Reading’s a steal: Lessons learned those who came before me [part 1]

This is the first in what hopefully will be a series of blog posts on books I’ve read. It will be a hybrid between a review and a list of things that I’ve taken away from the book that I plan to apply to my own writing. Since the primary advice given to writers is (and always has been) to write a lot and read a lot, I’m trying to read with more awareness of other people’s writing processes.

The first book I’m going to discuss is quite unusual, not only in that it isn’t in the fantasy genre that I’m writing in, but also just because it’s a very strange book. I’m typing of course about the classic ‘Breakfast of Champions’ by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I’m mainly discussing this because I just so happened to have read it recently, but also because classics are a masterclass in writing regardless of how they relate to one’s own particular style.

Cover art of the version I have

In short, Breakfast of Champions is about two men who are varying degrees of insane. One of them is a sci-fi writer with a destitute life, who is only published in smutty magazines, and gets into all sorts of trouble on his way to an arts convention where he is supposed to be the guest speaker. The other is a rich white man who has lost his wife to suicide and is highly mentally unstable. The book’s supposed author, some iteration of Vonnegut who gets introduced in the preface, also eventually places himself in the novel, and conspires events so that the rich man reads the author’s work, becomes convinced he is the only person in the universe with free will, and starts beating people up. Interspersed in the book are crude illustrations, ranging from smutty to funny to just plain weird. While BoC is a lot lighter compared to Slaughterhouse Five, it still deals with issues such as racism and inequality, describing them in matter-of-facts ways that are (to me) more depressing than if the author openly took a stance on them.

To be honest, I’m still processing the book. I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the deep philosophical implications of the text that are probably covered in many BA and MA theses. As a simple reader, I can only say that the book appealed to my dry sense of humour. I especially liked the illustrations, they added a lot to the humour and absurdity of it all. It was interesting to me that the story was told in a non-linear fashion, as if it was just a framework for discussing the people (and by extension the nature of all human beings). It was also funny how the sci-fi writer character kept referring to other works he’d written, which if I believe the ‘author’ are actually Vonnegut’s story ideas that he wanted to clear from his system. Of course the many serious themes match the absurdity, making me slightly more sad than happy overall. Basically, if you are looking for an easy-to-read story with funny illustrations and deeper implications that will leave you reeling and questioning humanity for days after, Vonnegut’s your man. But you probably already knew that.

Things I intend to ‘steal’ from Breakfast of Champions:

  • A book doesn’t have to be a certain length to have a certain impact. Given the amount of space the illustrations took up, I’m sure that by today’s standards BoC would be labelled a novella. Yet the impact it has is no less profound than a much longer book like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History for instance, and they are both modern classics in their own right. Content is more important than word count (which is sometimes hard to understand for a NaNoWriMoer like me).
  • A characteristic writing style can sometimes be more important than the story itself. As evidenced by my short summary, the story itself is rather short, and the main climax is given away from the start. This is not important, this is not why I kept reading, and not why it’s considered a modern classic. Instead, it’s the context that the writer places his story in, the words he chooses, the themes he explores, that kept me reading on. Now I know I can never write like Vonnegut, only he can. But it’s helped me realise how important it is to keep working on my own personal writing style, and how much difference that can make to story-telling.
  • Related to my previous point, I’ve discovered that describing things as a (mostly) neutral outsider/alien can have more impact than placing the reader in the middle of the action, at least if you’re Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not sure any other writers could get away with the way he described things like racism in the book, since it is a feature of his distinct writing style, but it is certainly worth noting that taking a step back from what is happening can be just as powerful as diving deeper into things.

How will I use these things, if at all? I’m not sure. But in the meantime I’ll keep on reading and writing and trying to improve myself.