Kurt Vonnegut Creates a Report Card for His Novels, Ranking Them From A+ to D

I love turn­ing teenagers on to the work of author Kurt Von­negut.

I want their minds to be blown the way mine was at 15, when I picked up Slap­stick, his 8th nov­el, for rea­sons I no longer remem­ber. It wasn’t on rec­om­men­da­tion of some beloved teacher, nor was there any Von­negut on our home shelves, despite the fact that he was a local author. What­ev­er drew me to that book, thank god it did. It was the begin­ning of a life­long romance.

What grabbed me so? His genius idea for bestow­ing an arti­fi­cial extend­ed fam­i­ly on every cit­i­zen, via the assign­ment of mid­dle names:

 I told him, ‘your new mid­dle name would con­sist of a noun, the name of a flower or fruit or nut or veg­etable or legume, or a bird or a rep­tile or a fish, or a mol­lusk, or a gem or a min­er­al or a chem­i­cal ele­ment — con­nect­ed by a hyphen to a num­ber between one and twen­ty.’ I asked him what his name was at the present time.

  ‘Elmer Glenville Gras­so,’ he said.

  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you might become Elmer Uranium‑3 Gras­so, say. Every­body with Ura­ni­um as a part of their mid­dle name would be your cousin.’

This held enor­mous appeal for me as the only child of an only child. Lone­some No More!

It also con­tained the most won­der­ful pro­fan­i­ty I had ever heard:

You ask him his mid­dle name, and when he tells you “Oys­ter-19” or “Chickadee‑1” or “Hol­ly­hock-13” you say to him: Buster — I hap­pen to be a Uranium‑3. You have one hun­dred and nine­ty thou­sand cousins and ten thou­sand broth­ers and sis­ters. You’re not exact­ly alone in this world. I have rel­a­tives of my own to look after. So why don’t you take a fly­ing fuck at a rolling dough­nut? Why don’t you take a fly­ing fuck at the moooooooooooon?

Imag­ine my dis­may when just two books lat­er, Von­negut gave Slap­stick the low­est pos­si­ble mark in a lit­er­ary self eval­u­a­tion pub­lished in Palm Sun­day, below.

Vonnegut grades

He wasn’t describ­ing the dif­fer­ence between a B and a B+. In Vonnegut’s mind, Slap­stick was a D. In oth­er words, a min­i­mal­ly accept­able, deeply below aver­age per­for­mance.

(Slaugh­ter­house Five, which also con­tains the rolling dough­nut line, received an A+. Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons, my oth­er favorite, earned a C.)

He lat­er reflect­ed to jour­nal­ist Char­lie Rose that he’d been over­ly hard on the title. But the crit­ics had trashed it when it first appeared, and pre­sum­ably crit­ics knew best. So much for Von­negut the rebel and class clown. This was a clear case of give the teacher the answer you think she wants.

I give it an A+, and so would you, if you’d dis­cov­ered it when I did.

How about you? Any marks you’d change on Vonnegut’s report card?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Kurt Von­negut Maps Out the Uni­ver­sal Shapes of Our Favorite Sto­ries

Hear Kurt Von­negut Read Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Cat’s Cra­dle & Oth­er Nov­els

Ayun Rasp­ber­ry-19 Hal­l­i­day cel­e­brates the new edi­tion of her book, No Touch Mon­key and Oth­er Trav­el Lessons Learned Too Late. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (17)
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  • Fred says:

    He might not thought much of “Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons” but it was the first sto­ry of his I read and I liked it enough to read a few of the oth­ers. So for that I think it should at least get a C+

  • Michael says:

    I had read sev­er­al oth­er nov­els of his before I read Slap­stick, most notably Cat’s Cra­dle, Slaugh­ter­house and Break­fast, but it was Slap­stick that made me a fan.

  • Eric says:

    Fun­ny — Slap­stick was also the first Von­negut I ever read, but for me it was at age 11. You are absolute­ly right, though — A+ all the way.

  • Ayun says:

    For­got to men­tion in the above piece that The Sur­re­al­ist has devised a Slap­stick Mid­dle Name Gen­er­a­tor, where­in you can get a new mid­dle name and add your­self to a side­bar show­ing every­one in your new extend­ed fam­i­ly. (I am actu­al­ly a Rasp­ber­ry-14)


  • Paulina says:

    I love “Slap­stick” to the googolth pow­er. My sto­ry is sim­i­lar, although I was in my ear­ly 20s when I dis­cov­ered Von­negut. An only child, con­stant­ly ill, an awk­ward stu­dent who had trou­ble mak­ing friends and try­ing to save her fam­i­ly from falling apart through divorces and deaths..
    Von­negut gave “The Play­er Piano” B, I don’t like it at all.
    For me it’s “Slap­stick”, “Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons”, “Cat’s Cra­dle”, and “The Sirens of Titan” that deserve A+ (or 6+, in the Pol­ish grad­ing sys­tem).

