What Does An Asterisk* Mean To You?

aholeRecently, I was in a meeting at a company that uses a giant asterisk in its logo. The asterisk doesn’t refer to a footnote at the bottom of the logo. It doesn’t replace the dot of the letter “i” or “j” either. It’s just there, and I’m not sure why.

To me, an unaccountable asterisk can only be one thing: an asshole à la Kurt Vonnegut.

Have you read Breakfast of Champions?

I’m not sure how many people have even heard of it these days. No one else at that meeting seemed to think the PowerPoint presentation was covered in assholes.

See also, Kurt Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: More Evidence That American Culture Must Be In Decline.

What Should Kids Read In School INSTEAD of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?

TKaMBRaise your hand if you read To Kill a Mockingbird in school.

That’s where many of us first encountered Harper Lee’s iconic novel about a child’s growing awareness of racial injustice in the American South. I read the book when I was a kid for school, and then re-read it two decades later to find that: “Jem is just as brave as I remember, and Scout is as funny and headstrong. Their father is a thoughtful and fair-minded man whose parenting style reflects his legal experience.”

That last line sounds funny now, doesn’t it? With the publication of Go Set a Watchman, we now know that Atticus Finch was an unapologetic bigot. That is, if we believe that Watchman is a sequel to Mockingbird, as Lee’s lawyer claimed it was, rather than the early draft it probably is. As Max from Litigation and Trial said in Despite Go Set a Watchman, Atticus Finch Is Still a Hero:

[M]any classic novels started out with truly bizarre first drafts. In the earliest drafts of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several children were sucked into the factory and incorporated into the chocolate bars. The same is true of classic movies: Rocky originally ended with him deliberately throwing the fight. As novelists often say, “the essence of writing is rewriting.” In short, the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is not the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Trying to pass off Watchman as a sequel—possibly even the final installment of a previously unheard of plan for a Mockingbird trilogy—is just one of the many ways the people purporting to represent Lee’s interests have tried to destroy her legacy.

Other efforts include:

Now, Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, further guts the author’s legacy by putting an end to the mass paperback edition of Mockingbird. This is a move that will likely result in higher royalties for Lee’s heirs at the expense of spreading her work to future fans. As the New Republic explains:

[T]he disappearance of the mass-market edition could have a significant impact on schools. The fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is both so accessible to young readers and so widely taught in America is crucial to its cultural importance… Without a mass-market option, schools will likely be forced to pay higher prices for bulk orders of the trade paperback edition—and given the perilous state of many school budgets, that could very easily lead to it being assigned in fewer schools.”

So, my children might not read it in school like I did, but maybe its disappearance from the curriculum is not such a bad thing. Is it time to move on?

This question reminds me of a discussion I had with MonkeyMoonMachine (also known as Matt Hagemann) in the comments to Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Is In Decline.* After noting that classic books might not resonate with newer readers the way they did with their original audiences, he said:

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.

To Kill a Mockingbird is more than half a century old, and perhaps it’s time to declare a new work a “classic.” I would be particularly interested in something that stirs a sense of social justice in children, as To Kill a Mockingbird does, while being something that To Kill a Mockingbird is not: a book by a person of color about a person of color.

Do you have any recommendations?


*Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, I’d like to mention that I often borrow a phrase from him to describe authors’ estates that do everything they can to “disappear up their own assholes, so to speak.” Vonnegut uttered those words in a different context, but I think the sentiment applies to the short-sighted actions of Harper Lee’s estate (as well as to William Faulkner’s and Arthur Conan Doyle’s). There are so many good books to read out there. We should steer clear of any book that a greedy estate is trying to make difficult to obtain.

Is Literature Disappearing Up It’s Own A-Hole?

Horace Engdahl seems to think so.

In comments to Le Croix, Horace Engdahl (of the Swedish Academy responsible for the Nobel Prize) criticized the “professionalization” of writing through financial support from foundations and educational institutions that allow writers to leave their “day jobs” to devote more time to writing. Noting that it’s particularly a problem for the “western side” of the world, he said:

Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions… Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard – but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.

If we set aside Engdahl’s hypocrisy — he’s a literary academic linked with an institution — there’s a kernel of truth in his words: experience matters. Real-life experiences inform fiction in ways that may resonate better with readers than fiction unmoored from the realities real people face everyday.

