The Vonnegut Challenge by Marcus Speh

The Vonnegut Challenge by Marcus Speh

The Vonnegut Challenge by Marcus Speh… Because we like to honor this American writer and author since tomorrow, April 11, is the 6th anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death.

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.

The Vonnegut Challenge by Marcus Speh

Atribution: Miserlou Behind The Aperture

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.

View Comments (17)
  • The more things change – the more they stay the same – “Technology and other contemporary predilections are mere vessels that can be, and have been, swapped for others in the past.”

    A wonderful piece of writing, Marcus. Enjoyed.

    • Thanks, Sam. Not only is Marcus a great author but a great thinker.

    • Thank you Sam, for reading and for highlighting one of the possibly less contentious statements of this essay: a lot here is opinion and personal preference. Altogether I’d rather be known and appreciated for my fiction than for my nonfiction, but no serious writer can help having thoughts and forming ideas about where he stands in his own time. I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface of some of these issues, but at least I have let them touch me.

  • Matt Robinson

    Appreciate the mention here, Marcus. Enjoyed the read, as well.

    My feelings remain the same: inclusion of technology (or sexuality for that matter), really anything external at all, is solely dependent on the relation to, if not conflict, then the change (or lack thereof) being represented in the lives of the characters of the piece (which I suppose is conflict as well. Some literary writers do an exceptional job of incorporating the changing outside world into their narratives: Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan and Anthony Doerr come to mind (McCarthy and Doerr do more to incorporate nature; Mitchell and Egan work with technology quite frequently and with much success).

    • Good point, Matt. This is how I see it (is this what you mean?) Including an artefact into a human conflict turns it almost into a mediator (in the sense of Girard): the artefact as such recedes and the relation may even be heightened. This is what I see Vonnegut do: I can never remember his technological bells and whistles, but the conflict in his work is crystal clear. … I have heard of the writers you mention but I don’t really know them. I’m not sure I’d add them to my pantheon, which is a small basement room with little space left and few candles burning down rapidly (it’s dark in there, lotsa shadows)…but only time can tell the tale of true greatness.

  • Having spent the latter years of my professional life designing and constructing computerized controls for heavy industry, I vowed to shut the door to technology and walk away from it altogether. I’d since bisected the world into a stark division that excludes the wretched beasts. How, I asked meself, can art thrive in such a place where the natural order of things may be quantified, calculated, and reduced to mathematical formulae.

    But here I am reading an essay on a computer, responding instantaneously in a venue that will take my words and billow them abroad on the wings of electrons. And in the morning, I’ll awaken to the sounds of spring outside my window and boot up the infernal, though infernally divine machine wherein I can write a novel sans eraser, sans paper, sans ink, and sans pen.

    What a world!

    • Thank you, Jim. Perhaps the answer to the unasked question is that the world of the computer that you describe so poetically (“a venue that will take my words and billow them abroad on the wings of electrons”) as if sitting by a digital Walden Pond, and the world of man are not as divided as we’ve come to believe. At least not in spirit: what if the spirit of the machine could not be reduced to mathematical formulae as you suggest but instead were simply part of man? It seems to me that the integration of circuits and the embedding of electronic functions not just in our lives but in our bodies is increasing and accelerating. Perhaps ending in perfect fusion between the digital and the organic. It would be interesting to read this post and its comments in such a future where technology (and perhaps even sexuality?) will not be what we think they are today.

  • Youse guys is making my head hurt with intellectual/technical talk. I’m just a poor ol’ stick-whittlin’ storyteller (PA-tooooie!)

    • Aww, Ramon, you let the devil out of the bottle and now you want to hide behind your kid avatar? No, sir, step forward and take your bow, please! 😉

  • I might have disagreed, thinking perhaps of the industrial revolution and what it meant for every living person at the time, and its effects rippling out over the following centuries. I might have suggested that such a catastrophic change in society due to technology must be considered to some degree in understanding any character set in this time. But I see I am excused from the debate and any need to comply with such rules, along with other genre and hack writers.


