Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence that American Culture Must Be in Decline

Kurt Vonnegut Letters and Slaughterhouse Five

While having tea at my parents’ house yesterday afternoon, my father shared with me some unsettling news about the undergraduate and graduate students in his screen-directing class: They have never heard of Kurt Vonnegut, a subject that comes up after they watch “Who Am I This Time?,” starring Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon. It’s based on a wonderful Vonnegut short story with the same title in Welcome to the Monkey House (1968). It wasn’t just one class that came up wanting, but a few classes over the last two or three years.

Flabbergasted by this anecdote, I replied, “What is the world coming to?”

As I’ve written on this blog before, I am a person who tends to roll my eyes at others who proclaim society to be in cultural decline, but if there were ever any indication that we’re in such a downfall, then this has to be it. I’m kidding, of course, but only sort of.

For good measure, just in case American culture really is in decline, I encourage everyone to read at least one Kurt Vonnegut book. Try it out. If you don’t like it, that’s fine; no book will please everyone, but give it a fair shot.

My favorite Vonnegut book, one of my favorite books of all time, is Slaughterhouse-Five, which I re-visited last fall, as I discussed in my post, Banned Books: The Politics Behind Censorship. Slaughterhouse-Five was one of the books at the heart of our last U.S. Supreme Court case on book banning, Board of Education v. Pico (1982). This work of fiction stems from Vonnegut’s World War II experience as a POW during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany. Its timeless themes resonate as much now, considering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as it did when it was published in 1969, during the Vietnam War era.

Recently, I also finished reading Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012),** which was a birthday present from my husband. It is a fascinating look at Vonnegut through his personal correspondence over 60 years, from 1945 until 2007. In one letter from 1981, a biting response to Anatole Broyard, a “literary critic with credentials” from the New York Times, Vonnegut writes:

I thank you for your comments on how slowly my literary reputation is dying. Part of the problem, surely, is that all my books remain in print, and people continue to give me credit for having written them.

That was 32 years ago. Vonnegut’s books remain in print today, and there is the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Vonnegut’s hometown. Dan Wakefield, the editor of the letters and Vonnegut’s friend, writes in the introduction to the chapter on the 2000s, “From all indications, there will be many more ‘years of Vonnegut,’ not only in Indianapolis,” also noting among the indicators Vonnegut’s appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2005.

As a fan of The Daily Show, let me say that I hope with all my heart that it is a good indication of cultural relevance, even if Vonnegut’s appearance was eight years ago, two years before his death at age 84. My father’s students are a more recent indication of the future of Vonnegut’s literary reputation, but let’s hope that they — as talented as they may be in filmmaking — aren’t representative of the next generation on this issue.

The minute Kurt Vonnegut’s books lose their place in literature is the moment I will feel like an old woman and, dare I say it, I may well find myself starting a diatribe with, “Kids these days…” Let’s hope it never comes to that.

**Right now (4/1/13), it’s priced at $19.66 for the hardcover and $17.99 for the ebook on Amazon and Barnes & Noble

52 thoughts on “Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence that American Culture Must Be in Decline

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  11. One of my high-school-teaching colleagues teaches “Slaughterhouse 5,” to Advanced Placement students, and they seem to enjoy it, but it doesn’t surprise me that even college students haven’t heard of KVJ. Friends in high school (in late 1980s) introduced me to his work (I don’t believe we read any substantive lit in class that came after “The Great Gatsby”), and while I do see a lot of students bring books to my classes, I don’t often see them read books that aren’t in the genres of fantasy or Young Adult. Perhaps twas ever thus, as I had friends in high school who also read fantasy books.
    I liked Vonnegut’s writing, but eventually it started to seem too cynical to me. I now appreciate it without loving it. But KVJ and the Beats and others were counterculture in a way that I don’t see happening anymore. Maybe we don’t need countercultural writers in a culture that is no longer as monolithic as it once was. Experimental fiction challenges form, and some (like Markson) do some wonderful things, but maybe books are just not currently a realm in which teens are interested. I have some students who now make their own movies, and perhaps these students, in the less-technological ages, would have read and written novels instead. Just a thought.

