I admit I have a love/hate relationships with writer biographies; for while I believe the creative work should stand on its own and that an artist’s personal issues should be no concern. I can understand why some might wish to know about the individual behind the creative process. Too often, however, readers rely on the biography as a means of interpreting the work (I saw it most in the case of Sylvia Plath where many teens and early twenty-somethings who frequent poetry blogs are incapable of understanding her poetry without knowing the details behind her suicide).
With age, these dramas impress me less, but given Kurt Vonnegut’s talent as a writer and the impact his work has had, I sought to review Charles J. Shields’ biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, only to come away with my initial impression about biographies to begin with. Truthfully, they’re nothing more than fodder and flourish, albeit they can be a fun read if done well. Shields reveals Vonnegut to be an extrovert, insecure at times, cranky with old age, an adulterer, thoughtful, lonely, as well as unappreciated by many of the pseudo-literary snobs in his day (despite reaching super fame and riches off his work).
Shields’ interpretation of Vonnegut’s creative work (as well as art in general) is often superficial and functionary, for the thing that critics always misinterpret about Vonnegut is actually how poetic his writing really is—not necessarily in the individual line by line sense, but when one pulls back and looks at the larger canvas. Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most famous and best work, it is also his most poetic work, (and one of the most poetic books ever published) and it employs a narrative structure that is wholly unique.
Early in his career, Vonnegut suffered his slew of story rejections, and the impression is that his early tales are mediocre. Examples of the text are not offered, and so we have to take Shields’ word on it. Too often Shields lumps Vonnegut beside writers who are inferior to him in quality, and yet this qualitative difference is never acknowledged. Richard Brautigan wrote silly little poems of no artistic value and George Starbuck is only remembered for banging Anne Sexton and beating Sylvia Plath out of the Yale poetry award—details I would not know had I never read biographies, yet Starbuck’s creative work alone is nothing worthy of remembering.
I came away learning more about Vonnegut’s failed marriages and his depression more than really knowing how the man was on the inside. Some reviewers on Amazon compared this to Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, by David Michaelis, saying how Shields’ bio was not as comprehensive as Michaelis’ biography on Charles Schulz, and I have to agree. In my review of Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography, I wrote:
“Although this biography is well researched and includes numerous amounts of pictures of Schulz from young to old, most of the text is spent discussing Schulz’s career and motives into his work rather than the minutiae of his divorce and his affair with another woman. Those issues are, of course, covered, but they are not the main focus. The only other thing I would have liked to see in this bio was more of Schulz’s early drawings. Michaelis talks about how “his laborious pencil sketches of posed models were pat and unoriginal.” While I certainly can take his word on it, I would like to have seen some of them. Sort of when one reads the life of a poet and the biographer discusses the poet’s juvenilia in this same manner, it helps if the reader can see for himself.”
Examples to illustrate the mediocrity of both artists’ early work are lacking in both biographies, but Vonnegut is by far the better artist of the two, and therefore he deserves more focus on the motives and insights behind his work, as well as the evolution that went into it, rather than just soap opera. And while one does expect to see a good deal of soap opera in anyone’s biography (let’s face it—there’s an obsession that the public has with knowing their heroes’ flaws) it should be secondary to the motives and insights behind the work itself. Shields does, however, give a good background to the story behind Slaughterhouse-Five, as well as how Vonnegut finally discovered the means to approach the subject in his novel. This is by far the best part of the biography.
Yet an interesting point Shields mentions is how in the 1950s there were about thirty literary agents, all which were men. Now, there are hundreds upon hundreds, with about eighty-five percent of those women. Had Vonnegut lived now rather than then, he would have no doubt struggled to find an agent, even with his work in top form, since his books don’t cater to the touchy-feely dumbed down MFA hackwork that literary agents favor. Vonnegut was very fortunate to have been able to live off his writing, for plenty of quality writers were unable to in their day (such as Melville and Kafka). And, of course, with fame came a sense of entitlement, best shown in Vonnegut’s various infidelities.
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life is a solid enough biography, but I advise that there’s no better way to know an artist than to examine the work itself. Kurt Vonnegut is not the cranky old man, but he is Slaughterhouse-Five, Galapagos, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Breakfast of Champions, just to name a few. Yet those recognizing the value of his work will not need convincing.
This review is based upon an advanced reader’s addition.