Thursday, December 09, 2010

No on Vonnegut

The Library of America has made the weird and unpardonable decision to release an omnibus volume of fiction by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The volume covers ten years of writing from 1963 to 1973, the period during which the novels Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions and the story collection Welcome to the Monkey House were published. Although I have been unable to confirm the exact contents, Vonnegut’s books are short enough that the Library of America volume is likely to include all five.

There is no possible justification for Vonnegut’s enshrinement in the Library of America, which exists “to preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions. . . .” Even one of his champions—James Lundquist, in a 1977 single-author study—classifies his fiction as “ ‘naive’ literature because [Vonnegut] makes so much use of expected associations and conventions for the purpose of rapid communication with its readers.”

Which is simply the academic acknowledgment that Vonnegut was a purveyor of “midcult.” At least two other members of the league, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, have already been canonized by the Library of America. Perhaps I should not have been knocked off balance by news of his inclusion, then, especially since all three engaged in what another Vonnegut fan describes as a “career-long critique of America.” “I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship,” Vonnegut explained, “concerned about what the powerful people are up to.” A midcultist whose psychological reaction to this country was healthier—Herman Wouk, for example, or John P. Marquand—would never be considered for the Library of America.

What sets Vonnegut apart from other writers whose fiction “critiques” the U.S. is his good nature and a sense of broad popular humor that never stoops to rancor and is as likely to deprecate the author as the country’s power elite. “I can’t stand to read what I write,” Vonnegut said. “I make my wife do that, then ask her to keep her opinions to herself.” These qualities are not nearly enough to establish Vonnegut’s “significance” as an American novelist, though. Nor are his self-consciously midwestern values nor his parasitical attachment to science fiction. (It is writers like Vonnegut, who try to introduce it into the mainstream by poaching it for writing that is little more than social realism in disguise, who give science fiction a bad name.) What is worse, the disguise is adopted to conceal Vonnegut’s sentimental moralism. Christ is replaced by pacifism and being nice, but the message is finally very little different from that of E. D. E. N. Southworth or Susan Warner. It is a message of spiritual uplift.

Until 1969, his most famous book was Cat’s Cradle, a silly fable that college students all over the country seemed to be reading in unison. Then came Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel about the Allied firebombing of Dresden during the last year of the Second World War. As in all his books, Vonnegut was careful to spell out the Message: “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.” It is difficult to understand how anyone could experience the rush of moral knowledge while reading that sentence, but perhaps a certain kind of young reader feels something like personal unification—a delirious sense that his rebellion against the adult world is finally taking the firm shape of settled conviction—when swallowing Vonnegut’s books.

A recent critic calls Vonnegut, who lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a POW, “the war’s second most famous survivor,” after Elie Wiesel. (Francine Prose based an entire novel on the empty posturing behind such a claim.) Perhaps, though, this remark provides the key to his fiction, if not a reason to reprint it in an authoritative edition. The survivors of massacres and holocausts are indemnified against ordinary criticism, but also against the ordinary expectations—of subtlety, memorable characterization, layered prose—that readers bring to a work of literature.


Jerard said...

What do you think of Philip K Dick's inclusion in the Library of America?

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Given that they've already devoted volumes to H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and Philip K. Dick, this choice should be no surprise at all. LoA, to my mind, isn't necessarily about preserving only the great but the influential. Even if Vonnegut or Steinbeck do not occupy the highest ranks, they both were highly influential in both literature and mainstream society and that is what LoA documents as far as I have seen. (I own most of their volumes.) This may have deviated from their earliest mission--but I have welcomed the expansion of their remit, just as I welcome this volume of Mr. Vonnegut's work.



scott g.f.bailey said...

