Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 12: Should You Write Pot Boilers?

By Thomas H. Uzzell

Originally published in March 1925 issue of Writer’s Digest

Former Fiction Editor of Collier’s Weekly, Author of “Narrative Technique.”

One of the greatest shocks that come to beginning writers is the discovery that to earn money at fiction they must write “trash.” Or at least the problem presents itself in that light. They go to the newsstand, select a few of the less literary, more obviously popular magazines, the ones they feel they should be able to sell to easiest, take them home, and read them with the object of learning “what the editor wants.” Instead of being inspired, they are disgusted. They give these “magazines that entertain” to the cook or chauffeur or consign them to the garbage can and groan that they didn’t know such stuff was printed; they would rather pick pockets than try to write it.

No greater encouragement is found by contemplating the very few high-brow magazines that print real literature. The depth of philosophy, the cultivated finish in style are too far beyond their modest powers. The market for such literary stories, moreover, is severely limited, since a half dozen good writers, if kept busy, could probably supply all the magazine short fiction consumed by the really discriminating reading public in America. In despair the literary novice asks: With the hundreds of short stories being bought and printed every month, why should I not be able to find a market for the kind of story that interests me, that is within my powers and that will pay me enough, say, to finance a trip to Europe or to buy me a nice, shiny, little Ford? Why should the stories printed for the masses be so unbelievably bad? Should I force myself to write such bad stories? If I do, will my style be cramped forever and will I—lose my soul?

Such are the urgent questions faced more or less by practically every not-yet-arrived fictionist. Literary critics constantly stumble over the same issues and make needless mystery of their effort to solve them. The Los Angeles Times recently in inveighing against the authors of commercialized short stories, says: “They have made money for a while, but the greater things they might have done for literature and for themselves have been lost sight of. Contract-labor writing may be a good business but rarely art.” The New York Evening Post issues this heart-breaking plaint:

“There is a cascading torrent of commercialized sentimentalism. The so-called writer of American fiction is nine times in ten not a creator at all, but a shrewd individual possessed of a vocabulary, who has learned to feed the illusions of the multitudes. He looks not into his own heart, but into theirs, and with a skillful technique tells better than we can the crude stories of success in love or riches, of heroic self-sacrifice and escape which we all cherish and spin to ourselves between sleeping and waking. He exploits our rather weak imaginings, instead of creating new meat for us to feed upon. He is a parasite; his work is second-hand and second-rate, with a machine-made accuracy and no deep emotion whatsoever. Like the makers of the ancient ballads, these modern writers for the community give up their individuality when they compose. They sell their names for cash and henceforth are indistinguishable by anything else.”

The problem of reconciling “commercialized fiction” with the ideals of literary art frequently agitates the instructors of literature and writing in the colleges and one of them has recently raised the issue to the dignity of a book. The author of this work, who is an instructor of short story writing in one of the eastern universities, asks in his subtitle whether short story writing is “an art or a trade.” He seems willing to let the young writer devote himself to “stories that sell,” provided that he admits that they are a deliberately inferior product that can never be termed “literature,” but at the same time he insists that any writer really ambitious to attain large success should be a pure self-expressionist, making his standard always his own opinions and emotions and with no thought whatever to the “curse” of “catering to the public.” This is a high, if not laborious, ideal and for some may be the way to success; but it gives little comfort to the writer who cannot, in either time or money, afford such expensive ideals, nor does it tell what will become of him and his writing if he eschews them at least for a time espouses the short-story-for-money-only.

Let us consider the pot boiler and what it means to write it. The argument most commonly offered against writing it is that it is not “worth-while.” It is cheap, vulgar to the one who tries to write it, to the editor who buys it, and to the critic who deplores its effect on the “noble heritage of American letters.” Comparison is always involved in any attempt at valuation and in this instance the standard of excellence is nearly always the masterpieces of writers of the past like Poe, Stevenson, and Maupassant. These authors are given as standard in the book mentioned above.

When we say “worth while” we mean worth while to someone. In this case—to whom? Obviously to the people like the critics and professors and others who derive pleasure from reading stories like those of Poe, Stevenson and Maupassant. How many such people are there and how many people are there who do not like such stories but who do like pot boilers? If, for rough statistical purposes, we group together the subscription lists of the purely literary magazines on the one hand and on the other the lists of all the all-fiction magazines and of the magazines with circulations over a million, ninety per cent of whose fiction can certainly be classified as pot boilers, we would undoubtedly find that there are something like thirty times as many readers of pot boilers as there are of literary stories!

