Thursday, January 31, 2008

Vonnegut on what a writer should write

...what bothers me about people and critics is how they start raking over the past works of such people as [Tennessee] Williams and Salinger, works that set trends in literarature and influenced people, such as myself, and now question their worth. The function of an artist is to respond to his own time. Voltaire, Swift and Mark Twain did it.
Kurt Vonnegut

I don't wholly agree with Vonnegut on this - if I did, after all, this blog entry would be impossible, given that I'm raking over the works of a now dead writer. I do get his point to an extent, though. In folk music, there is the mirror to Vonnegut's point, with an obsession with going back to the source, uncovering the originals. For those of the folk revival in the 50s and 60s, they are going back to old field recordings from the 20s and 30s. This is the authentic traditional music, they say, and they encourage the new generation of musicians to use not them - the folk revivalists - as their inspiration, but these original singers and musicians who informed their generation. This is quite, quite wrong. If you could have gone back to the 20s and 30s, all those original source singers and musicians would no doubt say exactly the same thing - traditional music isn't what it was, it's being adulterated with all this modern music, it was much better in my grandfather's day, in the 1890s. And so on, back through the ages. To try to preserve what was is to ossify the tradition. It dies. Every generation must take as its inspiration whatever it chooses, and make of it what it will.

The same with writing. Every generation must take its inspiration from wherever it sees fit. In my case, Mr V. would be high on the list. But a constant harping back to previous generations doesn't particularly help, whether that be to laud it, as with the folk musicians, or to criticise it, as Vonnegut suggests with critics of literature. Yes, by all means re-interpret, because each generation understands things differently, and literature looks different according to the context and the times in which it is read. But, really, would it not be beneficial if writers took Vonnegut's advice and concentrated on a response to the times in which they are living.

That may sound odd coming from someone whose writing currently heavily features Rousseau and Nietzsche, but I think I am doing what Vonnegut says: I am writing about them from the viewpoint of 2008, of a fractured world, of a society that should be happy because it is as affluent, settled, comfortable as it has ever been, but is still, somehow, deeply dissatisfied. Disconnection, you see, the subject I keep returning to. Mr V. as one of my influences, will inform that work; indeed, I'm toying with the idea of allowing Kilgore Trout a walk-on part in it. But the disconnection I aim to discuss is mine, is 2008's, not that of Rousseau or Nietzsche, or of Vonnegut and Vietnam.

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