‘Slaughterhouse-Five II, The Unstickening’: Kindle Worlds and Kurt Vonnegut

So I discovered this… interesting fact recently. Actually, I found out before the holidays, but immediately after the discovery everything I tried to type about it turned in to capslocks and incoherence, so I set it aside for a bit. Not rage-capslock, capslock of pure bafflement. I was so baffled that under-case letters could not appropriately convey the depth of my bemusement.

They still can’t, so here’s the basic premise before I get on with it: AMAZON PURCHASED THE LICENCE TO PUBLISH YOUR ‘KURT VONNEGUT FAN FICTION’ (???).

So, that’s a thing that happened.

vonnegutOne of these things is not like the others.

Now, I discovered this fairly recently when Kindle Worlds was brought up in a class in which we were talking about copyright. It was something I’d heard about, because a love of science fiction/fantasy means overlap with subcultures filled with adorably avid fans, and I originally ran across an article about it at The Mary Sue, but hadn’t actually thought about it since. So, when it came up in class I looked into it. Well, Kindle Worlds was announced in May and is now is up and running. The premise of Kindle Worlds is that Amazon has procured a set of licences to publish self-submitted work, widely being called ‘fan fiction’ in the context,  set in the designated worlds; Alloy Entertainment; a book-packaging, multimedia group that managed teen lit like The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl; Valiant Entertainment, a comic publisher that died in 2004 and was revived a year later; and a collection of independent authors who have bought in. You write your Pretty Little Liars story and submit it; if Kindle Worlds approves it, they make it available as an ebook through Amazon for a couple dollars. You get some money, Amazon gets some money, and the rights’ holders get some money. ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut’ was added Kindle Worlds in August.

Science-fiction author John Scalzi had a good rundown of his immediate reaction that touches on the general points of the setup, for those interested. In particular he points out that: “… there’s probably a technical argument here about whether this is precisely ‘fan fiction’ or if it’s actually media tie-in writing done with intentionally low bars to participation (the true answer, I suspect, is that it’s both).” I’m coming back to this, since I think it’s a reasonable distinction to make for the ‘World of Kurt Vonnegut,’ at least.

The thing is, I’m not anti Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction, but the monetization aspect weirds me out and also the content guidelines. My particular favourites are definitely the first two:

  1. Pornography: We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.
  2. Offensive Content: We don’t accept offensive content, including but not limited to racial slurs, excessively graphic or violent material, or excessive use of foul language.

Sorry, who’s deciding what’s offensive content? Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been contested constantly since its release by those who found it full of offensive material. It was pulled from a school library as recently as 2011. This is the man who gave readers “an idea of the maturity of [his] illustrations” in Breakfast of Champions with a sketch of an asshole (consider yourself warned). What constitutes ‘excessive use of foul language’? He wrote an entire essay on obscenity in Palm Sunday: having been accused of it obscenity because of the ‘foul language’ in his books many times by reviewers, strangers, and acquaintances: “even when I was in grammar school, I suspected that warnings about words that nice people never used were in fact lessons in how to keep our mouths shut not just about our bodies, but about many, many things – perhaps too many things.” If you’re writing in Kurt Vonnegut’s world or with Kurt Vonnegut’s characters then, well, alright, writers borrow from each other all the time, but c’mon, at the very least it shouldn’t be restricted by content guidelines.

trouts tomb

Is there anyway this post can’t collapse into itself in a perceived tension between the highbrow/lowbrow? It feels weird and wrong and dangerous to license someone like Vonnegut in this way, though I freely admit that I am as bias as they come—I love Vonnegut, he is by far my favourite writer—but if you can license Gossip Girl then you can license Slaughterhouse-Five. Vonnegut is not above engagement. Alright, so obviously people can do what they want, and people have been writing fan fiction forever and it doesn’t bother me because why would it?, but then there’s the monetizing; it rubs me the wrong way that Kindle Words is actively soliciting work.

