Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

How to Read for Writers, by Vonnegut

A new book is out of Kurt Vonnegut's letters, and Slate has been running some selections. His advice to a friend slotted to teach at the Iowa Writers' Workshop is interesting (and gossipy), but I really enjoyed his term paper assignment. Apparently, Vonnegut "wrote his course assignments in the form of letters, as a way of speaking personally to each member of the class."

November 30, 1965


This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all ...”

I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before, you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children ...”

Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.

Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.

Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.

Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.


There are many things to like about this. The first is Vonnegut's warmth. The wit isn't surprising (and the "poloniøus" handle is probably a little self-deprecating humor, Vonnegut casting himself as the fool even as he urges his students, "this above all..."). Still, he seems to genuinely like his students and teaching. It'd be hard not to respond positively to that. The second thing is his explicit (and implicit) instructions to his students not to try to agree with him – he wants them to think for themselves. The third thing I love about this assignment is the "you are a minor but useful editor" bit. Vonnegut is trying to help his students learn how to revise, how to evaluate the purpose of passages and their effectiveness and necessity. This is a very practical and an important skill. ("Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art…") If writing is both an art and craft, this assignment is designed to increase his students' understanding of craftsmanship. Lastly, while Vonnegut preemptively tweaks any tendency toward pretentiousness, and the assignment is extremely pragmatic, there's an irrepressible joy to the whole endeavor. It's a well-thought-out task, but he's also made it fun. He must have been a fantastic teacher. (Also, detailed grading of eighty 20 page term papers? That'll make ya swallow more than just two ounces of very good booze… and more than just good booze.) Vonnegut's other writing advice is quite good, all the more so because (true to form) he himself doesn't take it too seriously.


zencomix said...

The "Advice to a friend about to teach at the Writers' Workshop" letter is priceless. Burn this letter!

Tengrain said...

I also like that Mr. Vonnegut asks them (explicitly or implicitly) to pan three of the stories. I think sometimes the hardest thing to do is to explain to someone why you didn't like something. It just destroys the tendency of the students to toady-up to the published.

I wish I had a teacher like that. Would have done me a world of good.