Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assignment from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Teaches You to Read Fiction Like a Writer

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

I wish I’d had a teacher who framed his or her assign­ments as let­ters…

Which is real­ly just anoth­er way of say­ing I wish I’d been lucky enough to have tak­en a class with writ­ers Kurt Von­negut or Lyn­da Bar­ry.

There’s still hope of a class with Bar­ry, aka Pro­fes­sor Chew­bac­ca, Pro­fes­sor Old Skull, and most recent­ly, Pro­fes­sor Dro­go. Those of us who can’t get a seat at the Wis­con­sin Insti­tute for Dis­cov­ery, the Omega Insti­tute, or the Clar­i­on Sci­ence Fic­tion and Fan­ta­sy Writ­ers’ Work­shop can play along at home, using assign­ments she gen­er­ous­ly makes avail­able in her books and on her Near-Sight­ed Mon­key Tum­blr.

Von­negut fans long for this lev­el of access, which is why we are dou­bly grate­ful to writer Suzanne McConnell, who took Vonnegut’s “Form of Fic­tion” (aka “Sur­face Crit­i­cism” aka “How to Talk out of the Cor­ner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro”) course at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop in the mid-60s.

The goal was to exam­ine fic­tion from a writer’s per­spec­tive and McConnell (who is soon to pub­lish a book about Vonnegut’s advice to writ­ers) pre­served one of her old teacher’s term paper assign­ments—again in let­ter form. She lat­er had an epiphany that his assign­ments were “designed to teach some­thing much more than what­ev­er I thought then…  He was teach­ing us to do our own think­ing, to find out who we were, what we loved, abhorred, what set off our trip­wires, what tripped up our hearts.”

For the term paper, the eighty students—a group that includ­ed John Irv­ing, Gail God­win, and Andre Dubus II—were addressed as “Beloved” and charged with assign­ing a let­ter grade to each of the fif­teen sto­ries in Mas­ters of the Mod­ern Short Sto­ry (Har­court, Brace, 1955, W. Hav­ighurst, edi­tor).

(A decade and a half lat­er, Von­negut would sub­ject his own nov­els to the same treat­ment.)

A not­ed human­ist, Von­negut instruct­ed the class to read these sto­ries not in an over­ly ana­lyt­i­cal mind­set, but rather as if they had just con­sumed “two ounces of very good booze.”

The ensu­ing let­ter grades were meant to be “child­ish­ly self­ish and impu­dent mea­sures” of how much—or little—joy the sto­ries inspired in the read­er.

Next, stu­dents were instruct­ed to choose their three favorite and three least favorite sto­ries, then dis­guise them­selves as “minor but use­ful” lit mag edi­tors in order to advise their “wise, respect­ed, wit­ty and world-weary supe­ri­or” as to whether or not the select­ed sto­ries mer­it­ed pub­li­ca­tion.

Here’s the full assign­ment, which was pub­lished in Kurt Von­negut: Let­ters (Dela­corte Press, 2012). And also again in Slate.


This course began as Form and The­o­ry of Fic­tion, became Form of Fic­tion, then Form and Tex­ture of Fic­tion, then Sur­face Crit­i­cism, or How to Talk out of the Cor­ner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will prob­a­bly be Ani­mal Hus­bandry 108 by the time Black Feb­ru­ary rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cyn­i­cal and reli­gious. I want you to adore the Uni­verse, to be eas­i­ly delight­ed, but to be prompt as well with impa­tience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Uni­verse is or should be. “This above all …”

I invite you to read the fif­teen tales in Mas­ters of the Mod­ern Short Sto­ry (W. Hav­ighurst, edi­tor, 1955, Har­court, Brace, $14.95 in paper­back). Read them for plea­sure and sat­is­fac­tion, begin­ning each as though, only sev­en min­utes before, you had swal­lowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as lit­tle chil­dren …”

Then repro­duce on a sin­gle sheet of clean, white paper the table of con­tents of the book, omit­ting the page num­bers, and sub­sti­tut­ing for each num­ber a grade from A to F. The grades should be child­ish­ly self­ish and impu­dent mea­sures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some sto­ries bet­ter than oth­ers.

Pro­ceed next to the hal­lu­ci­na­tion that you are a minor but use­ful edi­tor on a good lit­er­ary mag­a­zine not con­nect­ed with a uni­ver­si­ty. Take three sto­ries that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pre­tend that they have been offered for pub­li­ca­tion. Write a report on each to be sub­mit­ted to a wise, respect­ed, wit­ty and world-weary supe­ri­or.

Do not do so as an aca­d­e­m­ic crit­ic, nor as a per­son drunk on art, nor as a bar­bar­ian in the lit­er­ary mar­ket place. Do so as a sen­si­tive per­son who has a few prac­ti­cal hunch­es about how sto­ries can suc­ceed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flat­ly, prag­mat­i­cal­ly, with cun­ning atten­tion to annoy­ing or grat­i­fy­ing details. Be your­self. Be unique. Be a good edi­tor. The Uni­verse needs more good edi­tors, God knows.

Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill some­body, about twen­ty pages from each of you should do neat­ly. Do not bub­ble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.


McConnell sup­plied fur­ther details on the extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence of being Vonnegut’s stu­dent in an essay for the Brook­lyn Rail:

 Kurt taught a Chekhov sto­ry. I can’t remem­ber the name of it. I didn’t quite under­stand the point, since noth­ing much hap­pened. An ado­les­cent girl is in love with this boy and that boy and anoth­er; she points at a lit­tle dog, as I recall, or maybe some­thing else, and laughs. That’s all. There’s no con­flict, no dra­mat­ic turn­ing point or change. Kurt point­ed out that she has no words for the sheer joy of being young, ripe with life, her own juici­ness, and the promise of romance. Her inar­tic­u­late feel­ings spill into laugh­ter at some­thing innocu­ous. That’s what hap­pened in the sto­ry. His absolute delight in that girl’s joy of feel­ing her­self so alive was so encour­ag­ing of delight. Kurt’s enchant­ment taught me that such moments are noth­ing to sneeze at. They’re worth a sto­ry.             

via Slate

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

In 1988, Kurt Von­negut Writes a Let­ter to Peo­ple Liv­ing in 2088, Giv­ing 7 Pieces of Advice

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

Kurt Von­negut Urges Young Peo­ple to Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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