What makes Vonnegut’s work is his brilliant and utterly unique narrative voice, not his world building skills. In fact, he didn’t have world building skills. Sure, he had some reoccurring characters, but they weren’t fixed points, they were whatever they needed to be for whichever book they were in. You don’t read Kurt Vonnegut for the plot or characters, you read it for the Vonnegut. In the case of things like Gossip Girl or Vampire Diaries, they’re trying to monetize a pre-exisiting subculture of creative expression. Fan fiction has never been remotely legal, but it’s never stopped those who wanted to write it.

The thing is, Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction didn’t exist. People were not clamouring for a place to legitimize their lovingly-crafted works inspired by a favourite author. I know this because as soon as I discovered this news that you could now sell your Vonnegut fan fiction on Amazon my immediate response was “wait, what Kurt Vonnegut fan fiction.’ I found eight pieces of Vonnegut fan fiction online, excluding works where people use Vonnegut scenarios and other works characters—can’t publish those on Kindle Worlds—five of those eight are acknowledged by their authors as English assignments that they decided to post online; at least two of the others definitely could be school assignments, both being about 300-400 words and based on the same short story (Harrison Bergeron) that some of the others were; the last one is a single chapter of a piece that was abandoned in 2011.

The entire murky area of ‘is Amazon publishing fan fiction or are they publishing licensed tie-ins’ and whether that’s even a relevant question is moot in the case of Vonnegut; people are now writing stories in ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut’ because they are being actively offered a platform to sell it.

All of this newly published work smacks a little of a ‘now that I have an official platform for this where I can make money, now this is worth writing so I will sit down and write it’ mentality. Hugh Howey, a successfully self-published science-fiction author whose work is open to Kindle Worlds, was approached by someone at Amazon to write something for ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut.’ That’s freelance writing of a licensed tie-in, not fan fiction. It seems disingenuous to use the term ‘fan fiction,’ saying: “I sat down to write my first piece of fan fiction. I chose Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as this was a world newly opened for exploration…’ after having been asked to do so. Fine, that’s something that estates do from time to time—there’s many publications that have been authorized by estates or even commissioned; And Another Thing… the sixth instalment of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy or Sebastian Faulk’s James Bond novel Devil May Come to mind. But pairing up with Kindle Worlds means the Kurt Vonnegut Trust has encouraged people to write in Vonnegut’s canon by commissioning it—all good and well on its own—but they did it in the laziest possible way and how is that a “natural extension of his legacy”?

So, well done to the Kurt Vonnegut Trust, you’ve created a monetary opportunity for terrible Kurt Vonnegut erotica where there was none before. You didn’t just let this happen off in some dark corner of the Internet (because it wasn’t happening, not organically), you created it. There are already two works of erotica in The World of Kurt Vonnegut. One is by a prolific author who, after the 10 books she published in July, had The War Widow’s Story (Slaughterhouse-Five erotica) out two weeks after the announcement of Kurt Vonnegut World. The other, well, haven’t we all just been dying to read about the sexual exploits of Billy Pilgrim’s granddaughter? Thank god she’s unstuck in time, so she can get up to explicit adventures “until the end of time.” Having not read either of these stories, I can at least be reassured that they don’t contain any offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts.

Really, The Paris Review had it best in a throwaway comment  in a news roundup when the acquisition of the licence for Kurt Vonnegut’s was announced:

The Amazon powers that be have ensured that Vonnegut fan fic is now legal, and one can buy it via Amazon. “Bill Pilgrim, unstuck in time, is going to quickly become a Kindle Worlds favorite,” says a member of the Vonnegut trust, ominously.

