Monday, December 26, 2011

Opinion — Kurt Vonnegut, Christopher Buckley, Class Warfare And The Meaning of Genre

A couple of Sundays ago there were three letters criticizing a bio of Kurt Vonnegut in The New York Times book section. Christopher Buckley, son of William, but a bonafide conservative wit in his own right, is accused of mischaracterizing Vonnegut’s often-repeated phrase “And so it goes.” Buckley’s take was that Vonnegut meant it as a form of “apathetic shrug.” Instead, a letter writer said, it was the fatalistic admission of the “randomness of death.” That we can do nothing about it doesn’t mean we don’t care.

One of the other criticisms of the review (not the book but the review of it) was that Buckley categorized some of Vonnegut’s books as “sci-fi (esque).” The letter writer took offense, suggesting that this description perpetuates the erroneous notion that because Vonnegut is regarded highly in many literary circles, he couldn’t possibly have written a lowly science fiction novel, only a book with science fiction overtones.

Having read a lot of Vonnegut, I think Buckley was wrong about the apathy question. Very wrong. Anyone who read Slaughterhouse Five would understand that Vonnegut wrote with deep compassion. Having read (and enjoyed) Christopher Buckley’s writing, which intended or not, seems to take root from a position in the privileged class, I would infer that he was projecting his own feelings. But isn’t that what we do when we read books? Each reader has a different relationship with the writer, interpreting those words on paper in different ways. The reader fills in the gaps. Each of us sees the rooms that the characters pass through very differently. We might miss the sarcasm in a bit of dialogue. We might interpret motives differently. It is, in a way, the beauty of reading and writing fiction. The act of reading (whether on paper or screen) is a highly interactive and very intimate experience. Though, I know from comments and reviews that readers of my books don’t always see what I intended them to see. That is not a reader failure, of course. If there is blame to be attributed, it is on me. That is the nature of the reader/writer relationship and, I believe, it will always be so.

Buckley’s other comment, apparently attempting to flatter Vonnegut by saving him from any embarrassing accusations that he might be a “mere” science fiction writer, is also a result of a class system — this time in the landed gentry in the “literary” hierarchy. Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis. Though he was not born in a poor or uneducated household, he wouldn’t have been too concerned about being a member of one of the “right” families. In fact, the whole idea of proper ancestry in a city like his (and mine) was not much of a consideration culturally, certainly not in the same way as the Brahmans of the East considered “breeding.” It is also doubtful that this former soldier (prisoner of war) and journalist looked at literature as having higher and lower forms, determined by genre. I seriously doubt if he would want Buckley coming to his defense over Cat’s Cradle or any other book by claiming it was “sci-fi-esque."

Once, listening to a talk show about current events, one talking head suggested to the others that a certain subject wasn’t a concern for the American people. How did she come to that conclusion, she was asked. “No one’s talking about it at the dinner parties.” And so it goes.

CAPTION: (Top) Kurt Vonnegut, (Lower Right) Christopher Buckley

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