Vonnegut on Overcoming Fiction

Via Jonathan Witmer-Rich, we find (just deceased) Kurt Vonnegut writing on fiction biases:

As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen.  And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results:  They were doing there best to live like people invented in story books.  This was the reason Americans shot each other so often:  It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.

Why were so many Americans treated by their government as thought their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues?  Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in made-up tales.

And so on.


Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling.  I would write about life.  Every person would be exactly as important as any other.  All facts would be given equal weightiness.  Nothing would be left out.  Let others bring order to chaos.  I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.

If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades would understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.

It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done.  I am living proof of that:  It can be done.

I haven’t analyzed his fiction carefully, but Vonnegut seems overconfident – I doubt he overcame but a small fraction of fiction biases.  But at least he tried.

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  • http://stefan-hupfeld.de Stefan

    Equal weighting of facts is a weighting scheme by itself (though a special one)… Why should it be that facts are equally important?

  • Giant Step

    I learned more about Vonnegut’s bias than about general American bias by reading that analysis. Specifically, Vonnegut seems to have suffered a serious case of Déformation professionnelle.

  • Tex

    America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people

    America is “dangerous” and “unhappy”? This isn’t even wrong.

    Vonnegut’s analysis (to the extent there is any) seems to suggest that illiterate countries are safer and happier. That’s not what I see.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    Vonnegut is kidding, more or less, it’s part of his style. It is quite obviously impossible to give facts equal weight, in fiction or elsewhere. Picking a random sample of facts would have to include stuff like the chemical composition of the muffin crumb lodged between the y and u key on my keyboard, etc, etc, etc. But he’s kidding in an eye-opening fashion, forcing his readers to confront their selection biases.

    His point about people organizing their lives according to stories is
    a good one. People may not get all their cues from novels and movies, but in a deeper sense everybody’s mind is organized around personal narratives, both stories that happened in the past (episodic memory) and the present, where a person is inescably the hero of their own personal interactive fiction.

  • TGGP

    The best way to evaluate his theory would be to find cultures that produce less fiction and see if they treat their people less like fictional characters. I don’t think there is much merit to his theory, and I am not sure he thought there was either.

  • mobile

    When I was a pizza delivery boy, I too, understood how innocent and natural it was for people to be so abominable. But my understanding was grounded in metaphors like uneven distribution of toppings, undercooked crust, and tomato sauce that was so hot that you would burn the roof of your mouth and get a blister. Once I realized that, my whole perspective on delivering pizzas changed and moreover I knew how to solve every problem in the whole world. Sometimes it was hard to change the world on an empty stomach, but it can be done. I am living proof.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/brucekbritton/ Bruce Britton

    Vonnegut is not just kidding, he is a satirist, and the quoted section is satirical as is his other writings, as you can tell by his tag line ‘and so on’ which is one of his tropes during this period (the other famous one is ‘so it goes’). When you interpret satire as if it were serious, you get some very odd results.

    But if you activate your sense of humor, you can see that it is intended to be humorous. (For example, when he says that he has ‘decided to shun storytelling’ when all he has done is storytelling, or when he claims to ‘bring chaos to order’, or that there is ‘no order in the world,’ when any book is a highly ordered thing, the opposite of chaotic, you can see typical devices of humor. He claims that ‘nothing would be left out’ when of course he is selecting rigorously. He counterposes ‘enraged and mystified’ with ‘innocent and natural.’ Hyperbole for comic effect is found there and in ‘idiot’, ‘abominably… abominable’, ‘ disposable as paper toilet tissue’, ‘dangerous, unhappy,’ etc.)

    But satire is not only humorous, it is also intended to criticize cleverly, here the american people, the government, writers and himself.