Vonnegut Postscript

A never-before-published Kurt Vonnegut story appeared in the Los Angeles Times on October 18. As the LA Times’ “Jacket Copy” blog explains:   

Look at the Birdie” is the title story of the collection to be released next week, two and a half years after his death.

The same post treats readers to a reprint of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 review of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five with this self-revealing verdict:

Which is not to say it is anywhere near “The Naked and the Dead” or “From Here to Eternity.” Vonnegut fights his wars with feathers rather than with jackhammers. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is funny, satirical, compelling, outrageous, fanciful, mordant, fecund and at the bottom-line, simply stoned-out-of-its-mind.

It is about Billy Pilgrim who travels to the planet Tralfamadore in a flying saucer, but no tilted-nose critic would cop to Vonnegut’s being a science-fiction writer: “It’s too good to be science-fiction,” they would say. But Vonnegut doesn’t care, and you won’t care, either, because this is a writer who leaps over genres.

No doubt as he typed these words Ellison seethed with frustration because the literary establishment was refusing to recognize that he, too, the author of ingenious satirical fables like “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, was a writer able to leap over genres.

A few years later Ellison tried to force the issue when he turned his guest-of-honor speech at the 1975 NASFiC into an I’m-quitting-sf announcement. He made the point often at other times and places down the years without ever persuading fandom to loosen its coils, until the message became part of the black humor of the genre.

Eventually Ellison himself participated in the joke. When Coraline was up for a Nebula, Ellison promised that if it won he’d read the acceptance speech Gaiman had written. It did win. And in those remarks Gaiman played with the illusion that this promise gave him the power to make Ellison say literally anything he’d written:

I could write down the words “I, Harlan Ellison, am actually a science fiction writer” in my awards speech, and he’d have to say them. I wouldn’t actually do any of this, though, because Harlan’s revenge would be swift in coming and incredibly funny whenever he told people about it. Well, incredibly funny for everyone except me, anyway.

4 thoughts on “Vonnegut Postscript

  1. “No doubt as he typed these words Ellison seethed with frustration”

    I am entirely sure that Harlan has seethed with frustration about many things many times. Harlan also has, as you’ve noted, in the past at various times made many statements about resenting being put in the sf ghetto as regards critics, book store pigeonholing, and pigeonholding in general.

    Personally, I don’t blame him, given that such pigeonholing has had a dramatic and direct effect upon his sales and critical regard and so on.

    But I do feel the need to note that reading his review of Slaughterhouse Five, I don’t see any seething communicated at all.

    I’d thus say that there’s indeed “doubt” as to what Harlan was feeling “as he typed these words.”

    I don’t know how you’d know if Harlan was in a pleasant and delighted mood at the moment, thrilled by Vonnegut’s book and the opportunity to praise it, or pleased by something else, or seething, or how you could have no doubt about his mental state at any given moment that he’s not, at least, in front of you.

    This may seem picky to you, but I really think it’s a less than great idea to make assertions about anyone that are only supportable by a mindreader (and in this case, a mindreader with a vision into the past, at that). At best it’s using a lazy cliche and an assumption.

    Criticism/feedback/suggestion offered in the friendliest of spirits, admiring your journalistic skills, and only seeking to encourage you to always offer your best, mind.

  2. @Gary – If you’d posted only the last three paragraphs I’d have assumed I knew what you were driving at. However, I’m at a loss to see the qualitative journalistic difference between your opening paragraphs and what you seem to be complaining about.

  3. *sigh*

    One is minded by such sentiments of people who want to say they aren’t black, only a darker sort of beige. Aren’t those things not supposed to matter any more?

    If Harlan Ellison still wants to denounce his status as a science fiction writer, he has *my* permission for one.

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