Monday, June 10, 2013

In Praise of Vonnegut, 1969

"Two messages recur through all of Vonnegut's writing. The first is Be Kind. The second is God doesn't care whether you are or not"
     C.D.B. Bryan, New York Times

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of six novels and two short-story collections, live and writes in an old house in West Barnstable on Cape Cod with his wife, six children, a sheepdog, and a tidal wave of house guests. Vonnegut is over six feet tall, a rumpled and shaggy 46 year old fourth generation German-American with a drooping mustache, a brow chevroned like a sergeant-major's sleeve, and the eyes of a sacrificial alter-bound virgin caught in mid-shrug.
  Seated, Vonnegut disappears so deeply into cushions that he resembles a courdroy covered bat-wing chair that has been dropped 2,000 feet from a passing airplane.

So begins "Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bookonist", an article Dad wrote for the New York Times Book Review in 1969, the week Slaughter House-Five hit bookstores. It follows his 1966 Vonnegut profile in The New Republic, "Kurt Vonnegut on Target", in which he wrote Vonnegut "had not received the acceptance due him from the reading public" despite being "one of the most readable and amusing of the new humorists".

Dad's articles and Robert Scholes's The Fabulators were the first critical assessments of Vonnegut that treated him seriously. Joe David Bellamy goes so far as to say they were "the essential groundbreaking efforts" in his book Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium.

More from Dad's 1969 article:

   Among Vonnegut's earlier fans were Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Marc Connelly, Jules Feiffer, Graham Greene and Terry Southern. But today whether because of, or in spite of, the fact that Vonnegut's novels are now being taught at universities, the under-30's are beginning to grant him a cultish attention which Vonnegut finds "very gratifying, it really is. It's charming." an attention that has long been overdue. And, happily, an increasing number of general readers are finding in Vonnegut's quiet, humorous, well-mannered and rational protests against man's inhumanity to man an articulate bridge across the generation chasm.

Vonnegut told Dad he deliberately keeps his books short because he wants them to be read by important people:

"I've worried some about why write books when Presidents and Senators and generals do not read them and the university experience taught me a very good reason: you catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents, and you poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world."

Dad's signed copy of Cat's Cradle

Dad's 1976 take on his New Republic Article:

     I started doing book reviews in 1963 in The New Republic and did the first big, comprehensive review on Vonnegut which resulted, according to Vonnegut, in his receiving a Guggenheim grant for $10,000 and a three book $75,000 contract with DelaCorte. I then began reviewing for the Times book review, did the front page review on Tom Wolfe's Ken Kesey book and Pump House Gang, and the second front page on Amy Vanderbilt's Etiquette ( illustrated by Edward Gorey) and about 30/40 others/

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Three Letter Man

When True Grit screenwriter Marguerite Roberts died in 1989, her husband, author and screenwriter John Sanford, wrote a series of books about their 50 year marriage. They'd both been members of the Communist Party and were both blacklisted from Hollywood for nearly a decade.

   In Maggie : A Love Story, Sanford writes about an especially poor review dad gave his 1967 novel The $300 Man in The New York Times. If anyone can understand how a bad review can haunt a writer  twenty years later, it's dad. His 1983 novel, Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes, was savaged by Alice Adams in the New York Times Book Review.

"Those reviewers!" Maggie said. "They're a sorry lot. It's a shame what they've done to a  damn good book"
"What would you say of them if they liked it?"
"They'd still be a sorry lot. If they know so much, why don't they write books themselves?"
"Reviewing's the system, and so far, there's better that we know of."
"Reviewers!" she said. "I wouldn't pull one out if he was kicking in a ditch."
"That's where they belong. Reviewers, anyway."
"Without them, I'd have to sell my books from door to door."
"The system, you call it. All right, but why does it use guys like this self-righteous what's-his-name?" She took up a clipping from a pile on the table. "C.D.B. Bryan. Who the hell is C.D.B. Bryan?"
"A three letter man. As a matter of fact, someone told me he was a stepson of John O'Hara."
"What's that supposed to be--a recommendation?"
"Maybe the book isn't as good as we think."
"Don't ever dream it! You couldn't write a bad book if you try!"
"But, baby. sometimes they turn out bad even though you try to make them good."
"Not yours, my friend. They've never been popular, but they'll never be bad."
"I wish the three-letter man agreed with you."
" I don't care a damn about that, but don't you ever agree with him."

You can find this book online.