Vonnegut LettersAlong similar lines, Kurt Vonnegut (who, by the way, never won the Nobel Prize for Literature) once wrote to a young writer: “If you want to write fiction, then you must be patient, for you need experiences, and those take time to accumulate.”

A writer’s lack of varied life experiences can lead to over-zealous literary introspection and isolation. As Vonnegut mentioned in an interview with The Paris Review, “It can be tremendously refreshing if the creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.

Importantly, a day job isn’t the only way to accumulate meaningful experiences. Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences included being a soldier in World War II and studying chemistry at Cornell and anthropology at U. Chicago, as well as working.

In 1949, during his stint in public relations at General Electric, Vonnegut wrote in a letter to his father:

I sold my first story to Collier’s. … I think I’m on my way. I’ve deposited my first check in a savings account and … if I sell more, will continue to do so until I have the equivalent of one year’s pay at GE. Four more stories will do it nicely, with cash to spare (something we never had before). I will then quit this goddamn nightmare job, and never take another one so long as I live, so help me God.

Vonnegut was one of the lucky ones who was able to quit his job and “never take another one.” As nightmarish as it was, though, it certainly benefited his writing, informing some of his short stories and Player Piano.

What’s impressive is that Vonnegut was able to write at all while balancing so many other demands in life (which, as his letters show us, was challenging for him and his family). The balance is rarely an easy one to pull off. William Faulkner, for example, reportedly wrote portions of his novels while actually on the job as a postmaster at Ole Miss. His brief resignation letter in 1924 is deliciously acerbic: “… I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”

Sadly, there are far too many people who harbor similarly negative feelings about their jobs. In the US, many workers struggle with relatively low paying so-called “day jobs” that seep into the night as well (and that’s if they’re lucky enough to need only one job to make ends meet). The situation is even more dire when we consider that retirement, when workers have supposedly racked up a lifetime of fodder for fiction, is practically a fiction itself.

With these workplace realities, it’s very difficult for anyone but the independently wealthy to pursue creative endeavors—unless, of course, a writer is lucky enough to receive one of those grants that Engdahl thinks is so detrimental.

*The two Vonnegut letters appear in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012); For more of my thoughts on Vonnegut, see Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Must Be In Decline.

Jane Austen Teaches Science, Tea for a Cause, & The Winner Is…

I’ve learned a lot from the Internet recently, including that (1) I should refrain from cutting Mr. A.M.B.’s guest posts on this blog, (2) a pot of tea and a good book can be even better than usual, and (3) I’m not the only one who thinks that Kurt Vonnegut’s books are worth reading!

(1)   What Jane Austen Teaches Us About “Proof”:

Persuasion Image with Quote

While wasting time on the Internet last week, I came across a list, 10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing, which included “Proof” as one of the most widely misunderstood concepts.

Per Physicist Sean Carroll:

[S]cience never proves anything! So when we are asked “What is your proof that we evolved from other species?” or “Can you really prove that climate change is caused by human activity?” we tend to hem and haw rather than simply saying “Of course we can.” The fact that science never really proves anything, but simply creates more and more reliable and comprehensive theories of the world that nevertheless are always subject to update and improvement, is one of the key aspects of why science is so successful.

Coincidentally, before seeing this list, I cut a paragraph from a draft of Mr. A.M.B.’s post on Jane Austen’s Persuasion that raised a similar point about the limits of “proof” while arguing that Jane Austen’s novel is more than a love story. He wrote:

Persuasion includes a number of remarkable observations about humanity, many of which can easily pass without notice if a reader sees it only as a love story. When Anne is debating with Captain Harville about whether men hold romantic attachments as firmly as women, he asks “But how shall we prove anything?” She replies:

“We never shall. We can never expect to prove anything upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin, probably, with a little bias towards our own sex; and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle…”

There are two separate remarkable observations in there, one about the limits of “proof” in the context of social science, the other about a psychological phenomenon we now call “confirmation bias.” Persuasion is filled with mature, compelling observations about human nature stated simply and plainly in the middle of a book that would only appear “superficial” if you weren’t really paying attention.

Clearly, there’s a lot we can learn from Jane Austen (& Mr. A.M.B. 🙂 ).

