A “New Vonnegut” Would Be Great for Labor…If We Could Get More Laborers Back Into Literary Reading
It’s Labor Day as I write this. As any writer can attest, there really is no day off. We’re always thinking about the next story, the next poem. We’re always asking our characters what they should do next or just living with a problem in our heads, hoping a solution makes itself apparent.
The overwhelming majority of writers have “real” jobs, too. Did you read my recent cry from the heart? I’m trying to help writers help themselves by expanding the tent and inviting in the readers of “literary” fiction that we’ve alienated over the past few decades with our increasing insularity and rejection of entertainment as a priority in literary work.
Did you see Matthew Gannon and Wilson Taylor’s 2013 piece for Jacobin that was recently picked up by Salon? The authors provide us with an excellent history of Labor Day and engage in a powerful analysis of the work of a writer who is indeed a working-class hero: Kurt Vonnegut. Gannon and Taylor are indeed inspiring:
Literature is not – and cannot – be the only force in this fight for economic justice, but its potential contributions should not be understated. Vonnegut is such a potent example of this literary-labor nexus because of his immense popularity. Readers treasured Vonnegut’s literary imagination not just for his stance on politics and economics, but his masterful storytelling, his inimitable wit, and his humanistic compassion. Binding these literary qualities together with his political outlook makes him relevant more than ever today.
I’m beyond depressed to report that the authors are forgetting one crucial oversight. Yes, Vonnegut is one of the titans of twentieth-century American literature. His books exemplify my personal aesthetic (and that of Great Writers Steal Press) because they are entertaining and meaningful, in that order. While eleventh-grade English teachers have been assigning Vonnegut for decades, reading the man is not homework. He shares new ideas and plays with language and appeals to the child and adult inside us all at the same time.
I’m sure it’s fair to say that many non-writers are reading Vonnegut because of sheer cultural momentum, but he surely holds a smaller share of the proverbial “men and women on the bus” than he did in the sixties or seventies. There are fantastic “literary writers” today who address labor issues and the like in an interesting and accessible fashion–T.C. Boyle comes to mind.
The great problem is that literature can not have a powerful effect on a populace when few are reading it. Tattoo this backwards on your forehead so you don’t forget:
- A quarter of Americans get through a whole year without reading a single book.
- A decreasing number of young people are reading for pleasure. Even worse, young people and adults share a decreasing ability to comprehend what they do read.
- Many people say they do not have time to read, yet the average American watches five hours of TV each day.
- There’s a “reading gap” between the sexes: women read far more than men do. Further, men are less likely than women to read fiction.
We have lost a significant of those people we are hoping to entertain and motivate. We need to get them back by emphasizing Vonnegut and those like him who are still alive.
Ask yourself some very important questions:
Were Today’s Vonnegut twenty-three years old right now, would his early work get him into an MFA program?
Would Today’s Vonnegut receive equal respect from science fiction readers and literary readers?
Would Today’s Vonnegut be able to get a teaching position, an agent or a book contract for his books, ones that seldom feature the voices of women or people of color and surely would catch the ire of cultural pedants for “retrograde” social attitudes?
If Slaughterhouse-Five were released today, would it make a sound?
Gannon and Taylor’s piece is very well-written and I liked it a great deal, but this essay of my own is an attempt to take their discussion one step further: how do literary readers reclaim the blue-collar reader so we can have some of the same cultural effect Vonnegut did in decades past?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that we’ll never solve the problem if we don’t acknowledge it exists.
I am certainly no Kurt Vonnegut and neither is my pal Curtis Bradley Vickers. We are both united, however, in our desire to bring literary work back to the masses. Consider visiting readingisnothomework.wordpress.com and letting us know if we’re on the right track. Pick up one of our eBooks. Stories cost one-third as much as a cup of coffee. My chapbook still costs less than a large iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. (And it will stay with you longer.)