    1. Another thought: I am disappointed in general in how little the new Common Core K-12 standards emphasize teaching any literature of the last 40 years. Perhaps the standards-makers are afraid of declaring any new works as “classics.” But then again, the standards also ignore most of the lit-crit thinking of the last 40 years, too: there’s no Deconstruction, feminist theory, reader-response, etc.

      1. Interesting. Is part of it that educators can’t break away from the books they loved during their own adolescent years? Perhaps I’m the same way: insisting on Vonnegut’s continued relevance when the younger generation simply disagrees with me. If I were to design an English course, I’d probably rely on the books that mattered to me when I was a teenager, not more recent ones. That probably wouldn’t be the best approach, though.

    2. These are very interesting observations. If high school students are reading, then I suppose I shouldn’t care whether it’s fantasy, YA, or Vonnegut. There are many good books out there that are worth reading, and who am I to determine what should resonate with a population of students whose lives are quite different from mine. Still, it concerns me when a group of educated individuals (undergrads and graduate students) hasn’t even heard of Vonnegut. That’s a different cultural literacy issue, but time is on their side and they will be the ones to decide what books deserve to be in the literary pantheon for their generation. As for your perspective on Vonnegut’s writing, I agree with you, and I had a different reaction to “Player Piano” at 32 than I did at 12. I finished re-reading it over a week ago, but I haven’t had time to sort through my reaction yet. I’ll probably blog about it at some point.

      1. I like your points about each generation choosing what to keep, what to pass on to the following generation. I also like what you said about the value of rereading the same book at a later age — I haven’t read “Player Piano” since high school — but I’m impressed that you read it at age 12!

  12. I love your passion for books! You make me think about things I never considered and for that I am thankful. I would have never heard of some really relevant issues if for not starting my own blog and than reading what others say on differerent subjects! Now I must go buy that book..Maybe when the price drops…: )

    1. Thank you! I do love books. I wish I had more time to read for fun these days. Most of my reading right now is popular non-fiction for work (all Title IX athletic equity or sexual assault related; I have to know what’s out there), and I’m not going to write about it on this blog. So, it may be awhile before I start doing reviews again.

      I hope you enjoy the letters! I would definitely wait until the price drops or check it out of the library.

  13. Jaclyn

    I need to read “Slaughterhouse-Five” – it’s been on my TBR for ages. My favorite Vonnegut is “Galapagos.” There’s something so lush about it, but eerie at the same time.

  14. fransiweinstein

    Loved Slaughterhouse Five; and I ordered Letters the other day. Can’t wait to start reading it. Pretty shocking your father’s students haven’t heard of him.

      1. fransiweinstein

        Thanks, I am sure I will. I have several books of letters. I love writing them and love reading letters. They are so revealing and interesting. There is an art to writing letters I think we have lost because of tweeting and emailing and status updates on FB, that are all about brevity. Girls in the future may never send or receive love letters and that’s a shame.

        1. Yeah, writing a letter and receiving one are different experiences from writing/receiving a tweet or an email. In the old days of email, back when I first started dating my husband, I think people wrote more substantial messages to each other than they do today. Now, it’s about 140 characters and lack of privacy, and it looks like Gmail’s new compose feature encourages this transition (making it easier to “multitask” means you’re not focusing on what you’re writing!). Oh well.

          Another issue with social media is historical preservation. Isn’t it amazing that we have so many of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters? Will we have archives of tweets, emails, blogs, and FB updates? I touched on this issue briefly in a post a long time ago: https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/f-scott-fitzgeralds-advice-to-writers-sell-your-heart/ [in the comments, Molly of Wrapped Up in Books says the Library of Congress is making an effort to archive public tweets]

          1. fransiweinstein

            What an interesting point. I will read your post, thanks for the link. Yes, I suppose they have to make an effort to archive public tweets or there will be no records in the future. Imagine. Presidents and athletes and celebrities will be known, in the future, by their tweets. Wow! Now there’s something to think about.