    • Indeed you are excused, but I thank you for the data which seem to add to my perspective rather than discount it. You’re still only describing backdrop. Of course it is never wholly irrelevant especially to people’s lives and their well-being and their experiences, but only the naturalists, Zola and his comrades in arms, believed that it was more than that. And they grew out of it eventually…literature has, as a whole. Politics hasn’t, science hasn’t, and can’t or shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have exempted hacks and genre writers by the way. Gardner has the greatest respect for junk writing, he says “great junk writing requires a great junk mind”, and the best genre writers have transcended their narrow denomination. Ursula Le Guin, Raymond Chandler are examples, and I love them. Vonnegut has, so has Dostoevsky, and Tolkien. Many others haven’t and they’re still fun to read. But they don’t do the work for humanity for which writers and poets have originally been revered, as shamans of the gap between the world of the living and the dead…Atwood’s book on writing talks about that, e.g. “Talking with the dead” it is called, I think. I see little point in pretending that writers who are honest craftsmen (but no more) move these mountains, too. There’s already too much bullshit in the world about the arts.

  • Well said, Marcus.

  • stephen h-k

    I find myself writing about technological systems pretty regularly–surveillance systems, “big data” and its various mining operations, etc.. What’s occurred to me along the way is that it’s not at all obvious how to do it.

    I don’t see these systems as props to be arranged on a old-fashioned stage, really. I’m more interested in working with aspects of these systems as mediations, be they of experience (in the sense that these representational technological systems duplicate and re-order) or inside experience (surveillance technologies as they impinge on the sense of being-in-the-world specific to certain “characters” or functions), or–usually–combinations of these.

    But, given that these mediations shape aspects of being-in-the-present (in a loose sense so as not to get tangled up) and so shape basic aspects of that mode of being, it’s hard to figure a viewpoint, particularly if there’s no interest in setting up a relation to such processes/things that would entail giving a reader the sense of floating above it all, as if there were a meta-level of reality on which everything is as it has always been.

    Because there is no such register. That the illusion that the opposite is the case points to a therapeutic function of much non-fiction writing that carries over into fiction. It’s a correlate of the desire that often accompanies reading to be let in on some Secret. The Secret is usually a viewpoint that enables a deciphering, Deciphering as a process entails a sense of mastery. That’s very reassuring.

    But the secret is that there is no secret.

    And the floating viewpoint is basically that of a television spectator. The world is contained in a little box and you are sitting on your sofa looking at it so you’re kinda outside it.

    Writing this comment, it occurs to me that all the above rests on ways of thinking about being-in-the-world, so on kinda technical philosophical grounds that can be transposed into constraints that shape how one writes. I’m never sure if talking through these constraints, or about them, without stating them, operates as I think it does. It’s something like generating sentences that put you inside a space of assemblage and meaning-making that takes these systems that one would prefer to remain outside or or next to as constituitive of assembling and making meaning. Maybe that’s why it’s discomfiting to read such things sometimes. Hard to know, really.

    • Thank you for this great comment, mini-essay, really, Stephen. I like the very notion of method carrying over from non-fiction to fiction—I think you’re right; there’s a regular ferry service. Your thought that technology can be seen as a mediator between our world of experience and another world of secrets (if I understood you correctly) is intriguing. As is your dictum that there’s no secret. The “floating viewpoint” reminds me of Baudrillard’s notion of the [simulacrum] that he claimed was the American ideal: I do think the European view point is different though it’ll surely take an entire new essay to explore it. We’re messier over here, more psychoanalytic, more consciousness-conscious. — As for the “secret”, as a romantic I firmly believe in its existence as if it were a UFO. — Fully support your inference at the end about why it’s so hard to read fiction with technology (as an example). It would be an interesting experiment to rewrite very technology-based texts (Asimov?), remove the artificial parts (like cleaning a cyborg from plastic) and see what remains. What’s the synopsis of Jules Verne? You really should write a philosophical blog, perhaps you do or did already…

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Marcus Speh is a German writer who lives in Berlin. His short fiction collection "Thank You For Your Sperm" is forthcoming from MadHat Press. Marcus' short fiction has been published in elimae, Mad Hatter’s Review, kill author, PANK and elsewhere. First published in 2009 at Metazen, his work has been nominated for a Micro Award, two Pushcart Prizes, two Best of the Net awards and two Million Writers Awards, and was longlisted for the Paris Literary Prize. His German stories are sometimes translated by his wife, Carlye Birkenkrahe.

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