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February 7, 2011 in Metafiction | Tags: anti-war fiction, audio books, clpreadathon11, kurt vonnegut, literary criticism, Margaret Atwood, Metafiction, novel, novels, postaweek2011, writing | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | 1 comment
Swoopers write “higgledy piggledy” and write a first draft as quickly as possible, and then go back and “painstakingly” fix everything that’s wrong. Bashers, on the other hand, write very slowly and work on each sentence until it’s perfect. “And when they’re done, they’re done,” says Vonnegut.
Now, as I stated in my introduction post to this series of posts about books I’m reading for my public library’s Read-a-Thon, the version of Timequake that I read was an abridged audio book. I make that disclaimer because whenever I read an abridged audio book (sometimes unabridged just aren’t available and I still use cassettes, so that makes them an even rarer breed) I’m terrified I will miss something important. So, in advance, I apologize if I miss something important. Blame the abridgment.
It’s interesting enough to think about the way we write and whether or not it can be more or less split down the gender line (if you’re a writer and you’re reading this, leave a comment and let me know which group you fall more into process-wise and maybe we can do an informal poll), but Vonnegut takes it a step further.
It was not entirely clear to me whether he meant “swoopers” or “women” when he said the following, but as he lumps them together I suppose we can assume he means both. He says that swoopers/women writers are happy to write about and record the lives of people who are “funny, tragic, whatever” without thinking about “why or even how they’re alive in the first place.”
Bashers/men on the other hand, chip away and break down the doors of what it means to be human and the nature of existence. Vonnegut then proceeds to tell an anecdote about World War II, in which he fought. Or as he calls it, “my war and Kilgore Trout’s war” (Kilgore Trout being Vonnegut’s fictional alter ego who appears in many of his novels). The anecdote, which shows us a former Nazi official who is dying, is meant to drive home the point that Vonnegut is a basher.
(I wish I could tell you exactly what the officer said to Vonnegut, but I don’t remember and the trouble with audio books is you can’t flip back and find what you’re looking for!)
Right in the beginning of the novel, Vonnegut tells us he’s been working on a novel called Timequake, but it didn’t work, and instead he wrote the novel we’re reading now. He refers to the failed version as Timequake One, and mentions it frequently, telling us what happened in the original draft. The fact that he abandoned a novel and entirely re-wrote it as a hybrid novel/memoir means that, in essence, his “bashing” did not work. His process failed (as the writing process is often wont to do). He may have struggled and sweated over every sentence, but in the end he had to go back to ground zero and start from scratch.
Granted, that doesn’t necessarily mean he got lost in swooper territory, and yes, sometimes stories and novels just don’t work. Because he does keep parts of Timequake One in the final, published version of Timequake, I will argue that he probably did have to “painstakingly” fix what was wrong, throw out what didn’t work and re-work what he wanted to keep to make it fit the new novel.
So, can anyone really be solely a swooper or solely a basher? Kurt Vonnegut, who claims to be a basher, shows us that sometimes it doesn’t always work to write that way, so based on that evidence, I have to go with “No”.
I will give him one thing, though: Vonnegut certainly chips away at the meaning of what it is to be human and the nature of existence. (But does that mean women writers can’t? No way! Margaret Atwood, is, I think, a prime example of a woman writer who does something similar to Vonnegut in her appraisal and exploration of human nature — but that’s another argument altogether.)
During the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s 2011 Winter Read-a-Thon, Jan. 8 – Feb. 19, I will be blogging about the books I read. For more information, to see a list of books I’m reading, and to make a pledge, go here.
- Hours read as of 2/6: 33.5
- Funds raised as of 2/6: $160.75
December 17, 2009 in Administrative, Metafiction, Metanonfiction | Tags: fiction, literary criticism, Margaret Atwood, Metafiction, novels, short stories, Tim O'Brien | by Kelly Lynn Thomas | Comments closed
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and sometimes fiction is truer than truth. And sometimes, in order to tell a story the right way, you need to let the story know it’s a story.
Metafiction allows the reader to pull back the curtain on the author and see the nuts and bolts of the story laid bare. And there are times that seeing how the fiction works makes it all the more true, such as in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
O’Brien inserts himself into the story as a character, and proceeds to continually remind the reader that none of this happened, but all of it is true. He creates tension between Author-O’Brien, who wrote a book as a Vietnam War Vet, and Character-O’Brien, who is trying to write a book about being a Vietnam War Vet.
Seeing Character-O’Brien struggle to tell a coherent story—seeing how the story is put together and taken apart—makes the book all the more powerful. It forces us to see events from several different perspectives, and it forces us to think about the difference between truth, reality and fiction. And then it asks us to decide what is more important: truth or reality?
In Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings,” she tells several versions of a story about Mary and John. The structure draws attention to the way writers write short stories and the way readers read them. She starts off with scenario A, then moves on to scenario B, then C, etc. We know next to nothing about this couple, only that Atwood can’t seem to find the right ending to fit their story. At the end, she simply states:
“So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it’s the hardest to do anything with.
“That’s about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.
“Now try How and Why.”
This story forces us to look at structure, plot and motivation. Here we have a plot in front of us, but we find it’s actually not very interesting. So we learn—we literally see in front of us—that without the “how” and “why” the story is meaningless. Not only that, but it asks us why we read.
So why do we read?
We read to be entertained, to learn more about the world around us, to relax. But more than that, we read to learn more about ourselves—even if we don’t realize that is what we are doing. And when we read fiction that knows it’s fiction, we not only are forced to think more deeply about the text itself, but about ourselves as readers.