  15. Geh $17.99?! For what? Does gold pop out of your Kindle if you read it? Because it’s so hard for the publishing company to have a computer make copies for them? Yeah, I’m with you. I won’t buy e-books over $10. Movies either to be honest (digital, not DVD). I have a couple I got for $7 that Amazon keeps in the cloud for me, but if we’re not getting featurettes, why not buy the DVD? $17.99 should come with more perks. I’ve heard of Kurt, but never read his stuff. I’ll have to add it to my library queue.

    1. Exactly! I would love to see where the money goes when you pay $17.99 for a file. It’s ridiculous. I probably would’ve waited to buy this one if it hadn’t been a birthday gift (I actually got the hardcover, but I want to get the ebook eventually–much easier to use).

  16. Slaughterhouse Five downloaded – I’m in need of some good writing after wading through the last one that I’d undertaken to review. On ebook prices I won’t complain at whatever is requested – I’ll choose whether or not to buy.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I’d love to hear what you think.

      I remember your view of the $17.99 ebook price for Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy” (thank you for sharing it–I probably would’ve given blogging by now if everyone always agreed with me!). I have a few problems with that price: first, it dissuades people of lesser means from reading that book (particularly if their local library doesn’t have it or it’s perpetually checked out); second, what’s the justification for that price? It’s an ebook file and there are still questions out there about what it means to “own” it. It’s not like we’re paying for the copying, binding, and transport. Finally, I wonder who is getting the money. A struggling writer or a middleman/woman trying to remain relevant in a rapidly changing publishing world?

      On that note, it is a rapidly changing world in general, and perhaps there are good reasons for Vonnegut’s books to lose their place in the literary pantheon. Or, perhaps, my dad’s students aren’t representative of the younger generation, the millennials/Generation Y. His grad students aren’t much younger than I am,* but they sure have made me feel old!

      *I’m even considered a Millennial by some definitions, though other definitions leave me without a generation, neither X nor Y.

      1. Certainly reading some (not all by any means) new indie authors makes one more appreciative of well-crafted, entertaining writing. Slaughterhouse Five and a Dianne Gray book will be enjoyed before dipping into the world of indie reviews again 🙂
        If an ebook was a necessity then I’d complain about overpricing – it’s not. It takes its place with other nice-to-haves. Prices of books are generally very low by historic standards – give the poor writer a break.

        1. It costs a certain amount of money for the e-reader, but otherwise, I don’t think of ebooks as luxury items. I think it’s the future of how we’ll consume books, and it should be affordable, particularly when the production cost is so much lower. Also, I wonder what the contracts look like and what the sales figures look like. Do writers make more money this way? Do they sell more at this price? I’m not so sure.

      2. I hope you don’t mind my jumping into the conversation here.

        On your point one, it’s unclear why the author/publisher is the party who should be charged with pricing “properly” so that people of lesser means can buy their book. If the author has a private interest in seeing her book as widely disseminated as possibly, then she can certainly use her product’s (low) price to encourage that. However, as you’re arguing for a counterfactual — that the book’s price should be lower than it actually is — then obviously the author’s private interest was not sufficient for her to price lower. So if it is, instead (or in addition to), a public or societal interest that more people, including those with lesser means, get access to this book, then shouldn’t the subsidization should come from society at large, through direct transfer payments or favorable taxation for book purchases, instead of the author/publisher? In fact, I would venture to guess that subsidizing a literary novel like “The Casual Vacancy” would have the same effect as subsidizing NPR in that it is likely the more affluent among us who are the consumers of both products and therefore beneficiaries of the — regressive — subsidies.

        Relatedly, would you think it’s more fair or less fair if the price of a product was tied to a purchaser’s income? That is, the price of “The Casual Vacancy” would be $7.99 or 17.99 depending on your income from last year.

