Kurt Vonnegut has witnessed the evolution of fiction—even propelled it. From the decreasing popularity of literary magazines and the increasing price of books to his own evolving status as "cult figure" and "popular author," Vonnegut has been a constant observer of—and steady contributor to—the literary world for nearly half a century. And the oft-quoted literary giant remains a vocal commentator on the changing publishing industry.
Having written everything from novels (Cat's Cradle and Timequake) and short stories ("Welcome to the Monkey House") to essays ("Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage") and plays (Happy Birthday, Wanda Jane), Vonnegut says fiction is an art form unto its own. "All of fiction is a practical joke—making people care, laugh, cry or be nauseated or whatever by something which absolutely not going on at all. It's like saying, 'Hey, your pants are on fire.' "
And with such biting wit and humor, Vonnegut often combines social satire, autobiographical experiences and bits of historical fact to create a new form of literary fiction as in Slaughterhouse Five. The book even became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it was published in 1969.
Alternating between linear and circular structures and differing points of view, Vonnegut has spent much of his life testing the literary boundaries. "I experiment, and my waste baskets are always very full of my failed experiments," he says. "Can I get away with this? No. The trick is getting the reader to buy it."
It's fairly safe to assume that readers do indeed buy it. Among his numerous honors and awards, Vonnegut has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, served as the vice president for the PEN American Center and lectured in creative writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa.
ON TEACHING FICTION
"When I teach, what I'm teaching is sociability more than anything else, because that's what most beginning writers, being young, aren't doing," Vonnegut says. "I try to teach how to be a good date on a blind date and to keep the reader in mind all the time. Young writes will dump everything they want to say on some poor reader not caring whether the reader has a good time or not."
Vonnegut's early experience in journalism—he was editor of the college newspaper in 1941 while studying biochemistry at Cornell University was a police reporter with the Chicago City New Bureau in 1947—clearly influenced his unique style. Staying true to the basic elements of journalism, Vonnegut says he tries to give readers as much information as he can, as soon as he can—a writing trait he's tried to teach others.
"I hate a story where on page 17 you find out, My God, this person is blind. Or that this happened 100 years ago or 100 years in the future. I tell students, "Don't withhold information from your readers for God's sake. Tell 'em everything that's going on, so in case you die, the reader can finish the story.' "
Another Vonnegut specialty is weaving bits of factual information into his fiction's lining, to draw in readers on an emotional level.
"The facts are often useful to the reader, if they're historical events. You can expect the reader to be emotionally involved. And to make the reader believe and say, "Oh Jesus, I guess that's right.' "
Vonnegut used both historical facts and his personal experience as a World War II prisoner of war in Dresden to create one of his most revered works, Slaughterhouse Five. He says the latitude used when combining fact with fiction depends on how much the writer is willing to claim as fact.
"The viewpoint character in Slaughterhouse Five was Bill Pilgrim, and he was actually a real guy from Rochester," Vonnegut says. "He never should have been in the army and he died in Dresden and was buried over there. He just simply allowed himself to starve to death. He decided he didn't understand any of it, and he was right 'cause there was nothing to understand, so he died.
"I didn't have him die in the book but had him come home and go to optometry school. So I didn't tell the truth about his life, but I never said it was high life in the first place."
ON THE CHANGING TIMES
"Well, books don't matter as much as they used to, and they cost too much," he says of the current state of publishing. "But publishers have to sell books to stay in business. Back in the old days, before television, publishers would admit that what paid the freight for everything else they published, all the serious fiction, poetry and so forth, were cook books, garden books and sex books. They had to publish those or they'd go out of business."
While many of his recent books, including Bagombo Snuff Box, Fates Worse than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the '80s and God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian showcases the shorter form—most have been collections of essays, interviews and speeches—Vonnegut says short stories seem to be losing their allure as fewer and fewer prominent magazines publish high-quality pieces.
"This country used to be crazy about short stories," he says. "New short stories would appear every week in The Saturday Evening Post or in The New Yorker, and every middle-class literate person would be talking about it, "Hey, did you read that story about Salinger?" or "Hey, did you read that story by Ray Bradbury?"
"But that no longer happens. No short story can cause a sensation anymore because there are too many other forms of entertainment. People can still go through old collections of short stories and be absolutely wowed. But it's a private experience now."
Whether it's his seemingly natural ability to create strong characters—"My characters are generally cartoons of various types of Americans"—or his remarkable modesty—"I certainly didn't expect to succeed to the extent I have. I mean, it's not phenomenal, but I certainly didn't expect to amount to much,"—generations of writers continue to try to follow in Vonnegut's legendary footsteps. And to these aspiring writers, Vonnegut offers simple advice:
"Don't worry about getting into the profession. Write anyway to make your soul grow. That's what the practice of any art is, it isn't to make a living, it's to make your soul grow."
And what of the best advice he's received? "Quit," he says. "It's such a relief."
But he didn't. "No, I didn't—I'm still pooping along somewhere."
(This article originally appeared in Writing Fiction Today, Winter 2001, a specialty publication from Writer's Digest.)