From these calculations it would seem that if the question of what is worth while in fiction were put to a vote, the highbrow critics would be out-voted, thirty to one! The high-brow critic would undoubtedly object to this view of the matter and insist that the thing the low-brow reader wants is not good for him and that if his supply of cheap fiction were cut off from him and he were restricted to the classical commodity, he would be compelled to read the latter, his taste would be improved and he would be a greater blessing to his wife and children. This objection, however, looks like literary Prussianism. Such an edict would be no lovelier in the literary than in the political world. For my part, I can’t see why the reader of pot boilers hasn’t just as much right to determine his reading diet as anyone.

I feel sure that the confusion felt here by writer, critic and teacher results from the failure to realize that the problem of the commercialized American short story is a moral as well as a literary problem. It is a moral problem because it involve a question of life values, of what is “worth while,” and such questions cannot be fairly solved by any ex cathedra formulation of literary standards or any appeal to anything as vague as “Is it art?” The way to solve a moral problem is manifestly to survey impartially all the facts involved and pronounce according to the logical demands of those facts.

Space is wanting here to review all these facts, but I can hint at some that are commonly lost sight of. The chief characteristic of the pot boiler is its appeal to the low intelligence. Why? The census of 1920 reports five million honest adult illiterates in the United States. Careful research discloses an equal number of dishonest illiterates, illiterates, that is, who did not report their inability to read and write; also ten million near-illiterates—a grand total of twenty million adult ignorami. We have in our midst, in other words, more full-grown people with the minds of children than the populations of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, and Scotland combined! There must be at least another ten million adults who can read but who could in no sense be considered educated. Most of these thirty millions either read or are read to and almost the only thing they are interested in is fiction. And their taste is for pot boilers.

The writer, critic and teacher naturally deplore this evidence of low intelligence and wish it were otherwise. The statesman and the reformer do likewise. But to declare that the best way to elevate this low intelligence of the people is to deny them all fiction except that which they cannot understand were a strange remedy indeed! The chief objection to this remedy is that it won’t work. The only remedy worth considering is suggested in H. G. Wells’ famous dictum to the effect that the world is now engaged in “a race between education and catastrophe.” Education of the masses and not the suppression of pot boilers and editors who buy and print them, points the way out for the earnest social moralist who seeks one.

The chief purpose of fiction of all kinds is to entertain. In any search for the “worth-while-ness” of the pot boiler we must consider its value as entertainment to the consumer. To engage in the business —we can call it that—of helping to entertain thirty million of our fellow citizens is then not wholly to waste time and effort. Arrantly unjust is the New York Evening Post editor who calls the producer of such entertainment a “parasite.” If, too, the editor feels that in reading them, his “weak imaginings” are being “exploited” and, to use his rather strange figure, he is not getting “new meat to feed upon,” the thing for him to do is to read something else! As for the California editor who says that the writer could do “greater things” for himself if he didn’t write for money only—well, possibly, but does the editor know how long we have waited to go to Europe or how convenient the little Henry would be just now? Also, how about newspaper editors and “greater things?” Not one editorial writer in five hundred in the United States writes with any other object than to please his boss, and as for the Los Angeles Times in particular—the history of past political campaigns in California is very well remembered!

So much for the moral problem. There is another thing to be said in answer to the campaigners against the writing of “commercial short stories.” Most of them say, to quote the book referred to above, that “to the true artist the public is no problem,” that Poe, Stevenson, and Maupassant were not concerned with financial returns and that “few magazines today would be tempted to accept stories like those of these past masters of the art. Amazing assertions! Where is the really great master in any art who didn’t with painful attentiveness consider his audience? Michelangelo took his orders from the Pope; Velasquez flattered the court of Spain; Chaucer, deploring his small pay, wrote his poem,”Compleynt to My Empty Purse;" Shakespeare wrote for the “groundlings” in the pit; Paderewsky demands his prodigious fees. As for Poe, Stevenson, and Maupassant: the latter two, as anyone who has examined the bulk of their writings knows, seriously sacrificed the literary quality of very much of their later writings by unblushing devotion to what the public wanted and to the size of their pay envelopes. The thing that happened in their cases is what will happen in the case of nearly every fictionist: literary fame or cash? At the beginning of your career, you must make your choice.

