Tag: Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s Powerful 1973 Letter to the Man Burning his Books

Kurt Vonnegut

Shawn Usher beautifully sets the context in Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience:

Since first being published in 1967— and despite being considered one of the great modern novels—Kurt Vonnegut’s time-hopping, semiauto-biographical, antiwar classic, Slaughterhouse-Five, has been and continues to be banned from classrooms and libraries the world over. This is due to what is often described by those who censor it as its “obscene” content. A different view was held by Bruce Severy, a twenty-six-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota, in 1973, who decided to use the novel as a teaching aid in his classroom, much to the delight of his students. The head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, had other ideas, however: He demanded that all thirty-two copies be burned in the school’s furnace. Many of the students protested the decision; some even refused to hand their books back. Their admirable stance was ignored. On November 16, 1973, an angry and disappointed Vonnegut wrote to McCarthy to make his feelings known. His powerful letter failed to generate a reply.

Here’s the letter.

November 16, 1973
Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes— but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books— books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

***

Still curious? Read Hunter S. Thompson on living a meaningful life, Eudora Welty’s amazing cover letter to The New Yorker, and Sol LeWitt on the power of doing.

Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom

In response to Ernest Hemingway on Writing a reader passed along a pointer to Advice to Writers, “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights.”

Jon Winokur, author of the bestselling The Portable Curmudgeon, gathers the counsel of more than four hundred celebrated authors in a treasury on the world of writing. Here are literary lions on everything from the passive voice to promotion and publicity: James Baldwin on the practiced illusion of effortless prose, Isaac Asimov on the despotic tendencies of editors, John Cheever on the perils of drink, Ivan Turgenev on matrimony and the Muse.

Here are some words of wisdom found inside:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” — T. S. Eliot

“A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he’s supposed to be doing.” — Anthony Burgess

“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” — Kurt Vonnegut

“People read fiction for emotion—not information” — Sinclair Lewis

“The bad novelist constructs his characters; he directs them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them act; he hears their voices even before he knows them.” — André Gide

“The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” — Raymond Chandler

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Keep away from books and from men who get their ideas from books, and your own books will always be fresh.” — George Bernard Shaw

“Listen carefully to the first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” — Jean Cocteau

“The artists who want to be writers, read the reviews; the artists who want to write, don’t.” — William Faulkner

“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” — Stephen King

“Listen, then make up your own mind.” — Gay Talese

“Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” — Mark Twain

Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights is full of interesting and thought-provoking advice. Of course the best advice, is often knowing what to ignore. Before writing Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote the British poet Robert Southey asking if he thought she could be a successful writer. He replied in the negative, Brontë ignored his advice, and the rest is history.

The three types of specialist 

The success of any revolution requires, as Kurt Vonnegut writes in Bluebeard, three types of specialists.

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. “A person like this working alone,” says Slazinger, “can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.”

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger. “Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”

Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top — Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia’s, Christ being the one in Christianity’s.

He says that if you can’t get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.

(via Kottke.org)

Kurt Vonnegut: How To Write With Style

Kurt Vonnegut on writing with style.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead -or, worse, they will stop reading you. The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.

How to use the power of the printed word

Some awesome advice on writing can be found in a rather obscure 1985 essay, “How to Write with Style,” by Kurt Vonnegut published in the hard-to-find anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.

Vonnegut is a literary master who brought us some other treasures on the art of writing including, The Shapes of Stories and Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story. (*updated* If you’re interested, you can find his daily routine here.)

Vonnegut’s eight rules for great writing:

Find a Subject You Care About
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do Not Ramble, Though
I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep It Simple
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

Have the Guts to Cut
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like Yourself
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say What You Mean to Say
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the Readers
Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For Really Detailed Advice
For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

Still curious? Read the best book on the art of writing.

Kurt Vonnegut at the Writers’ Workshop

A former student writes an essay on what Kurt Vonnegut was like as a teacher at the Writers’ Workshop:

He told us in workshop classes, “You’re in the entertainment business.” He impressed this upon us over and over again. Therefore, he said, “Your first job is to hook the reader. Your second is to keep your reader reading.”

Curiosity about the smallest thing could keep the reader engaged, he said. He cited a story he’d read in which the main character has a worrisome loose tooth. The suspense of what was going to happen to that tooth was enough to keep him turning pages.

He admitted Cat’s Cradle was designed by this principle. The chapters were structured as jokes. They were brief. They were intended to sustain even the shortest attention span.

(via coudal)

Kurt Vonnegut — 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story

Kurt Vonnegut tells us eight tips on how to write a good short story.

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Still curious? Watch Vonnegut give an excellent talk on the shapes of stories.

12