        On your second point, why is some extra justification needed other than that some people are willing to pay $17.99 for the book and those who are not are not compelled to pay? Consider a scenario in which, say, an old woman were selling her house for an exorbitant price unjustified by the house’s location, size, or any other amenities but simply because she attaches extra value to the house after having lived in it for a long time. You wouldn’t insist that she should sell the house for a lower price. You would simply say that if she wants to sell the house, she has to lower the price. Similarly, if Rowling were mispricing, then if she wants to sell a profit-maximizing quantity of her books, she should lower its price. In both cases, however, there’s no reason to insist on tying price to cost. Indeed, because both houses and books are not homogenous products sold in a competitive market, there’s no reason to expect their price to equal their cost.

        With all this said, I completely share your sentiment favoring lower ebook prices. And in a separate sphere of publishing — publishing of scholarly articles whose first copy cost is paid for by the faculty author’s employer/university — I do think that the price of the product should equal the extra value added a publisher brings to the material.

        1. You’re always welcome to join the discussion.

          I certainly wouldn’t compel an author or publisher to charge a particular price for a book. It is, as you note, their property to dispense as they see fit. If J.K. Rowling wanted to sell exactly one copy of her book for a million pounds, that would be her right.

          I don’t even have a problem with choosing a price that is supposed to maximize the profits of the book. My belief is that publishers do a bad job of price maximizing, that they price many new books at such an obviously high markup that it drives away far more readers than they realize, while leaving the readers who do buy the book upset about the markup. I suppose the publishers would point to my husband’s purchase of the Vonnegut letters (a birthday present for me) as evidence that he would buy the book despite the high price, but then I’d point to my non-purchase of A Casual Vacancy as proof that every reader hits their limit somewhere.

          Take a look at the best sellers on Amazon in Literature & Fiction right now: of the top 10, only 2 cost more than $9.99, and the most expensive one is only $12.99. I think if publishers dropped the price, demand would go up enough to cover the reduced profit, and consumers in general would be happier (and thus, in the end, consume more books). Timing matters. The publishers drop the price eventually — A Casual Vacancy is almost $10 less than it used to be — but the hype is gone and I’m not nearly as interested in reading it. They lost my business.

          In terms of subsidizing book purchases, while I’d like to see more of the public reading, I don’t think we need to incentivize the creation and purchase of books in that way. I’d rather invest that money into better early education, reading programs, and libraries.

          1. What do you think is causing publishers to systematically misprice? For instance, they can see the bestseller list as well as you or I, so why aren’t they coming to the same conclusion? Are publishers not big corporations with a lot more information about their business than casual readers may have? Why do you think they’re leaving money on the table?

            1. I’ve never seen the publishers’ data, and my observations are merely anecdotes. Obviously, some books can command a higher price than others, and I assume it’s hard to strike a balance that will maximize profit. That said, it seems clear to me that whatever the publishers are doing isn’t working very well — publishers seem to be in financial trouble these days in the new digital world. I wouldn’t be surprised if the issue is pure inertia: big businesses like to keep doing things they way they’ve always done it before, and I wonder whether they understand the value of these newer products which don’t have the same level of production cost and thus, from a consumer standpoint, are less permanent and therefore less valuable. I’m certainly not the only person who refuses to buy an ebook for $17.99, and I wouldn’t have gotten the Vonnegut letters as an ebook either (it had been a birthday present, and I received the hardcover).

              If it turns out that they make a comfortable profit (though perhaps not a maximized profit) at these ridiculous prices, they are certainly free to continue making these books accessible only to those with a significant amount of disposable income. But they shouldn’t be surprised that so many readers don’t care whether traditional publishing continues to exist in its current form. If their object is purely profit maximization, then we have no reason to be loyal.