My roommate in college was a fan of Vonnegut, and I read five (I think) novels and then pretty much forgot about Vonnegut. I think the attraction of his work--to college-age males, anyway--is the sort of "straight-talking" avuncular voice of the novels, of a world-weary adult seemingly giving the reader the unvarnished truth about life. It's all very earnest and broadly comic and Vonnegut treats his reader as his ally but there's not a lot going on beyond the "let's all treat each other better" theme. I guess you have to catch Vonnegut at a certain age, maybe when you're just discovering your own capacity to reason and learn, for his books to seem vital and important. My own pretensions lay elsewhere during those formative years, so I read other writers too embarrassing to mention now.

I am tempted to see the Library of America's decision as a reflection of the general trend to downplay the importance of literary values and raise the "cultural importance" of genre fiction. And, you know, L of A probably wants their spring list to contain titles that will sell.

D. G. Myers said...

Philip K. Dick I admire. His canonization was a brilliant move by the Library of America. (Someday I must write something about The Man in the High Castle, a novel that I like very much.) Dick is quirky, individual, extremely difficult to place. He is uneven, but amazing when he is at his best. And though I know from nothing about science fiction, my guess is that he has been far more influential than Vonnegut among readers and writers in that genre.

R/T said...

Permit me to ramble on a bit here in response to your assault upon LOA and Vonnegut.

What about the argument that reading--regardless of the text--is something more people ought to be doing more frequently. If LOA can entice readers with Vonnegut, perhaps those same readers will later attempt more challenging offerings.

As for the typical students that I encounter, I know that they would rather read popular shlock fiction (i.e.,Twilight series, Dan Brown, Stephen King, et al) rather than our so-called canonical texts.

There are, however, opportunities to encourage those same "middle brow" or "low brow" readers to attempt something more substantial. And if those same students went to LOA for Vonnegut, I would not be dismissive but instead would believe that to be progess.

"High brow" reading terrifies most students, and we ought to permit other reading if it serves as a catalyst for their later engagement with those "high brow" texts.

Pardon my rambling. Those are my thoughts. Now, I must return to reading students' essay exams. Yikes!

D. G. Myers said...

But all of Vonnegut’s books remain in print, and “authoritative editions” are not needed by readers moving up from Dale Brown or Stephanie Meyer.

Yuan said...

I'm curious as to how Vonnegut would have reacted to this. As far as I know, he never considered himself particularly influential ("Does anyone out of high school even read my books?" he once asked), but he always hid himself inside layers of self-deprecation and black humour.

Marty said...

'The survivors of massacres and holocausts are indemnified against ordinary criticism, but also against the ordinary expectations—of subtlety, memorable characterization, layered prose—that readers bring to a work of literature.' I suppose Vonnegut fails the test if he's being graded on your narrow 'ordinary expectations' of literature. Some folks might instead be looking for wit, charm, and invention. There is also no doubt that Vonnegut's writing is among the 'most significant' of the 1960s and 70s, whether or not you place it among the best.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Is the new Vonnegut volume, with more, presumably, forthcoming, weirder than the recent Galbraith collection? Maybe that one will be followed by editions of Milton Friedman, Freidrich Hayek, and the first edition of Paul Samuelson's textbook, easily among the most influential and significant books of the century.

I mean, why not? Although Galbraith is the midcult writer of that bunch, read by many of the same people who read Vonnegut. Mayeb that's the difference.

D. Cloyce Smith said...

The list of contents of the Vonnegut volume can be found here:

Peter W said...

I am a fan of the LOA and I generally agree with your argument against the inclusion of Vonnegut. However, I think the problem the LOA is having has more to do with the lack of authors to publish and the need to make money. That is why you are seeing more "anthology" volumes (such as the supernatural fiction volume last year) and more writers such as HP Lovecraft (one of the top sellers for the LOA) or Shirley Jackson (which I purchased and enjoyed). I think this is problem we can all deal with by just not purchasing the Vonnegut volume.

By the way, the LOA told me they are going to publish a William Prescott volume "soon." It will most likely combine his Peru and Mexico volumes.

Don said...

