Item. The short story is the fabulous invalid of American letters. Item. According to an Authors Guild survey, only 39 percent of all working authors support themselves exclusively through writing-related work.
Those two propositions are connected. Many of the best American writers of the 20th century—Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut—subsidized their literary careers by writing for high-paying mass-market “slicks” like The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Liberty, and This Week. Although writing for the slicks, with their middle-class taboos, could corrupt a talent, it allowed these authors to support themselves while gestating and writing the novels that earned them a place in the American literary canon.
Television has pretty much usurped the short story’s entertainment role in our culture; the golden age of the mass-circulation magazine is behind us. In a reminder of that age, the adventurous Seven Stories Press has issued a 911-page doorstop of a book containing every published story and the best of the unpublished ones, slick or unslick, that Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote—97 in all. His earnings from them helped him to write the novels for which he is best known: The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night, Player Piano.
This volume is obviously a work of love. It was edited by two Vonnegut devotees: Jerome Klinkowitz, an academic who wrote a critical study of him, and Dan Wakefield, a novelist and magazinist, who hails from Vonnegut’s hometown of Indianapolis. Dividing the labor, they have organized the stories into categories (“War,” “Women,” “Science,” “Romance,” etc.) and written illuminating headnotes, as well as informative introductions.
The stories, like the sample below (published here for the first time anywhere) are entertaining, witty, sad, ironic, and served up in Vonnegut’s vernacular style, which to me sounds like Indianapolis talking. I doubt we shall ever see his like again.
Although consistently focused on what its founding prospectus called “legal, economical, and constitutional questions,” The Nation has always kept one eye on the world of fiction. Beginning with its first issue, published on July 6, 1865, no less than Henry James reviewed the latest novels; in 1868, the writer John William De Forest coined the phrase “the Great American Novel” in its pages; and, a half-century later, a college instructor named Raymond Weaver tried to restore the neglected reputation of a 19th-century writer, whose long-forgotten book about a whale hunt, he boldly suggested, was a masterpiece.