A Review of Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell’s “Pity the Reader”
Art for Art’s Sake (Part II)
One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from Kurt Vonnegut. I forget where I read it — perhaps a book of writerly advice in the form of letters to other writers — but it has stuck with me. It goes something like this: Don’t wait until page 17 or your story or novel to divulge an important detail, do it right up front on page 1. That bit has stayed with me, as I don’t know how many novels I’ve read that breaks that rule, much to my frustration. While Vonnegut was clearly a writer of the 20th century, some things of his have staying power. He much wasn’t one for fancy writing, or writing that was hard to read for the sake of making the author look intelligent and the work said author has produced as being important. Vonnegut was, it seems, a pretty down-to-earth writer and person. We need that more than ever.
While it has been more than a decade since Vonnegut passed on to the life beyond this life, people still want to read him — or publishers think so. I recall reading and reviewing a set of his complete short stories bound into one volume a couple of years back. Other posthumous collections have come and gone, and, now, we get a collection of his writing advice to other writers co-authored by one of his former students, Suzanne McConnell, who was taught writing by Vonnegut in an MFA program in Iowa in the mid-‘60s. Pulled from novels, drafts, speeches, interviews and more, Pity the Reader is a compendium of no-fuss advice put together into 37 different chapters — a feat that took four years to complete.
Some of the advice is sage — though I do think that this is really a collection of advice for writers who want to become the next Vonnegut. McConnell offers emphasis on the stylistic tics of Vonnegut, such as how he used sound as language. However, there is still some advice that shines through for every writer, such as writing about something you care about, getting a full-time job that pays for your writing habits until you become rich and famous (or not), and building a community of other like-minded writers who can comfort you in the lean times. Much is made of writing as a solitary art, and much is made of the need to get exercise — whenever you can fit it into your writing schedule.
Overall, this is a good and well-needed book, though it’s not without problems. Because Vonnegut is no longer here to speak for himself, McConnell steps in to offer asides and vignettes of her days as a student, which is sometimes illuminating (when talking about Vonnegut’s sexism) and sometimes not. While McConnell was given a 60–40 split between Vonnegut’s words and her own, she becomes too much of a character in this book, and it comes off as mere cheerleading — as in, “look at how big of a Vonnegut fan I am, and, oh, he was my friend, too!” I cared more about the passages about Vonnegut and less so about the passages about her own upbringing. Your mileage may vary.
Aside from that, Pity the Reader is a not-bad, OK book. It does borrow liberally from Vonnegut’s published fiction which will either make you want to go out and read it (again), or annoy you for being something you’re already familiar with. I did feel that McConnell might have been taking some of Vonnegut’s words out of context, but, once again, he’s no longer around to defend himself, so take all of this with a massive grain of salt. It’s probably as good of a book that could be written, considering that we no longer have the primar author present to actually write the book himself. (And there’s the argument that if he really wanted this type of book written, he would have done so himself while he was still alive.) McConnell is hardly an objective person to write this book, given her close proximity to the author, so expect some of that old fashioned cheerleading, but if you can get past that, you might find an insight or two worth gleaning about the writer’s craft. Vonnegut was full of good advice; it’s now collected and presented in book form for any writer — veteran or novice — to digest, for good or ill.
Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell’s Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style was published by Seven Stories Press on November 5, 2019.
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