The Vonnegut Challenge

vonnegut modified

At the writing community Fictionaut, Ramon Collins started in interesting debate on an old issue, a challenge for the modern writer thrown out by Kurt Vonnegut, which got me thinking about the role of technology in writing today:

In “How Literature Saved My Life,” David Shields paraphrases Kurt Vonnegut: contemporary writers who leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorian writers misrepresented life by leaving out sex.”

If you were hoping for an article on sex in Victorian times, you’ll be disappointed. Read Henry James’ first ever novel, “Watch and Ward” instead, or pick up some D. H. Lawrence for juicy details on how to undermine puritanism.

Back to Vonnegut’s challenge. In a writing group a while back we would meet, chat and then spend the evening writing flashes which we’d read to each other and critique on the fly. Once, a young writer who might have been driven by Vonnegut’s devils, challenged us to incorporate technology into our stories for that day. We groaned. Technology made us yawn, a little like the request “put a fridge in your story”, but we did it. Interestingly, the technology, though it was now present in all the stories I remember, took a back seat.

This was contrary to what I had expected: I’d feared it would take over. I learnt something about strong storytelling that day (all the group members were strong story tellers) and I somewhat lost my own fear of mentioning technology in non-sci-fi stories. I still feel reluctant to engage with it because I do feel, rightly or wrongly, that too often it acts as a placeholder for more traditional narrative elements, which means the story as a narrative is weaker: an iPhone suggests tardy trendiness, home cinema suggests couch potato or movie buff, a talking refrigerator suggests high-tech urbanity etc. but each of these artefacts cheapens the character and axes character building. The story I wrote that evening was later published (as part of a trilogy) in Wilderness House Review (and nominated for a Pushcart in 2011). See if you can even spot the technology in this flash… – it will be published in my new collection “Thank You For Your Sperm“.

There’s a life altering quality to electronic consumer technology in particular that is quite unparalleled in history, at least with regard to its global touch and culture-unifying quality and the way that it pervades our communication. Invention of the letter, the telephone, the bicycle were on a similar scale, pulling people in because they made them active (rather than passive) consumers. In the Fictionaut discussion, Seattle writer Matt Robinson expressed it thus: “How to convey it in an engaging, meaningful way without simply mimicking it?” — one might say ‘how to give technology a voice of its own”, almost like a character.

Technology is often depicted as the devil of modern civilisation—the dark side of technology, with its often depressing, dangerous consequences  more easily adopted by literature—perhaps because negative headlines command so much more…what? Urgency? Think about global warming as a narrative, or about the threat of nuclear war. As someone who spent his childhood in West Germany under the shadow of the iron curtain and its imminent threat of nuclear extinction, I resonate with the need to grasp these dangers…but I’m also now much more aware of the mythological properties of these things: they’re placeholders, too, not just a bundle of scientific, political or military facts. To write about them as if they weren’t (as journalists do) is missing an important point.

This reminds me of the feud between H. G. Wells, the very political writer of action-driven grand human designs (and also consummate storyteller) and Henry James, who consciously stayed away from any contemporary dialogue, political crisis or technological excitement (of which there were many in his day, his grownup life having unfolded between the Civil War and WW I) and was heavily criticized by Wells for that. Interestingly not by G. B. Shaw, a writer no less political than Wells (rather more so). Shaw saw more clearly, I speculate, that the deepest commentary on humanity is not to be had by commenting on the action of man but by exploring character and setting characters against one another. To complete this quartet, another thinker and writer comes to mind, Bertrand Russell, who followed yet another path in writing his most influential English non-fiction series specifically targeting topics of the day: modern marriage, religion, philosophy, history…when all these things still meant something, before the great wars and the Holocaust melded them into one thing that’s very hard to describe and do justice to. These are four radically different (European) approaches to the Vonnegut challenge.

The general, abstract conflict we feel about technology may be interesting for non-fiction writers, but to turn a solid pot of fiction from the clay of life, someone, a fictional character, needs to be conflicted about technology, the use, the lack or the price of it. The conflict felt by this character must affect relationships with other people and cast a scenic shadow which makes us dream. And it must do it at a deeper level, touching values that are bigger than any one or any thing, the stuff of love, life, death and evil. These values are untouched by technology: they were there before we had technology and they will be there long after we’ve integrated phones into our ear lobes and cameras into our eye sockets.

Technology and other contemporary predilections are mere vessels that can be, and have been, swapped for others in the past. That’s why technology, I believe, just like particular sexual practices, attitudes or habits, culturally defined forms of sexuality (or religion, to name another contentious topic, or gender politics etc), is dispensable when writing quality fiction. When these topics, these human artefacts, are given too much weight, they distract from (at best), or destroy (at worst) the fictional dream. I exempt genre writing (most notably science-fiction) and hack writing because obviously they follow different laws.

Put differently, explicit renderings of technology or sexuality, just like explicit accounts of other cultural phenomena, are background, not even necessary to establish what we value most about stories: the entanglements of human lives, their struggles against nature, their suffering and perseverance in the face of certain death. It matters little if this death comes in the shape of a poisoned apple or an atomic missile, just as love and relationship do not depend on sexual technique (though it may help or hinder). We don’t notice the absence of today’s technology or the presence of yesterday’s when we plow through Shakespeare, when we weep with Henry James or when we laugh, bitterly, with Vonnegut.


Notes:  Published at Yareah Magazine on the eve of the 6th return of Kurt Vonnegut’s death-day—check the discussion there, it rocks; Fictionaut debate started by Ramon CollinsDavid ShieldsWatch and Ward by Henry James; my review of “First Love” by D. H. Lawrence; Seattle writer Matt Robinson. Image: based on a photo of Kurt Vonnegut.

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