The Non-Literariness of Kurt Vonnegut

The Paris Review interviewer asked Kurt Vonnegut to explain his theory of teaching writing, Vonnegut said, “It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.”

Stories, Vonnegut claimed, were merely practical jokes: “You make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.”

I remember some of my fellow grad students at UF didn’t think Vonnegut was “real” literature.  No one ever said anything, but I recall feeling they saw Vonnegut as too commercial, too popular.  Part of what made him popular, though, may have been one of his greatest attributes: his non-literariness.

The writer George Saunders talks about what he thought great literature was before he read Vonnegut:

My understanding of literature at this time was: Great Writing was Hard Reading. If written properly, you could barely understand it. Often, a scene I was imagining indoors suddenly sprouted stars and a riverfront. At a fictional dinner party where I had understood there to be three people present, six were suddenly required, based on the sudden appearance of three unfamiliar names. In terms of language, Great Writing was done in a language that had nothing to do with the one you spoke. The words were similar, but arranged more cleverly, less directly. A good literary sentence was like a floor with a hole hidden in it. You got to the end and thought: “Why’d he say it that way? He must really be a great writer.” Plain American language was a degraded thing, good only for getting around your dopey miniature world, cashing checks and finding restaurants and talking about television and so on.

Saunders makes a wonderful point.  Great literature is like a cat–and cats are tricky to read.  You don’t know if they’ll whack you with a claw or lick the salt from your skin.  Great literature is definitely not like a dog: there’s nothing as overt as tail wagging going on in, say, Joyce or Bellow.

But Vonnegut, Saunders realized upon reading him, was up to something different:

. . . here was Vonnegut, a guy who had been through a Terrible Event. I was very excited to see what he had done with it. I hoped he had not wasted it. I hoped had done something like Hem had done with it. I hoped he had come out of it sobered and sullen, broken by his Terrible Event, but also that he had taken lots of notes, so his book would be filled with pages of lush descriptions that showed that, though Wounded, he still appreciated a good adobe archway or wind-ruffled stand of oak trees, through which the river flowed pleasantly.

But this guy, I soon found, was funny. Funny? Hem wasn’t funny. Only people I knew, like my beloved father and beloved uncles, were funny. How Wounded could he be, if he was so funny? Also, he used the vernacular. I was offended. This guy who had been in the belly of the beast, wrote as if he was still, like me, a regular person from the Midwest. He wrote, in other words, as if there was a continuum of consciousness between himself Before and himself After his Terrible Event. I preferred someone to be forever changed. Furthermore, he did not seem to be saying, as I understood Hem to be saying, that this Terrible Event had forever exempted him from the usual human obligations: being kind, attempting to understand, behaving decently. On the contrary, Vonnegut was using his Terrible Event to explore ways of continuing to remain kind in spite of Terrible Events. Also, he was almost totally skipping the lush physical details he had presumably put himself into so much danger to obtain. He was assuming these physical details; that is, he was assuming that I was supplying them. A forest was a forest, he seemed to be saying, let’s not get all flaky about it. You’ve seen forests, I’ve seen forests, can we get on to bigger things–the human heart as it actually is, the tragic way time passes, the way actual cowardice and inadequacy looks and feels? And then, horror of horrors, in the midst of the march towards Dresden, here came a damn spaceship! That did not belong in Literature. That belonged in movies. Movies, I liked, I liked spaceships in movies, but I did not want them in my Literature. What I wanted in my Literature, was some slowly described forests, free from spaceships, and some noble earnest words, with a somber bullfight breaking out now and then. This was all very confusing.

Confusing but fun and unique and undeniably authentic.

In my time thinking about Vonnegut, I came across some interesting pieces.  One, is Vonnegut’s Paris Review interview.  Another is a an essay by Suzanne McConnell, a former student of Vonnegut’s.  She describes what Vonnegut was like as a teacher–and man.  Finally, for more of George Saunder’s take on Vonnegut, check out his essay at Writer’s Under the Influence (or a more complete version in his essay collection, The Braindead Megaphone.

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