Vonnegut, Fanboyism and Just Enough “Literatureness” to Count

In a recent blog piece in which I confessed my enjoyment of totally schlocky detective novels, I wrote:

Those who can go from reading Roland Barthes to John Barth to The Song of Roland without a stop in between for an unauthorized history of You Can’t Do That on Television will always have my admiration. At some point, though, I need to read about people punching each other or an heiress’ one fatal mistake with a phial of digitalis. I’ve tried to keep my junktime reading respectable. Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis both wrote hysterical and light literature. Vonnegut works as a palate cleanser.

This prompted a reader to write in, asking if I was labeling Vonnegut as genre fiction. I wasn’t; I actually meant to say that he was definitely a “literary” author “without any of the density that makes literary books less than breezy” and with a textual and topical complexity that “hit right at about the 8th-grade reading level and [stays] there.”

However, since I was already there talking, I went on:

Vonnegut seems to be the one literary author that people who almost exclusively read sci-fi/fantasy will actually enjoy. It’s not just a genre-based thing, either, since fantasy fans embrace him just as fervently [as the sci-fi fans]. I suspect it’s because, again, Vonnegut books keep the linguistic challenge safely at the middle-school level but also makes unambiguous declarations about what each book means, while making sure that ideas in them are held to a minimum and then repeated early and often. Vonnegut falls right in that sweet spot of having the allure of sophistication while spoon-feeding relatively simple ideas to people disproportionately proud of themselves for thinking about them. The guy whose library looks like it’s made out of GENRE STUFF+VONNEGUT probably also has a copy of Bill Maher’s New Rules and a Myspace he stopped updating three years ago that’s still wallpapered over with quotes from Bill Hicks records.

This is not to suggest that I think liking Vonnegut is stupid. His books are respectable and vibrantly humane. Yet they’re also fairly self-evident, exceedingly patient in explaining and re-explaining their self-evident epiphanies and contemptuous of established authorities and any sorts of revealed truths that take a while to uncover and hone. In short, they guarantee for a reader the complete inability to fail to “get it,” while offering the securely swaddling self-affirmation of thematic truths the reader has probably already discovered himself, delivered to him by a warm authority figure who simultaneously derides all the other authorities that have challenged him, questioned him, demanded standards to be met and chores executed.

Which is too bad, because Vonnegut’s pretty great, but as the years pass he’s started to signify less about himself and his ideas than about his fans. Much like how Brave New World is usually the only Huxley book anyone under 20 has ever heard of (excepting Doors fans) and almost always signals that some inchoate adolescent tirade about media or drug policy is about to follow, the conspicuous stack of Vonnegut novels tends to say something about a very circumscribed worldview. After a certain age the adoption of Vonnegut as one’s sole foray outside of space and swords and orcs — which is by no means a rare or unique condition — is like a bike with training wheels on it. There’s nothing expressly wrong with its condition until you see the age and experience of the rider.