This is a follow-up to some some tweets from a while back.

Recovering Believers

Once upon a time, I took a lot of religious studies classes. I noticed that one of the most common sorts of person to find in religious studies was the “recovering” something. (“Recovering Catholic, etc.”) That is to say, someone who had a certain specific religious past, but who saw themselves on a path away from it.

What brought them to RS might be a quest for something else to believe in, or an attempt to better understand the beliefs they’d left behind – to be able to take them apart, see how they work, and ultimately set them aside. Or they might be looking for a way to intellectually participate in a world that still interested them, even though it could no longer be a creed for them. For many it was all these things, and probably a few others as well.

I fit this profile as much as anyone, but on an uncommon orientation. People recovering from western religious upbringings tend to become sympathetic toward either atheism or (a westernized flavor of) eastern religion, while I was recovering from a syncretic new age upbringing, and I developed a strong sympathy for certain strands of Christianity.[1]

So, I often found myself having conversations with people whose sympathies and suspicions were mirrored opposites of my own. These exchanges tended to be informative and interesting, but also weird and occasionally awkward.

Recovering Fans

I’ve noticed that this kind of “recovering” process also happens with media. Ayn Rand, for example, is an author

  • who is extremely popular and influential
  • who is often encountered by the young
  • who people are expected to grow out of or get over as they read more broadly and acquire a wider lived experience

Of course, not everyone shares this view of her. For some people, their love of Ayn Rand is a lifetime commitment, and she remains a wellspring of inspiration and guidance. I don’t pretend to understand those people, but they certainly exist. And to those who are over her or recovering from her, or who merely dislike her, their attachment reads as a failure to grow.

Me and Vonnegut

I’m not a recovering Ayn Rand fan. I’ve actually not read that much of her work.[2] Where I do have something of a recovering fan relationship is Kurt Vonnegut. Which, again, orients me squarely against the majority of folks I interact with.

Once upon a time, Kurt Vonnegut was one of my favorite writers, and the writer of my very favorite book, Breakfast of Champions. I loved that book. I thought about it a lot – and what I thought about it formed a big part of how I understood and related to all fiction for years. At the end of my high school years, being able to talk intelligently about it was my signature interview move, and boy, it worked. People ate that shit up.[3]

If you haven’t read Breakfast of Champions, I would still certainly recommend it. It’s a wonderful book. If you’re spoiler-averse, feel free to do that and come back.

Okay? Cool. So, a major thing in Breakfast of Champions is the way Vonnegut inserts himself, as the writer, into the narrative, and converses with his recurring character Kilgore Trout. That uber-meta scene is the sort of thing that’s easy to be blasé about as a jaded, dissipated literatus, but to a kid who grew up voraciously consuming genre fiction, it was more than a little mind-blowing. I still remember how that felt, and it still shapes me as a reader.

Me and Vonnegut…and Sturgeon

Now, if you know more about science fiction as a medium than I did back then, or if you clicked the Wikipedia link in the previous paragraph, you know what I did not know at the time: Kilgore Trout is a reference to a real person – Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon is one of those writers who is hugely important but not widely read. In SFF and generally in US popular fiction, he is a writer’s writer – whether or not you’ve heard of him, many of your favs were probably shaped in part by reading him. If you haven’t read him yet, then you probably should. Because he was principally a short story writer, there’s a huge array of possible jumping-on points. The easily obtainable Vintage Selected Stories is a great place to start.[4]

Sturgeon and Vonnegut are sort of a sliding doors situation, as writers working in science fiction who both aspired to more mainstream literary recognition. Vonnegut achieved that, but Sturgeon never did.[5] So, Kilgore Trout, a largely farcical figure, functions both as a reference to Sturgeon and also as a proxy for Vonnegut’s roots as a writer operating beyond the fringe of respectable literature.

