I just had the best evening drinking wine and eating licorice while reading Cat’s Cradle. Kurt Vonnegut is damned fine company (I’m gonna refer to him in the present tense because being a great author makes you immortal). The way he takes care of his audience is what makes reading every sentence he writes such a pleasure. It reminds me of all the capable authors I’ve read whose stories just don’t grab me because they fail take Vonnegut’s most simple writing advice: “pity the readers.” Storytelling is not all about the author; it’s about the audience. You can have the greatest story in the world but if you don’t tell it in a way that fully engages the minds and hearts of your readers, it’s not going to work.
I think pitying the readers is the attitude that makes a writer great and not just good. Many people have the ideas, skill, and dedication necessary to write, but putting on a tight show for a bunch of strangers is an art-form in itself. Authors are in the entertainment business, asking for people’s limited dollars and hours of life. The writing has to be as good as they can make it. As Vonnegut says, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
In Vonnegut’s fiction, his attitude translates into super-sharp and precise descriptions that do a massive amount of work in a short time and space. There’s no flowery prose and no dancing around what he wants to say; he just knows how to choose the right words to give you an insight about the character, the narrator, and often even universal truths about being human.
Here’s a few of his lines I love for their multi-level awesomeness.
“All right – I’ll tell you what you did for me: you went for happy, silly, beautiful walks with me.”
“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”
“And we all vied, in saving face, to be the greatest student of human nature, the person with the quickest sense of humor.”
“She hated people who thought too much. At that moment, she struck me as an appropriate representative for all mankind. The fat woman’s expression implied that she would go crazy on the spot if anybody did any more thinking.”
“Ms Pefko wasn’t used to chatting with someone as important as Dr Breed and she was embarrassed. Her gait was affected, becoming stiff and chickenlike. Her smile was glassy, and she was ransacking her mind for something to say, finding nothing in it but used Kleenex and costume jewellery.”
“I have this disease late at night sometimes, involving alcohol and the telephone.”
“She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies.”