There’s a lot to be said for writer’s playing off each other; parodies, homages, retellings, along with more heavily derivative works like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or The Wide Sargasso Sea; the advent of copyright has changed the way many writers interact with pre-exisiting and in many ways that’s a damn shame. ‘The World of Kurt Vonnegut’ makes it about money as well as craft, because money is seen as the legitimizing factor. And so money becomes a draw. Not for all, of course, but for some. That’s a problem for me, and it should be a problem for the Vonnegut Trust as well. These works exist in a weird quasi-official capacity and every other world licensed by Kindle Worlds is something which has either shifted from single-writer to collaborative work long ago, or else is an individual author making the choice to include their worlds. According to the CEO of RosettaBooks who, along with the Kurt Vonnegut Trust, entered the agreement with Amazon, the decision was made primarily to promote Kurt Vonnegut’s back catalogue. I just don’t know if there’s anything that can convince me that the canon of Kurt Vonnegut—of a single author with a body of work that cannot be cobbled into a coherent world, who could not have predicted this development and planned with his estate accordingly—should be part of this project. The Kurt Vonnegut Trust has set up what is essentially a commission for any writers to publish for profit with no regard to why they chose to write with Vonnegut’s work, with restrictions set by a third-party, and with no control over the products published. I would LOVE to know the pitch Amazon gave them, that made them think this was a good idea and a completely reasonable act of the stewards of Vonnegut’s legacy.

I feel like it’s really important for me to point out that I am not angry about this, not even exactly opposed to it, I’m mostly just confused. This isn’t about a ‘devaluing’ of Kurt Vonnegut’s work, there’s obviously no literature that’s untouchable, but this is work that’s being created by a really specific opportunity, and it makes me worry that derivative or transformative works now have a ‘proper’ channel as dictated by RosettaBooks, the Vonnegut Trust, and Amazon.

Well, enough of this, enjoy this lovely short story by Haruki Murakami, derived from the work Franz Kafka, published in The New Yorker and available for free to enjoy across many mediums, not just Kindles: Samsa in Love begins: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.”

newyorker-murakami-samsa-javierjaen_sm

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The Catcher in the Rye: Relatability and Narrative Voice

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move…Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you…I kept thinking about old Phoebe going to that museum on Saturdays the way I used to. I thought how she’d see the same stuff I used to see, and how she’d be different every time she saw it.

The Catcher in the Rye is an interestingly divisive book; there are people out there who mark it as life-changing and then there’s those who really, truly hate it. “Holden Caulfield is a phony” seems to pop up as much as “Holden Caulfield thinks you’re a phony.” The Catcher in the Rye is the story of the teenaged Holden Caulfield getting kicked out of his prep school—actually, getting kicked out of his fourth prep school—and hanging around New York city for a couple days, hating everyone or else feeling bad for them. He loves his little sister and seems to merely tolerate the rest of the world. Over the course of his brief break from reality he gradually reveals details of his life through the first-person narrative.
 

 
You don’t have to relate to someone, or even have to like them much, to empathize with them. It isn’t Holden Caulfield’s perceived or accepted relatability that makes The Catcher in the Rye a classic of young adult literature; it’s the fact that Holden is a complete and fully-formed character. Holden may be a mess of conflicts and contradictions, but it makes him real. In fact, people who dislike The Catcher in the Rye tend to react not to the book itself, but to the character of Holden. In people’s negative reviews of The Catcher in the Rye Holden Caulfield’s a “slacker,” a “self-absorbed whiner,” “incredibly stupid,” the “biggest phony he knows,” someone who gives some readers the urge to “take [him] by the collar and shake him really, really hard and shout at him to grow up.”
They hate his whining, they think his cynicism is unforgivably self-indulgent, they think he has no excuse to be the way he is: but it’s not that he’s badly-written fictional character, he’s just some guy they hate. He may have become an icon or an archetype outside the book, but within The Catcher in the Rye he’s just some kid.
 