(2)   Making Tea & Books An Even Better Combination:

Evergreen Tea BlendAlso last week, I learned from Melanie at The Indextrious Reader that Distinctly Tea (in Ontario, Canada) created a special green tea blend in honor of the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award, which “gives adult library users the opportunity to vote for Canadian fiction or non-fiction from a shortlist of 10 titles each year, with readers choosing the winner.” A portion of the profit made on the tea will support the Stratford Public Library.

As I tweeted, tea and books always go well together, but the combination is even better when it supports a library. The Evergreen Tea Blend I ordered from Distinctly Tea arrived yesterday by mail, and I’m pleased to say that it’s delicious! I’m not normally a fan of smoky lapsang, but this blend works for me.

The Best Combination of Tea & Books(3)   What kind of library user are you?

Speaking of libraries, I saw a link to this Pew Research Quiz on Stephanie’s blog, So Many Books.

I’m an “Information Omnivore.” According to Pew:

Information Omnivores are more likely to seek and use information than other groups and are more likely to engage with technology. They are strong users of public libraries and think libraries have a vital role in their communities.

So, what kind of library user are you?

(4)   Drumroll Please…

The winner of my Literary Blog Hop giveaway is Orange Pekoe Reviews! Isn’t that a great name for a blog? Books and tea really go so well together (See #2).

Thank you to everyone who participated. It was nice to see what books participants are interested in reading. I was particularly happy that someone mentioned wanting to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which is one of my favorite books. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, I’ve been concerned about Vonnegut’s literary reputation (see Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence That American Culture Must Be In Decline).

Thanks again to Leeswammes for hosting the blog hop.

Have a great weekend!



Preventing Literature from “Disappearing Up Its Own A-Hole”: Quotations, Fan Fiction, and Copyright Law

Dont Disappar Up Your Own A_Hole

Last fall, when the William Faulkner Estate sued Sony Pictures, the Washington Post, and Northrop Grumman for their uses of short Faulkner quotes and paraphrases, I summed up my thoughts on the outrageous litigation by quoting Kurt Vonnegut: “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”*

As I said in my first post on the subject, When Someone Quotes You, Say “Thank You,” Not “F-You,” Vonnegut uttered those memorable words in a different context, but the sentiment is equally applicable to the short-sighted actions of authors and their estates aimed at limiting others from using their copyrighted material in a creative manner. In particular, I explained that “[The Faulkner Estate’s] litigious nature could chill future references to the author, thus ending the free advertising [that comes with quotations] and possibly hastening the speed with which the public will lose interest in his work.”

Thankfully, the Faulkner Estate lost its case at the trial court level last month, and, if I were its attorney, I would recommend they forego an appeal to the 5th Circuit and drum up interest in Faulkner’s work in other ways. To stay in the limelight, a goal that is clearly important to them, they should consider taking a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s estate’s current playbook.

Vonnegut’s estate has been criticized in the past for limiting access to the late author’s words, but it seems to be making an attempt not to “disappear up its own a-hole” by entering into an agreement with Amazon to legalize the publication of fan fiction based on Vonnegut’s novels.

For those who don’t know, fan fiction includes stories written by fans of an original work that use characters, plot devices, and sometimes the setting from the original work in a new way. Such derivative works often amount to copyright infringement unless the fan fiction writer is able to establish a defense, such as by arguing that the original author has given his or her implied consent (by, for example, allowing fan fiction to go unchecked long after learning about it) or by arguing that the fan fiction is Fair Use. A fan fiction author is more likely to succeed under Fair Use if, when assessing the purpose and character of the use, the derivative work is educational, a parody, and/or, perhaps most importantly, non-commercial. So, historically, a fan fiction author’s ability to make money off of his or her derivative creations has been limited — as soon as they try to commercialize the work, they can expect a ‘cease and desist’ letter from the owner of the original work’s copyright.

Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, however, legalizes fan fiction by obtaining licenses from the holders of copyrights to allow fan fiction writers to publish derivative works while getting paid for it. Fan fiction has always existed in some form, but perhaps the allure of receiving royalties will encourage more writers to create derivative works, and perhaps even encourage publishers to assist writers by providing editing or marketing. So far, Kindle Worlds has obtained licenses from a small number of copyright holders, and now the list includes Kurt Vonnegut’s estate.

So, unlike Faulkner’s estate, Vonnegut’s estate has decided to use copyright law to its advantage in a way that doesn’t ruin Fair Use for the rest of us. This move opens up my favorite novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, to the creative minds of fan fiction writers, and while I’m not inclined to participate as a writer in Kindle Worlds, I look forward to seeing what others create.