  • woodyt says:

    Yes, Slap­stick is an A++++ for me, as well. It’s always the first book of his I think of, though I real­ly enjoyed them all. Slaugh­ter­house Five and Gala­pa­gos are up there for me, as well. KV was extreme­ly impor­tant and for­ma­tive for the naive and ill-read 19 year old me.

  • Shawn says:

    What about Yel­low­beard???

  • Bienia says:

    I took the list to order my read­ing of his books. Then, I won­dered, why he ranked them in this way. In the end, what I have learned is that authors can eval­u­ate their works dif­fer­ent­ly. There are not only those who sell every­thing as gold or hate every­thing.

  • Tiago says:

    It’s a shit­ty movie with the Mon­ty Python crew and Cheech and Chong… So what about it?
    Oh, you mean BLUE­beard? It was released after Palm Sun­day (the last book on his report card here)…

  • Kacee says:

    I don’t remem­ber writ­ing this entry, but this is my exact sto­ry and my exact sen­ti­ment. I used to skip class and go to the library and ran­dom­ly stum­bled upon Slap­stick and fell in love with Von­negut. I could­n’t believe any­one knew my secret author when I was assigned Slaugh­ter­house-Five in my sec­ond year of high school.

  • Ashley says:

    I just had to say, that I also, used to skip class and go to the library to read Von­negut. This pleas­es me so. I stum­bled across it dur­ing a “Banned Books” event. I find it hard to imag­ine anoth­er per­son doing such a thing, but I love you for doing it!

  • Lis says:

    Ha! This is great — I too used to skip class in high school to hang out in the library and read Von­negut books. Only my first encounter was with Break­fast of Cham­pi­ons, which I was fas­ci­nat­ed with because of its naughty sketch­es and pro­fan­i­ty while skim­ming through. Years lat­er I picked up Gala­pa­gos at a sec­ond hand store and I loved its ran­dom­ness and jabs at human­i­ty. Then I enjoyed Slaugh­ter­house Five and Cat’s Cra­dle much lat­er in my 30s. But the book that real­ly blew me away for some rea­son was Sirens of Titan — still one of my faves. Amaz­ing author who left behind an incred­i­ble body of work.

  • Laurie says:

    I’ve read all of Von­negut’s books, I think. While I total­ly enjoyed each of them, Slap­stick will for­ev­er stand-out in my mind as most mem­o­rable. To this day, I tell friends who haven’t read Von­negut about “Lone­ly No More” as per­fect evi­dence of Von­negut’s spot-on bril­liance. I sup­pose I’m hap­py for Von­negut that he does­n’t have to endure the unprece­dent­ed trav­es­ty and stu­pid­i­ty of the Trump regime, but his insight­ful per­spec­tive could have helped us endure the hor­ror of it all.

  • AdamC. says:

    If you’re refer­ring to ‘Yel­low­beard’, that’s a riot. Light­en up, Fran­cis.

  • Maggie says:

    Slap­stick is tied for first with Gala­pa­gos as my favorite Von­negut book. In fact, the way I ran across this old post was just ran­dom enough to war­rant revis­it­ing Slap­stick in audio­book form on my com­mute. Thanks!

  • David (Vonnegut_nut) says:

    I love Slap­stick. That, or Sirens of Titan are my first rec­om­men­da­tion to peo­ple who haven’t read Von­negut. It gen­er­al­ly depends on my take of the person’s humor. For peo­ple who don’t seem to love odd­ball stuff, I rec­om­mend Moth­er Night. I can’t judge Kurt as he would judge him­self, he did attempt life-long sui­cide with his cig­a­rette habit (I’m also a smok­er). But I couldn’t rate any of his nov­els as less than a C+. RIP Kurt, he’s look­ing down on us from heav­en now… ;-) (if you don’t get that, you don’t know Kurt.)

  • Johnny Mike says:

    I won­der if more women would­n’t enjoy Von­negut it Slaugh­ter­house Five was­n’t the one every­body’s teacher pushed on you. The prob­lem with that book is he uses the book’s themes of chaos and anomie as a jump­ing-off point to indulge his mid­dle-aged fan­tasies of his duti­ful mid­dle-aged wife dis­ap­pear­ing, to be replaced by a twen­ty-year-old movie star who he makes babies with in front of a thrilled audi­ence, before he him­self dis­ap­pears.

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