Kurt Vonnegut

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Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr. 1922–

An American novelist and fantasy writer, Vonnegut is now one of the most celebrated exponents of American popular culture. Slaughterhouse-Five is the best known of his witty and intelligent novels. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Vonnegut has been called by Graham Greene, no less, "one of the best living American writers." But the Vonnegut books have been mostly caviar to the general. He has been a writer's writer, serious, technically accomplished, uninterested in accommodating himself to the book trade or the great thundering herd. He has not had, accordingly, one "big book," though he is a better writer—more intelligent, more disciplined—than some people who have…. Mr. Vonnegut is what used to be called a banjo hitter. He has kept rapping out sharp singles while the sluggers lunged and panted and wrote army novels and drove home the Cadillacs. But there have been some signs latterly of a boom in Vonnegut stock, with his Mother Night particularly and Cat's Cradle being taken up a good deal by young people in the colleges. What appeals to them, I suspect, is the combination of Mr. Vonnegut's gentleness and his stylish sense of the ridiculous in these our times. He may be a growth issue.

Warren Coffey, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 6, 1969, pp. 347-48.

[With] Cat's Cradle [Vonnegut] began to get some attention. It came from varied sources: Conrad Aiken, Graham Greene, Marc Connolly and Jules Feiffer, to name a few. Greene called him one of the best living American writers. That sort of comment is guaranteed to make you an "in" writer. He was compared to Jonathan Swift.

That is not to say that he has been greeted with unrestrained enthusiasm by all critics. Reviews of … Slaughterhouse-Five … have dragged out the old complaints: Vonnegut is too cute, Vonnegut is precious, Vonnegut is silly.

We live in an age of great seriousness. We are accustomed to getting our art in heavy, pretentious doses. Anything funny is suspect, and anything simple is doubly suspect. Here we come to the second difficulty with Kurt Vonnegut. His style is effortless, naive, almost childlike. There are no big words and no complicated sentences. It is an extraordinarily difficult style, but that fact is lost on anyone who has never tried to write that way.

A funny, simple writer is in trouble nowadays. And Vonnegut doesn't make it any easier for you. He is cheerfully, exuberantly schizophrenic….

He writes about the most excruciatingly painful things. His novels have attacked our deepest fears of automation and the bomb, our deepest political guilts, our fiercest hatreds and loves. Nobody else writes books on these subjects; they are inaccessible to normal novelistic approaches. But Vonnegut, armed with his schizophrenia, takes an absurd, distorted, wildly funny framework which is ultimately anaesthetic. In doing so, his science-fiction heritage is clear, but his purposes are very different: he is nearly always talking about the past, not the future. And as he proceeds, from his anaesthetic framework, to clean the shit off, we are able to cheer him on—at least for a while. But eventually we stop cheering, and stop laughing.

It is a classic sequence of reactions to any Vonnegut book. One begins smugly, enjoying the sharp wit of a compatriot as he carves up Common Foes. But the sharp wit does not stop, and sooner or later it is directed against the Wrong Targets. Finally it is directed against oneself. It is this switch in midstream, this change in affiliation, which is so disturbing. He becomes an offensive writer, because he will not choose sides, ascribing blame and penalty, identifying good guys and bad.

Michael Crichton, "Slaughterhouse-Five" (originally titled "Sci-Fi and Vonnegut"; copyright © 1969 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.; reprinted by permission), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright,...

(The entire section is 13,201 words.)