Another thought on Vonnegut

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Rothman, told me to “write what you know.” It’s an old rule of thumb for writing fiction. For today’s novelists, the rule seems to be more “write what you don’t know, but make sure you do two or so years of exhaustive research on it first.”

I’ve read a lot of novels in recent years that I really enjoyed but impressed me more with the depth of their research than their artistry. Kavalier and Clay. Carter Beats the Devil. The Plot Against America. They’re research lit, clearly written by authors terrified of getting a single detail wrong about the birth of the comics industry or the golden age of magic or the cryptofascist American antiwar movement before World War II.

Kurt Vonnegut didn’t do any of that. He sat down, thought a bunch of stuff up and combined it with “what he knew,” such as surviving the firebombing of Dresden as a POW, or working soulless, unsatisfying jobs in an industrial Upstate New York burg, or struggling as a high-concept science-fiction writer. And it made his writing so much richer, more exhilarating and more fun than even 10 years of research ever could. Truth wasn’t stranger than fiction when Vonnegut was writing the fiction.

I wish we had more writers like that today. Historical exactitude has its place, but I’ll take whimsy.

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