I think the Vonnegut inclusion in LoA is much worse than Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis. The latter two choices represent, at least in part, an over-rating of their talent and influence (though they each had some of both), but the choice of Vonnegut is nothing but literary politics. Vonnegut allegedly "spoke truth to power," and that is (sadly) sometimes enough to put you in circle of greatness.

I enjoyed Vonnegut when I was in my youth. But I found that the more my head cleared a certain orifice, the less clever and more annoying I found his works. On the other hand, maybe I'm just getting to old for Vonnegut.

A.J. said...

I would propose a more provocative thesis to those of you who while admiring of Vonnegut in your youth now seem to regard him with disdain: gentlemen (and ladies) I believe you can no longer bear Vonnegut because you've become, along with the rest of the nation, conservative. If Vonnegut spoke brashly truth to power you can no longer bear that speech because you live in an era where power does as it will and criticism of it is un-Amarican.

D. G. Myers said...

Maybe, Adlai. But I never liked Vonnegut when I was a long-haired hippie freak anti-war radical. He seemed simplistic to me even then. My guess is that he appealed more to my generation’s infatuation with therapy than to Vonnegut’s “truth-telling” (if that’s what it is).

The last phrase is a Leftist cliché, and as such entirely unworthy of you.

Coming soon: A strong and irresistible recommendation of a Vonnegut contemporary, not widely known, whose best novel is ideal for those “looking for wit, charm, and invention.”

scott g.f.bailey said...

A.J.: My politics are likely farther to the left than Vonnegut's were. I just don't think very highly of the man's craft. I do believe that a lot of my contemporaries feel a certain nostalgia for a lost youth, when politics seemed as simple as Vonnegut would have us believe. But I see KV's narratives as sort of naive, preachy and one-dimensional. So my problem is with his writing, not his leftward inclination.

PMH said...

KV Jr.'s charm is his wit, his nonchalance, and his understanding that not much matters beyond treating people decently and honestly, which people struggle to do, which is another way of saying that much of what people do doesn't matter much, and what matters is too often out of reach.
Like many writers, he is also steadfastly anti-academic because, I think, he saw it for what it too often is.
I actually teach Vonnegut because of his humor and his voice, a kind world-weary-depressed parody of what is already satire, as a way, I think, of trying to find something authentic, but coming from another direction. In some ways he is arch postmodern.
_Bluebeard_ is serious fiction, but I doubt will be included in LoA.

Eric said...

I've only read Slaughter-house Five, and that two years ago, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Here were some of
my thoughts
at the time.

Tim Chambers said...

I cannot claim to have read Vonnegut, though I have glanced at his work recently, as others who have read my as yet unpublished novel have said that my style resembles his. Though I didn't much care for it, I still think that, stylistically, it is a cut above most science fiction.

Thus, to say that Vonnegut and his ilk are responsible for the disrepute of science fiction is something you need to support with some evidence, and not just profess, Professor. Most of the science fiction I have been exposed to is such utter dreck, in terms of style and underlying ideas, that Vonnegut's slim contribution can hardly be held culpable. With writers like Isaac Asimov turning out books all his life, at the rate of Hank Janson in his prime, and Arthur C. Clarke retelling 2001 A Space Odyssey, how many times?, not to mention Frank Herbert, there is no need to blame Vonnegut.

Like the rest of the genre slush pile, including that which is published, sci-fi is mostly written for young adults, who haven't yet developed a discriminating taste, and those with the syndrome of the inner child who refuses to grow up.

If Vonnegut is remembered at all, it will probably be, like Hermann Hesse, as the stuff that teenagers read.

D. G. Myers said...

What I actually said was not that “Vonnegut and his ilk are responsible for the disrepute of science fiction,” but rather that ersatz science fiction—social realism that pretends to be science fiction—is what gives the “genre” a bad name.

Yes, most science fiction is drek (note the correct transliteration). But so is most “literary” fiction, most poetry, most drama, most autobiography, most blog posts, and most blog comments.

Anonymous said...

Sir. You are an elitist boor. Congratulations.