The meaning, weight, and significance of Vonnegut so prominently appropriating another writer is open to debate and interpretation. Vonnegut denied the connection while Sturgeon was alive, and afterwards acknowledged but generally downplayed it. I have no idea whether Sturgeon was on record about it. I think it’s hard not to read it as to some degree disrespectful – particularly because of the roles Trout plays in Vonnegut’s books – but I’m sure not everyone would see it that way.

(Off topic: my favorite side story in all this is that Philip Jose Farmer wrote and a published a book, Venus on the Half Shell, under the name Kilgore Trout. I own a copy – it is not a very good novel, but that it exists is delightful. Wikipedia is somewhat at odds regarding how much and for what reason Vonnegut did not appreciate the joke.)

Finding out about the Trout-Sturgeon connection and also actually reading Sturgeon was a double whammy to my Vonnegut fandom.[6] Sturgeon is, in my opinion, a superior writer – although that in itself does not take away from the fact that Vonnegut is also a great writer. But the unacknowledged presence of Sturgeon in the relationship between Vonnegut and Trout – which was the absolute center of my relationship to Vonnegut as fan – meant that I could no longer read Vonnegut in the same way. Understanding Vonnegut’s appropriation of Sturgeon…was like a spell breaking for me.[7]

Me and Vonnegut…and Vonnegut fans.

There are other factors that contributed to my feeling the need to recover from being a Vonnegut fan – the biggest being Vonnegut’s fandom.

He’s a prominent genre-mainstream crossover writer, so he attracts quite a few fans who would be unwilling to think of themselves as science fiction readers, but who love to read Vonnegut’s work, which is definitely science fiction, no matter where it’s shelved. Or else they do like science fiction, but they wind up thinking he invented it.[8]

He also has a strong Dick Lit appeal – masculine prose, grumpy and gritty, a bit of oversimplification, and a cutting wit deployed mercilessly – alongside plenty of feels that have been pasteurized for dude safety.

There’s nothing wrong any of these things, in moderation, and as part of a balanced book diet. But core Dick Lit readers don’t really do balanced. And some of these guys quote Vonnegut like he’s the leader of their fucking cult.

Between these two types of Vonnegut fans, there is a lot of underconsidered adulation pointed in his direction. The internet’s full of it. And I often have a hard time not wanting to slap back at it.

GIF from Rachel Blooms Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury

Of course, the majority of Vonnegut fans are perfectly reasonable, widely read folks who enjoy his writing to a sensible degree, and have never approached him with my adolescent zeal.

But when I approach him now, it can only be as a recovering fan – not so much because the problems with his writing are so egregious, as because coming to understand them was so important to my evolution as a reader. Growing up doesn’t always mean growing out of – but for my Vonnegut fandom, it did.

  1. Not that I’ve ever approached any flavor of orthodoxy. And not that I’m not pretty crypto-Buddhist to this day. But my beliefs and religious disposition are significantly different from what I grew up with.  ↩

  2. But I heartily recommend Matt Ruff’s Ayn Rand sendup Sewer, Gas, Electric!  ↩

  3. In a couple of highly competitive processes, it was the primary factor in my acceptance. Knowing just enough Borges to be dangerous also helped.  ↩

  4. For those who need a narrower recommendation: If you read just one Sturgeon story, make it “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff.”  ↩

  5. A common story with great genre writers; see also Philip Dick, for example.  ↩

  6. Fun fact: when I was quite a bit younger, my mom worked with one of Sturgeon’s sons. She asked if she should encourage me to read Sturgeon, and he vehemently advised against it. It’s hard to blame him, because if I were him, I wouldn’t want to risk having to explain something like Godbody to some kid’s mom. But I wonder what would have gone differently for me if I’d known about Sturgeon before getting into Vonnegut.  ↩

  7. Note: I don’t dispute Vonnegut’s right to reference another writer in his work – but the fact that he does so changes its meaning.  ↩

  8. In fantasy, see also Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin for, uh…single-issue fanbases.  ↩