'Screw the snobbish literati': was Kurt Vonnegut a science-fiction writer?

In a new essay, comedian Richard Herring claims Vonnegut was the victim of snobbery. But does anyone still believe sci-fi is a lesser genre?

“Screw the snobbish literati,” writes Richard Herring in my anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five. “There is a deal of literary snobbishness when it comes to Kurt Vonnegut.”

My first thought was that Herring was talking out of the part of the body Vonnegut liked to illustrate with a star. Where was this snobbery? Vonnegut isn’t universally acclaimed, but I’ve trawled through archives of reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five and seen nothing but praise. His New York Times obituary in 2007 declared him the “novelist who caught the imagination of his age”. Norman Mailer called Vonnegut “our own Mark Twain”, a comparison many have made, and praised him as “a marvellous writer with a style that remained undeniably and imperturbably his own”. When Vonnegut died, Gore Vidal said: “Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull.”

It doesn’t get much more literati than Vidal, who also once described Vonnegut as the “the worst writer in America”. But Vidal enjoyed saying mean things about almost everyone; and Vonnegut and he had (highly amusing) form when it came to making fun of each other.

But some jibes are harder to ignore. Vonnegut complained that critics “wanted me squashed like a bug”. When he died, the Times Literary Supplement compiled a list of “recent judgments” that had been made against his “lugubrious and wearing” prose within their august pages. It wasn’t all that long, but the collected adjectives (like William Boyd’s coy, arch, winsome and cute) were stinging. Just as sharp was the accusation that Slaughterhouse-Five validates the work of the Holocaust denier David Irving, with Vonnegut quoting his figures about the Dresden death toll (which in turn seem to have come from Goebbels).

So Herring isn’t right, but he isn’t entirely wrong, either. He follows his attack on the “snobs” with a question: “Is it because his novels have elements of ‘science fiction’? Or because his books are so ‘readable’ (the shame of it) and often feel like disjointed fragments (or as he himself puts it ‘so short and jumbled and jangled’)? Or might it be because he is properly, laugh-out-loud funny?”

Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim in the 1972 film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five.
Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim in the 1972 film adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Herring presumably knows how it feels when funny material isn’t taken seriously. I wouldn’t want to argue the point too vigorously. The ease with which people still dismiss PG Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett says a lot about humour and readability.

But the sci-fi question is trickier. The idea that people still think it is a lesser genre seems absurd; anyone who makes such a claim needs to be confronted with the last decade of Arthur C Clarke award nominees, Joe Haldeman’s searing The Forever War, or any of the magnificent and challenging works of Ursula K Le Guin. Not to mention, you know, Slaughterhouse-Five.

After that improving course of genre fiction, and because this strawman I’m fighting has now got me so annoyed, I’d also force such sceptics to read books by Ben Okri and Keri Hulme, to show that literary fiction is as capable of ridiculous excess as science fiction.

I’m willing to concede that people may see things differently. The New York Times obituary may have been fulsome in its praise for Vonnegut, but it also noted that publishing Slaughterhouse-Five helped him to “shed the label of science fiction writer”. Vonnegut was painfully aware of this stigma; in an essay called Science Fiction, he wrote: “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

It sounds almost as if Vonnegut might have agreed with Herring. That said, it is worth noting that Vonnegut wrote the essay in 1965. Things were different then, weren’t they?

Slaughterhouse-Five: 50th anniversary edition is published on 28 March.


Sam Jordison

The GuardianTramp

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