The Vonnegut Effect

The Vonnegut Effect

The Vonnegut Effect

The Vonnegut Effect

Synopsis

Kurt Vonnegut is one of the few American writers since Mark Twain to have won and sustained a great popular acceptance while boldly introducing new themes and forms on the literary cutting edge. This is the Vonnegut effect that Jerome Klinkowitz finds unique among postmodern authors. forces in American life that have made Vonnegut's works possible - some would say necessary. Born in 1922 and still writing trenchantly more than 80 years later, Vonnegut shares with readers a world that includes the Great Depression, during which his family lost their economic support; the Second World War, in which he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and experienced the firebombing of Dresden; the corporate surge of postwar America, which he abetted as a publicist for General Electric's Research Laboratory, where Progress Is Our Most Important Product; the entrepreneurship of the 1950s, which he participated in when he ran a Saab automobile dealership and operated a short-story business, selling to the era's family magazines; and the counter-cultural revolt of the 1960s, during which his fiction first gained prominence. Vonnegut also takes us through the growth in recent decades of America's sway in art, which his fiction celebrates, and geopolitics, which his novels question. Klinkowitz offers The Vonnegut Effect as a thorough treatment of the author's fiction - a canon covering more than a half century and compromising 20 books. Considering both Vonnegut's methods and the cultural needs they have served, Klinkowitz explains how those works came to be written and concludes with an assessment of the author's place in the tradition of American fiction.

Excerpt

The vonnegut effect is a chronological investigation of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing as reflected by the social and critical contexts in which it has developed. the “effect” of his work has been unique in that he is the single American author to have won and sustained a great popular acceptance while embracing the more radical forms and themes of postmodern literature. Postmodernism, with its challenge to narrative authority, exposure of previously unquestioned assumptions, and rejection of traditional fiction’s conventions (including the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief), has certainly expressed the tenor of recent times. But novelists in the postmodern mode, such as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Ishmael Reed, and Ronald Sukenick, have for the most part found their most loyal audiences among academics, theorists, and critics. Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction is highly regarded in these quarters as well but is especially noteworthy because of its popularity with general readers. Studying its effect, then, involves watching his innovations emerge from the very heart of his era’s culture and noting how that culture has in turn accepted such work as a reliable index of its social and aesthetic values.

How Kurt Vonnegut’s writing achieves its effect can be measured by examining how his themes and techniques stay a close but crucial step ahead of issues developing in American culture during the half century in which he has been publishing. At a time when highbrow tastes were favoring a harshly satiric acidity and lowbrow inclinations tended toward sentimentality, Vonnegut’s work found ways to include both, one feature not so much balancing the other as showing how both attitudes were just that: perspectives that could be adjusted at will. Overriding the variable matters of taste were more enduring qualities of simple human decency, understanding, and compassion. As human traits, they attracted readers; but as tested against the challenges of modern life and shown to be ultimately bankable in a world where so much else had been devalued, these characteristics helped make Kurt Vonnegut the type of writer to which readers returned again and again, attracting new generations along the way.

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