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.