The Catcher in the Rye is the grandaddy of young adult literature because Salinger wrote about the rich internal life of a teenager—not necessarily a gratifying or self-assured internal life, but a real consciousness and thought process: a new phenomenon in its time. Teenagers were around in fiction, but generally on the periphery of adult’s lives or in a sort of Hardy Boys capacity—convenient characters for children’s stories because they had a little more autonomy and were less likely to give off a ‘child endangerment’ vibe during action-heavy adventures. Salinger gives Holden Caulfield a voice that is distinctly his own; it may resonate, it may irritate, but no matter how you cut it, it’s all his.
 
Maybe the readers who are completely put off by Holden’s continual, and generally hypocritical, scathing indictments of phonies had no trouble transitioning from the inner-life of a child to that of an adult, or maybe they’ve forgotten it. Well, I’m glad for them, but for many others the disillusionment can be painful—this isn’t the ‘what do you mean Santa isn’t real?’ disillusionment, it’s encountering how petty, mean, and uncaring the world can be. Realizing the terrifying size of it, the realities of loss, the whole general existential crisis of it all. It can be difficult and overwhelming, and people haven’t always built up the necessary defenses; the ability to recognize kindness, the friends, the things that make the world worth the little sadnesses. It shouldn’t be surprising that many people will identify with Holden, particularly those in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood. I wasn’t an unhappy teenager; I have very fond memories of high school and my time there, but I find my hackles rising when people use ‘teen angst’ as a dismissive and patronizing term, as if a person’s feelings aren’t fully legitimized until adulthood.
 
All that said, although The Catcher in the Rye shouldn’t be written off because of dislike for the protagonist, it isn’t necessarily a book that will work for everyone. Some people won’t be engaged by the lack of recognizable plot—no steady build to conflict and resolution here, this is a classic ‘slice of life’ piece that is essentially a character study. It can be slow going, and the repetitiousness of Holden’s choice phrases can compound the effect. What saves the pace is the chance to piece together Holden’s character from his gradual reveal of details about his life that led him to this point, small reveals which keep the reader from losing interest in the fairly unremarkable events—Holden wiles away time in New York and thinks about doing things that he’ll probably never get around to doing.
 


The Catcher in the Rye, Ficticious Dishes, by Dinah Fried

 
As for a personal reading, well, I certainly don’t relate to Holden—I read it in high school and I had a fuzzy memory of disliking Holden but enjoying the book; I find now that he shows an almost comical lack of self-awareness of his many little hypocrisies and most generalizations he makes are idiotic or insulting, but it’s recognizable that he’s “riding for some kind of terrible, terrible fall” and he’s already way out of his emotional depth. You can see the boy Holden used to be; the boy who played checkers with Jane Gallager and moved seats in the theatre so he and his brother could sit closer to the guy who played the kettle drums because they liked him best: “He only gets a chance to bang them a couple of times during a whole piece, but he never looks bored when he isn’t doing it. Then when he does bang them, he does it so nice and sweet, with this nervous expression on his face.” Holden was yanked out of childhood innocence in some fairly brutal ways; the death of a beloved younger brother from leukemia; the corpse of a bullied classmate who jumped to his death, still dressed in a sweater Holden had lent him—“his teeth, and blood, were all over place.” Holden’s zealous cynicism doesn’t bother me because I read it as a defense mechanism, something that was easy to swallow because he was so clearly lost; a teenage boy talking aloud to his dead brother.
 
The most engaging aspect of an unreliable narrator is the access to their own internal narrative; the dissonance between thoughts and actions or perceptions and reality. For all that Holden waxes like a misanthrope, he isn’t needless cruel in his life, to all those people he seems to alternate between hating and pitying; all his loathing is turned inwards. How could I resent the boy who, when he speaks with confidants about incidents that have distressed him, reveals that his real distaste is reserved for petty cruelties?—the secret fraternity at his prep school that excludes a boy “just because he was boring and pimply,” or the Oral Expression class in which students are encouraged to heckle speakers who fail to keep on topic, where a nervous boy telling a family story is shamed. The boy who wants to be the catcher in the rye—who dreams of standing guard over happy children at play.