The anti-SF hatred oozing from Charles J. Shields' Kurt Vonnegut biography

Charles J. Shield, the acclaimed author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, has written the first in-depth examination of the life of 20th century literary icon Kurt Vonnegut. In And So It Goes, Shields follows Vonnegut's life from his birth in Indianapolis through his harrowing World War II years — where he survived the firebombing of Dresden — to his literary struggles and ultimate acceptance as a ground-breaking author.

Overall the book is a fascinating examination of Vonnegut and makes for a quick read. The biography is filled with previously unknown details of Vonnegut's life, many gleaned from access to Vonnegut's personal letters. While Vonnegut comes off as far less likable in this biography than many of his fans likely imagined, that also appears to be how he was in reality.

Unfortunately, there are also major concerns with Shields' biography. First, Vonnegut's World War II years are not explored in as much depth as required. Since that experience rippled throughout Vonnegut's life — and also resulted in Vonnegut's most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five — it literally demanded being covered in much more detail.

Of even great concern, though, is Shields' extremely demeaning and off-putting attitude toward the science fiction genre. Yes, Vonnegut had a love-hate relationship with SF and didn't want his writing dismissed by placing him in the genre box. But Shields appears to not only have internalized this attitude but taken it to an extreme. Almost ever single reference in the book to a SF author or the genre is derogatory or given short shrift.

For example, only a single page is given to Theodore Sturgeon, who was the inspiration for Vonnegut's most famous character Kilgore Trout. That single page describes a dinner shared by the two authors and how Sturgeon attempts a backward flip but falls on his knees. In Shields' account, Sturgeon is played for laughs only, as a clown who showed Vonnegut what could happen to his writing career if he didn't break out of the damned box of SF fiction. But if you read Vonnegut's original account of the dinner, which he shared in his 1999 introduction to A Saucer of Loneliness: Volume VII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, it's obvious that this isn't how Vonnegut saw Sturgeon.

In that introduction Vonnegut said Sturgeon was the victim of a "hate crime then commonly practiced by the American literary establishment" — genreism, or the dismissal of any writer who wrote SF. Vonnegut closes his account of that dinner by describing Sturgeon as one of the best writers in America. The fact that Shields referenced this particular episode but missed Vonnegut's larger point about Sturgeon leaves me wondering what else Shields is missing due to his biased view of SF.

If that was the only time this occurred in the biography I could ignore Shields' anti-genre attitude. But it happens again and again. Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Philip José Farmer is described as a "B-grade science fiction writer" (page 320) and as an author whose "novels were outer-space sexual fantasies for male readers" (page 321). Farmer is the only novelist mentioned in the biography who is dismissed so out of hand.

Shields also doesn't go into a detailed literary examination of Farmer's novel Venus on the Half-Shell, which Farmer wrote as Kilgore Trout with Vonnegut's initial blessing. Considering how many readers and reviewers of the time thought Vonnegut wrote the novel — a fact which greatly irritated Vonnegut — and that the biography describes in detail the fury surrounding Farmer's novel, I expected Shields to spend at least a paragraph or two giving a critical analysis to Venus on a Half-Shell. Instead, Shields dismisses this novel in barely a sentence by calling it a "spoof" of Vonnegut's writing.

This dismissive attitude to all things SF continues when Shields mentions Vonnegut's most famous short story, "Harrison Bergeron." The story was published in a 1961 edition of the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. But instead of praising the magazine for publishing such a ground-breaking story, Shields describes the magazine as a "cultish monthly for hardcarore admirers of literary science fiction."  To my knowledge, no other magazine mentioned in the biography — and there were many — is described in such a flippant manner.

Again, Vonnegut had a love-hate relationship with SF. But you'd think a literary biographer like Shields could maintain a more even approach to the very genre which gave Vonnegut his initial recognition and praise. In Shields' previous biography examing Harper Lee's life, you don't find a similarly dismissive attitude toward Southern Literature. But perhaps Shields feels that SF is unworthy of being associated with an author he loves as much as Vonnegut. 

Despite these flaws, And So It Goes is still the first in-depth biography of Vonnegut, which makes it a must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about one of the most significant literary figures of the 20th century. But damn — is it too much to ask for a literary biography not to ooze so much SF hatred?