  17. I’m really shocked that they didn’t know of Vonnegut…ugh. So disappointing. I think people are exposed to fewer authors in general at a young age now, since they’re so digitally-focused.
    And yes to the e-book prices. I won’t pay over $10 for any of them, and even that is stretching it.

    1. I won’t pay over $10 for an ebook either, though I’ve made a few exceptions. My husband ended up giving me the hardcover of “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” which is what I wanted at first, but it was too cumbersome to carry around with me. So, I’ll get the ebook when the price goes down. I want to be able to search it, too. This is a book I wanted to own, and I’m glad I do, but I wish it were more affordable/accessible for a wider audience. Thank God for libraries.

  18. When you consider books are free at a library, there really is no excuse not to explore different authors. I live one half block from a huge library, and all the great writers are housed there. Plus, they have an annual book sale and I have pickup many great works that way. No need to spend $17.99. I guess that becomes a problem though for those making a living off writing, much different than going to a museum to see great works of art.

    1. Libraries are wonderful, but this is a book I wanted to own.* My local library actually has three copies of “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” two are out and one is available right now. Other books, like Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy,” which was also priced at $17.99 initially for the ebook, had such a long waiting list that it might be far more convenient to purchase the ebook at $8.99, its greatly reduced price. $8.99 is a pretty good price, in my opinion, for a newish Rowling book, but I still think it’s sad that we make people of lesser means wait a long time to read certain books if libraries are slow to stock titles–they have budgetary constraints, too– or the book is checked out indefinitely. We should fund libraries more, and perhaps, re-evaluate book pricing and who gets what piece of the pie (I don’t know the breakdown of where the money goes for an ebook priced at $17.99).

      *My husband got me the hardcover, which is what I thought I wanted, but it turned out to be cumbersome to carry around; I’ll get the ebook when the price drops.

  19. I agree about the high price of ebooks; anything over $10 is outrageous and I simply won’t buy it.

    I read Slaughterhouse-Five many years ago. They were teaching it in school. Aren’t they anymore? I suppose they think other books are more relevant. Every generation must find its own literary icons, I suppose, but Vonnegut was certainly a good one in his time. I, too, think he will live on through his work.

    1. I have no idea what they’re teaching in high school these days. I’m curious to know. There are so many good and important books out there; I could see why Vonnegut’s books might not make it into every 9th or 10th grade class, but they would certainly be included in any course I taught. Still, even if people aren’t “forced” to read his books, how could they never have heard of him? It’s that type of cultural illiteracy that gives me pause (let’s remember that these are undergrads and graduate students). Vonnegut’s books aren’t even that old in the grand scheme of things! I don’t want to overreact, though. Change happens, and maybe his books don’t resonate with a younger audience for reasons that are beyond me. Now I’m feeling old.

      As for ebook pricing, it’s just outrageous. Sure, as a consumer, I have the choice to avoid books with that price tag, but it’s sad that people of lesser means can’t own a copy of that book for a long time, if ever. Libraries are wonderful (and I am quite grateful for them), but this is a book I wanted to own. Who is making the money off of a $17.99 ebook? I’d like to see the breakdown.

      1. I’d say the publisher, first of all. Then perhaps they throw a pittance to Vonnegut’s heirs, because there is no printing cost to consider. ;/ It’s a sign of the rampant greed that seems to direct our country these days. Everyone wants to get rich and they don’t care at whose expense.

  20. Hear, hear on a lament for any sign of Vonnegut’s work falling off the radar screen. And hear, hear on the unacceptable price for ebooks; I just don’t get it.

    1. Thank you! Some have said that Vonnegut’s books fall into the category of books we only pretend to read,* but at least that would mean that people have heard of him.

      *Huff Po included Slaughterhouse-Five on its list of books people pretend to read, which I mentioned in an earlier post: https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/the-classic-question-why-fake-it/. Generally, I’m of the mindset that it’s fine to avoid books that don’t interest you (and there are many classics that don’t interest me), but I guess I make an exception for Vonnegut. I’m biased. I admit it.

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