In Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield’s character Thornton Melon is assigned a paper on Kurt Vonnegut’s novels. Melon shirks responsibility and instead pays Vonnegut himself to write the essay. Unfortunately, the paper earns an F for the obvious forgery and the following critique from Melon’s professor: “Whoever did write this doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.”
And perhaps Professor Turner is right. After all, Vonnegut didn’t even know he was a science fiction writer until reviewers got hold of his first novel, Player Piano. Two decades (and several novels) later, Vonnegut cheekily admitted, “I didn’t know that [it was science fiction]. I supposed that I was writing a novel about life.”
Vonnegut may have been a bit perplexed by his initial inclusion in the science fiction writers “lodge,” but he certainly belongs there. (I’ll try not to dwell on this particular point, as Ryan Britt has already made a strong case for Vonnegut’s status as a sort of ambassador between genre and mainstream fiction.) After Player Piano, he often dove headfirst into the more obvious elements of science fiction (flying saucers, time travel, the weaponized ice-9, a pandemic that eradicates most of the human race, etc), all in the service of crafting compelling tales about life and humanity.
In a 1973 interview for Playboy, Vonnegut explains his particular brand of hyperbolic science fiction:
“When Shakespeare figured the audience had had enough of the heavy stuff, he’d let up a little, bring in a clown or a foolish innkeeper or something like that, before he’d become serious again. And trips to other planets, science fiction of an obviously kidding sort, is equivalent to bringing in the clowns every so often to lighten things up.”
Despite the oblique comparison to Shakespeare, Vonnegut is misleadingly dismissive of the sci-fi elements in his writing. Such blunt use of over-the-top clichés is more than a fluffy distraction from the main event—it is a way to engage with stories and themes that are difficult to approach otherwise. As he says elsewhere in the same interview, it was impossible to write Slaughterhouse-Five realistically because “there was a complete blank where the bombing of Dresden took place, because I don’t remember. […] the center had been pulled right out of the story.” Filling the gaps with alien zoos and uncontrolled time travel is what allows the story—about the unreal and often incomprehensible consequences of war—to be made complete. In Vonnegut’s hands, the trappings of science fiction may be overtly silly and comedic, but he uses them to create a framework for seemingly impossible narratives.
Although Vonnegut often resisted his inclusion in the science-fiction club, he did immodestly include himself in the last generation of great American novelists (generally labeled “postmodernists”), bound together by this tendency to write about unreal and incomprehensible ideas in unusual styles. He knew there would be more novelists, of course, and some of them great, but he feared that never again would so many untested young authors hone their craft together, as a community. Part of this was rooted in economic changes to the publishing industry, but there was another threat to the novelist’s place in society: censorship. In a 1979 letter to Soviet writer Felix Kuznetzov, Vonnegut laments that writers everywhere “are routinely attacked by fellow citizens as being pornographers or corrupters of children and celebrators of violence and persons of no talent and so on. In my own case, such charges are brought against my works several times a year.”
Since its publication in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five has been banned in several communities across the U.S., and challenged over 350 times for its sexual content, violence, obscenity, and “anti-religious” language. Perhaps most famously, 32 copies of the novel were burned in a Drake, ND school district in 1973. Later that year, Vonnegut wrote to Drake Public School Board President Charles McCarthy to express his anger and dismay at the school board’s actions, and to challenge the labeling of his work as “offensive.”
In the letter (which is printed in full in Palm Sunday, and available online at Letters of Note), Vonnegut defends his books, explaining that they “are not sexy, and do not promote wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are.” As many of the other articles this week have pointed out, the reasons given for banning any particular book are often superficial; the coarse language and violence in Slaughterhouse-Five is realistic to the setting, and Billy’s relationship with Montana Wildhack is almost more clinical than titillating (they are on display in a zoo, after all).
Vonnegut’s real offense is in promoting the radical idea that all war—even the often-romanticized Allies vs. Axis version—is vile and idiotic and inhumane. He perhaps hits the nail on the head too closely in the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five when he writes, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again.” Yet here he was, giving voice to the dead, and breaking a sort of taboo of silence. He must have known that there would be resistence—people are not often happy to have their comfortable illusions challenged—but perhaps the outright banning took him by surprise.
Luckily there was one place where Vonnegut’s work was always welcome. He may not have fully appreciated his placement in the “science fiction file drawer,” but he recognized in it a community that celebrates new and sometimes wild ideas, and that doesn’t mind a little profanity or tastelessness mixed in. Of science fiction publishers, Vonnegut once wrote: “They feel it is their duty to encourage any writer, no matter how frightful, who has guts enough to include technology in the human equation.” Well, hopefully not too frightful.