The Good Pot-Boilers
In The Reader's Encyclopedia William Rose Benet defines a pot-boiler as “A literary or critical term meaning an inferior piece of work… done merely for the sake of money: in other words, to keep the pot boiling, that is, to eat.” By this standard most of the literary output of most of the authors of the past several centuries must be regarded as pot-boilers.
The word inferior in Benet's definition is purely relative in its meaning, if any one work of a given man is regarded as his best, then all else he ever created is inferior to that one, or if Benet's intent is to mean below average, then exactly one half of any author's output is, by definition, inferior. As for writing for the sake of money, certainly every professional author writes for the sake of money, “that is, to eat,” and this is certainly not a sign of wickedness.
With the possible exception, then, of the one word merely, the greatest number of Edgar Rice Burroughs' works were pot-boilers. Of necessity they were inferior to his very best works, and there is no denying that they were written for money. Burroughs was a fairly prolific author. His lifetime output of approximately seventy books (approximately only because of bibliographic quibbles, such as whether unpublished works count, and whether connected stories published at various times in both separate and combined editions should count as single or multiple works), although by no means a record or anything like one, is a considerable amount of prose.
It is to be expected, then, that the majority of Burroughs' works do not contain the creative values of the few best. Especially in view of his penchant for series stories, most of Burroughs' books are set in already established fantasy-worlds—Barsoom, Pellucidar, Tarzan's Africa—and feature already established characters, or new characters not really too different from those already familiar to the reader.