In the past, I’ve wondered whether certain examples of derivative works are homages to the original work or merely rip-offs, and I’ve heard others claim that fan fiction “dilutes” the original work, but I think none of these criticisms outweigh the potential benefits of derivative works to the original author or his/her estate. For example, when I read Margot Livesey’s shallow reiteration of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (which is no longer under copyright and so presents none of the legal challenges of typical fan fiction), it only made me long to read the original again, not think less of it. Overall, references through quotes, paraphrases, and even through fan fiction keep old books alive, something Faulkner’s estate doesn’t understand.

Faulkner has been dead for more than fifty years and Vonnegut hasn’t been with us for six, making it impossible for these authors to engage with readers the way modern authors do today. They can’t tweet, they can’t blog, and they certainly can’t make personal appearances on The Daily Show or Colbert Report or at anyone’s local bookshop (except through posthumous accounts and impersonators). So, to remain relevant by connecting with a new generation of readers, these deceased authors need new authors to reference them, and participation in Kindle Worlds may be one way to achieve this type of recognition while still protecting their copyright.

Even Kurt Vonnegut could use the publicity. While the recently published Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (2012) asserts that “[f]rom all indications, there will be many more ‘years of Vonnegut,’” anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. As I discussed in a post back in April, Vonnegut’s Literary Reputation: Evidence that American Culture Must be in Decline, I was shocked to learn that my Dad’s graduate-level filmmaking students hadn’t even heard of Vonnegut. I concluded, melodramatically:

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.

And maybe now it won’t. Maybe my Dad’s next class of students will learn about Kurt Vonnegut after stumbling upon derivatives like Dog’s Cradle and Zombie Slaughterhouse. We’ll see.

*See The Paris Review’s Composite Interview of Vonnegut.

Fumbling to Find Vonnegut’s Advice to A Young Writer

Vonnegut Quote from Kurt Vonnegut LettersA week after finishing Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, I wanted to revisit Vonnegut’s correspondence with an aspiring writer, but I could only remember a smattering of the words: “if you want to write fiction,” “experiences,” and “television.” I couldn’t recall the name of the recipient, the page number in the book, or even the decade. I reasoned that it had to be in the latter half of the book, at some point after 1970, because Vonnegut’s literary reputation had soared by then, putting him in the position to give the kind of advice contained in this letter.

If I’d had the ebook, which is priced at $17.99 on Amazon right now, I could have used the search function, but I had only the hardcover, which costs $1.67 more than the ebook for the privilege of papercuts and the possibility that it could grace my bookshelf for some period of time longer than my Kindle will survive.

So, I turned to the “search function” in the way back of the book, the index, where I found a long list of subjects from “Abbadusky, Susan” to “Zinneman, Fred.” Unfortunately, without the name of the recipient, I couldn’t find the letter I wanted, at least not fast enough.

It was time for Plan B: skimming each piece of correspondence from February 28, 1970 until February 6, 2007, the date of the last letter in the book. I found the advice on page 368 in the letter Vonnegut penned to Alex Maslansky on May 18, 1996:

If you want to write fiction, then you must be patient, for you need experiences, and those take time to accumulate. Unfortunately, television offers the illusion of experiences writers used to come by the hard way, in courtrooms, on ships, in hospitals, whatever. Please don’t rely on those, unless you want to be popular.

I say go for truths, very personal ones, not likely to be learned from TV sets.

I can only imagine how different Slaughterhouse-Five would have been had Vonnegut watched a documentary or a drama about the firebombing of Dresden on TV instead of having lived it as a prisoner of war.

Today, in addition to television, we have the Internet, which also “offers the illusion of experiences writers used to come by the hard way.” I can “explore places around the world,” familiarize myself with courtroom procedures, or learn the symptoms of illnesses without traveling, getting arrested, or getting sick.  I could even have found the 1996 Vonnegut letter I had wanted in the first place had I thought to Google it.

Research is important, and reputable sources on the Internet are wonderful tools, but there is no substitute for actual experience, the personal perspective an author brings to her work that makes it unique. As a reader, I often find myself wondering about the author’s connection to the themes in her book, particularly if a novel misses the nuances of issues with which I’m familiar. It’s disappointing to see potentially good writers writing the wrong books.

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