in any kind of accurate light.  (Note that they are not portrayed especially negatively though, which is something I greatly appreciate about the books.)  Burroughs’s version of Africa is far less believable than Tolkien’s Middle Earth.  And it matters not at all to me.

If it says anything about me as an audience (and probably as a writer), it most likely means I like my fiction lean and powerful.  I want to dive right in.  I don’t care about extraneous details.  I care about worldbuilding only so much as it serves the plot and avoids any obvious contradictions.  I want to have a character or two doing something interesting more than I want to know the average rainfall of the plains of gogmogzog.  And if plausibility gets in the way of a cool idea, I’ll usually toss aside plausibility without a second thought.

I know this won’t always work for everyone, and I’m cool with that.  But I still like to point out that it is a very deliberate choice on my part, and not a product of lazy writing.  Empire City of The Automatic Detective isn’t a believable world.  It was never intended to be.  The parallel worlds of Divine Misfortune and Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest have gods and magic as reality, but they still are pretty much our world unless otherwise noted.  That’s not an accident either.

And in my more fantastic worlds, don’t bother asking me for maps or political history.  Unless it’s vital to the story, I just don’t care.  I’d rather put my energy into creating solid characters and a cool story.  I don’t use that as an excuse to neglect setting, but for me, the characters walking through the scene are more important than the background they walk through.  It’s why I consider myself a pulp traditonalist in the end, even if few other people do.

In the end, I’d much rather read about Tarzan wrestling lions than Frodo packing his bags.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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  1. Posted March 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    There are three books I re-read as often as others do LOTR: When Gravity Fails by George Alex Effinger (SF / Noir), The Phoenix Guards / Five Hundred Years After by Steven Brust (The Three Musketeers as Fantasy), and The Automatic Detective.

  2. Beau A
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I get shunned by my friends because I couldn’t stand the Game of Thrones book. They would make great 250-300 paged reads, but sadly there is an extra 600 pages of boringness. Give me Edgar Rice Burroughs (or A. Lee Martinez) any day.

  3. Posted March 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    i’m a big fan of robert e howard. there’s nothing wrong with what you like to read at all.

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