‘If It Works, It Works’: Kurt Vonnegut on Flouting the Rules of Fiction, by Kelly Nickell

Kurt Vonnegut has witnessed the evolution of fiction-and in some ways propelled it, perhaps. From the decreasing popularity of literary magazines and the increasing price of books, to his own evolving status as a “cult figure” and “popular author,” Vonnegut has been a constant observer of-and a steady contributor to-the literary world for nearly half a century. And the oft-quoted literary giant remains a vocal commentator on the changing publishing industry.

A published author of everything from novels and short stories to essays and plays, Vonnegut says fiction is an art form unto its own. “All of fiction is a practical joke-making people care, laugh, cry or be nauseated or whatever by something which absolutely is not going on at all. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, your pants are on fire.'”

And with his characteristic biting wit and humor, Vonnegut often combines social satire, autobiographical experiences and bits of historical fact to create a new form of literary fiction, as in Slaughterhouse Five, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it was published in 1969.

Alternating between linear and circular structures and differing points of view, Vonnegut has spent much of his life testing the literary boundaries. And it’s become a Vonnegut axiom that writing rules apply only to the extent that they strengthen the effect of the final piece. “You want to involve the reader,” he says. “For example, Mother Night was a first-person confessional-the narrator ruined his life and he needn’t have. But there’s no way you can put together a manual about when to use first person and when to use third person.

“James Joyce broke all the rules. He’s a writer like no other, and he got away with it. You have to get away with it. When I was teaching, if I gave a basic rule, it was ‘whatever works, works.’ I experiment, and my waste baskets are always very full of failed experiments,” he says. “Can I get away with this? No. The trick is getting the reader to buy it.”

It’s fairly safe to assume that readers do indeed “buy it.” Among his numerous honors and awards, Vonnegut has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, served as the vice president for the PEN American Center and lectured in creative writing at Harvard University and the University of Iowa.

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