There’s a new biography about Kurt Vonnegut out. I’ve caught the fact of it out of the corner of my eye here and there but the subhead on this Guardian review of the book pretty much underscores why I’m not interested in the book.
Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, does not come out well as a person in a new biography by Charles J Shields.
See, I don’t really want to read that. Not because I regard Vonnegut so highly that I don’t want to know the truth about him (or at least some biographer’s truth), it’s because there isn’t any point. I don’t want to get into the quibbles about an author’s moral stance, or how his or her personal life squares against their public persona. I’m sure there are a great many writers who are nothing like we imagine them to be, which is why there is a caution often given about meetings one’s heroes.
But here’s the thing, Vonnegut was pretty good about talking about his own life. Sure, any autobiographic information given by any author is going to be somewhat unreliable, it’s an occupational hazard. I wish I could find the quote, but Stephen King was once asked about his story “The Body” which became the film Stand By Me, specifically how much of it was based on his life. He mused about how when writing a writer starts from something true and then gets to a fork where they know what happened next but “wouldn’t if be great if this happened instead?” I think writers might have a predisposition toward revising the truth of their own lives a bit.
But Vonnegut didn’t exactly shy away from the darker stuff. He made his opinions known in essays and lectures and if there was a fiction to them it doesn’t negate the message, just as his real life doesn’t negate the narrative of his fiction simply because they may be contradictory. From reading Vonnegut’s own words I know that he served in World War II, that he survived the fire bombing of Dresden, that his mother committed suicide, that his son had his own bout of mental health issues, that when his sister and her husband died that he adopted their children as well as raising his own, that in his youth he worked writing propaganda for GE, that he didn’t hold much love for George W. Bush, that he tried to commit suicide himself, that he later decided that death by cigarettes was a “classier way to die,” and that in the end what killed him was a fall down the stairs in his home where the trauma to his brain let him slip into the big sleep. A tragi-comic observer of humanity’s foibles, Vonnegut’s own death was as common and unexpected as one of his characters, he couldn’t have written a more fitting ending.
So it goes.
I know all that and more because Vonnegut told his readers as much as he wanted them to know. As a public figure he decided how much of his private life he wanted to share, and that’s good enough for me. And it should be good enough for any of us that what we know of public figures is what they want us to know. This endless fascination with celebrity, this outgrown sense of entitlement that public figures somehow owe us unfettered access to their lives, is bushwah of the highest order. I don’t want to know everything about all these celebrity, but we’ve become so accustomed to this constant stream of access that now we get updates instantaneously via Twitter when someone in the public eye dies, gets arrested, or if we’re getting it directly from them as a source, utters some inane comment that gets them in a heap of trouble.
With the advent of our constantly internet-available culture there has been some question as to what the future holds for historians and biographers. Will some famous person’s tweets one day be compiled from the Library of Congress in a single bound volume, grouped by subject and annotated with parallel and supporting links? Will there one day be an online depository of web pages of celebrities collected by discipline or topic, a thematic archive grouped by decade or influence? Or will we come simply to accept the ever-annotated entries on Wikipedia as our primary source of information?
It doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter.
We’ve come to that point where we need to know less, not more. We need to curb our diet for knowing everything about everything, to not give in to this false expectation that we are entitled to something from people just because their lives have become public. The argument that celebrities put themselves in the public eye, as a justification for such constant scrutiny, is no different and no better than blaming a rape victim for dressing provocatively. And the level of information we get, especially from tabloids, suggests the only good celebrity is a dead or, or near-dead one, or at the very least, one whose physical failings deserve to be highlighted as some sort of proof that they aren’t as perfect as they might seem. News flash: none of us “regular” people would come off any better under the microscope.
But if we are to judge a man by his words or his deeds, in the case of authors like Vonnegut, I’ll take their words over an account of their deeds from a third party.