‘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.”



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