Advice from Kurt Vonnegut: Write About the Powerful?

I’m reading Don Herron’s bio of decorated soldier and crime fiction maverick Charles Willeford. It’s a scattered read, full of neat interviews and dollops of cool stories from different episodes in Willeford’s life, as opposed to a birth/life/death bio. Which is a fun change of pace. One incident stuck out that was rather interesting: Enter Kurt Vonnegut. One section deals with Willeford meeting and corresponding with the SF writer and satirist.

“On January 19, 1985 Willeford introduced Kurt Vonnegut for a talk in Miami. He seems to have had an advance  proof copy of NEW HOPE FOR THE DEAD sent to him, since Vonnegut comments on it in an August 13. 1985 letter in Willeford’s files. Vonnegut says that Willeford is first rate in describing means of survival within modern society, and that NEW HOPE is an important book, but asks Willeford if he understands he is working in a literary ghetto? Willeford understood, or be might have started a crime series many years before.

“Vonnegut offers to send him books by some serious writers which describe America as it is, not couched in terms of a thriller, and adds by way of a postscript a trade secret Willeford may never heard about: your novels will be more popular if you write about successful people, powerful characters.”

Reading this exchange, Vonnegut comes off as crass and somewhat snooty. The author also seems to be making him to be a villain of sorts, compared to our hero Willeford, who, with his soldier and teacher pension can write whatever the hell he wants, including about the underclass.

I’m not a Vonnegut fan or scholar by any means, I liked PLAYER PIANO and SLAUGHTER HOUSE FIVE, despised HOCUS POCUS and found BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS boring.  So, maybe one of you folks can help me decipher where Vonnegut was coming from. Was this just a helping hand? Looking down the side of his nose? An offer to help escape the prison of genre and become respected/and/or make some green?

Let me know!



About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at
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