Ideals of performance certainly should be held up before the ambitious young writers of America, but to establish as the sole ideal the writings of one, two, or three generations ago, even the best of them, is to restrict originality and risk literary stagnation. Magazine editors wouldn’t today accept for publication stories like those of Poe, Maupassant or Stevenson, certainly, -and why should they? They can secure original stories much better than the average of these writers and occasionally they are lucky enough to find one as good as their best. Dogmatically I state this, for space is wanting to prove it, but proof could easily be had by anyone who actually reads the best stories being produced today and whose standards of excellence are not academically attached to the masterpieces which they glowed over in their impressionable youth.

Should the hedonist of today write pot boilers? The answer is bound to vary in each individual case, depending upon each writer’s natural gifts, financial status, education and objectives. Especially does the answer depend upon his objectives. If you are certain that you have innate gifts adequate for the highest success at fiction and if you have provided or can provide a living without depending upon returns from your writing for several years, your best course very likely would be to eschew popular fiction altogether, to devote yourself to pure self-expression, to report the world as you see it. If, on the other hand, the possibility of your being able to pursue fiction at all depends upon your receiving a modest return from your writing, or if your only interest in writing is to earn as much money as you can by it, then common-sense would suggest that you begin at once to master the craft of the sentimental or “action” thriller! As for the rightness or wrongness of so doing—well, I think you will have as much “right” on your side as has the business man whose “bargain sale” carries prices higher than standard, the preacher who deals only in the “straight gospel” and avoids discussing the labor troubles of his wealthy parishioners, or the college professor who thinks he should be turning out Kiplings and Maupassants and instead teaches the formulas for “fiction that sells.”

Problems involving the pot boiler issue are bound to occur which are more puzzling than the above simple cases. A young woman, one of my students, for instance, only last week asked me if she would be justified in continuing at the pot boiler writing she hated if by so doing she could put herself through college. When I learned that this was the only way she could get to college, I unhesitatingly advised her to do so. Another student of mine, a newspaper man, had before he came to me, succeeded with pot boilers until he had a record of fifteen straight with one periodical. In learning to break into the big league magazines, he had to cure the pot boiler habit, which to him took the form of melodramatic phrasing, and it took him a solid year of the hardest kind of grubbing before he finally landed with Collier’s. On the other hand, I have in mind a brilliant college graduate who was utterly unable to write anything worth while until he had for a time forced himself, in spite of his disgust, to write a pot boiler a day with a murder to a page! He was plagued with the curse of “fine writing” and this “rough stuff” made any attempt at literary affectation ridiculous. So he was cured!

These remarks of mine must not be construed to be a defense of the pot boiler as a species of fine art. No one admires stories that appeal to the highest intelligence more than I do or is more anxious that I to increase their number in this humming land in which we live. My concern here is merely, if I can, to help the struggling writer see his way more clearly along the inevitably stony pathway which he must tread. Nothing in this world is more variable, quixotic, baffling, than the workings of the artistically creative mind and temperament. Constantly critics, teachers, and writers themselves succumb to the temptation to set forth mixed formulas for literary success, such as “Write only what pleases you,” “Write what the public wants,” “Never write for money,” and “Avoid learning technique for it will kill your inspiration;” there is some truth in all of these adjurations, but any attempt to cling devoutly to any one of them will certainly produce more harm than good. The true guide for each writer who would succeed in the thing he attempts is to seek sound advice, keep an open mind, work hard and think clearly at each stage of the way.

I had to laugh as I read this one for the first time when Mr. Uzzell basically says, “*There are loads of dumb people! Feel free to write for them, at least at first!*”

Here’s the same idea, but from a different mindset: It is perfectly fine to write to entertain regular people, totally ignoring the pretentious literary snobs of the world.

Later, he does restate what I believe to be a deceptively simple truth, which is, “*The chief purpose of fiction of all kinds is to entertain.*” All other writing rules should be second to that. Even if you want to spread a message, very few will ever read it unless the story entertains.