The Wages of Rage

SIXTY-SEVEN years old and recipient of as large a measure of fame as any writer in our time, Kurt Vonnegut still does what he can to enlighten the masses. He meets the public, gives lectures, talks to the press, opens himself up. An incident arising out of one such encounter last year, when Vonnegut spoke at a California university and gave an interview to a reporter for the local paper, bears repeating.

The interview, as printed, was less than laudatory. When Vonnegut saw a copy, he fired off a letter to the reporter, telling her that the story had "a paragraph of pure editorializing suggesting to most readers that a vain and shamefully overpaid phony and hypocrite had passed through town . . ."

He added that the reporter gave him no inkling she felt this way, and asked: "Is it fair or even decent for a so-called reporter to keep such scorn concealed, so that the scorned person cannot try to deal with it until it appears in print?"

Vonnegut then forgot all about the story -- until his letter turned up for sale from a California rare-book dealer noted for both the high quality and high price of his material. In this case, the 450-word letter, plus photocopies of two stories by the reporter, was offered for $350.

To show what a good deal it was, half the letter was quoted in the catalogue. Since copyright law forbids quoting extensive passages from unpublished letters without permission, Vonnegut was angry again -- so he instructed his lawyer to get in touch with the bookseller.

A minor episode, no doubt. But when you consider it in light of Vonnegut's career, it takes on a larger significance. For hasn't his anger about various situations, tragedies and indignities been not only the engine that has powered more than a dozen works of fiction over 40 years, but also a profitable activity?

That's true for his publishers, for opportunists like the reporter and the book dealer, and of course for Vonnegut himself. "It's just a matter of luck whether you make a fit with your society or not," the writer says modestly, sitting in his Manhattan kitchen. "It's a real Adam Smith market. There's only about 300 of us who make a living from this."

His new novel, Hocus Pocus, is fitting in nicely. The public likes it, the critics have generally voted thumbs up, and the author himself, grading this book as he has done with his previous efforts, gives it an A. Perhaps part of its appeal is the picture it paints of this country slowly sinking in its own sludge:

"The year is 2001 now.

"If all had gone the way a lot of people thought it would, Jesus Christ would have been among us again, and the American flag would have been planted on Venus and Mars.

"No such luck!"

As in most Vonnegut novels, people are secondary to the main character, which is society. His training as an anthropologist -- an M.A. from the University of Chicago -- allows him to see culture as a gadget. And a glance at the newspaper tells him all he needs to know about the world. But his final verdict is surprising: "There is some wickedness, but almost all of it is ignorance and stupidity. I think we are a good-hearted people."

Oh, yeah? What about the looting of the savings and loans?

"That's some people," he says, and then adds: "If any of my kids did what Neil {Bush} did, I would never speak to that kid again."

So he'd be upset?

"Filled with hate! Filled with hate!"

But even Vonnegut isn't completely consistent. On his front door of this one-time G.E. public relations man is a faded sticker: "Boycott G.E. Stop Nuclear Weapons." In his kitchen, meanwhile, he has an enormous G.E. refrigerator.

"Do I?" he asks, turning to look. "I don't even know."

He worked for the company in the late '40s, quitting in '51 when he started earning enough on his short stories to live on. "I was so proud of this country when I worked for GE. It was a great company then and a great country then. And now, I have such a sense of letdown."

People who like his books, he believes, feel the same way. "In one of my books I had the motto, 'Lonesome no more.' I suggested that to Sarge Shriver when he and McGovern were running for president and vice president. I get letters from people saying, 'you think just the way I do.' " And he laughs a great big rumbling laugh that seems to frequently issue from him. "They thought they were all alone."

Culture Gap

WHAT WITH three recent books on Israeli spy operations making news and selling many copies, plus the much-discussed charges of antisemitism recently leveled at columnist Pat Buchanan, this is a propitious time for Contemporary Books to be publishing Kissing Through Glass: The Invisible Shield Between Americans and Israelis.

In an anecdotal approach that makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in scholarly apparatus, Washington writer Joyce Starr examines such points as why Israelis are obsessed with not saying "Thank you," the "charming lawlessness" involved in avoiding taxes, and why more American Jews arrive in Israel prepared for burial than as live immigrants.

Her examination of that last issue includes the following well-burnished piece of folklore: A wealthy Jewish-American woman, known as a "big giver," told Israeli authorities she would be bringing her beloved dog with her. When the El Al plane landed, airline personnel discovered the dog was dead. Greatly fearful of upsetting her, they informed the woman the dog was in quarantine, meanwhile sending an emergency alert to all stations around the world to find a duplicate.

Finally an exact replica was found, and the woman was brought to the airport. "This is not my dog," declared the woman.

"Madame, it has all the characteristics of your dog," said a nervous El Al employee.

"That is impossible," the woman said. "My dog is dead. I was bringing him to Israel to bury him."

Advertisements for Herself

MANY NOVELISTS eventually learn that they have to shoulder the burden of publicity themselves. Terry McMillan is one of the few who launched a preemptive strike right out of the starting gate. It must have been a good idea; with only three books in three years, she already seems to have a touch of star quality about her. What made her a success? The ability to write quickly but well, plus some hustle.

"I'm just a fast writer," she explains. "Writing, the whole process, is very exciting to me. I guess it's the way people get off on slot machines. You want to keep doing it."

As for the hustle: About nine months before her first novel, Mama, was published, McMillan read some how-to guides. "I had seen a lot of stories about books that were really good but nothing happened because publishers didn't stand behind them. It became quite apparent to me that once you finish writing a book it's a product, and, just like toothpaste or McDonald's, if people don't know about it they can't buy it."

At the time, she had a word processor, which made her campaign a little easier. She wrote a standard letter to bookstores, both specialists in African-American works and also general literature shops. Then she plugged in the buyer, the name of the store and the address. In a good day, she did 200 letters.

"Basically, I just introduced myself and said, 'I know this is rather unorthodox, but I have a first novel coming out and I don't know what my publisher is going to do to bring it to your attention. I'm afraid they might not do anything.' And then I told in one paragraph what I thought the book was about, another short paragraph about myself, and then I thanked them for ordering it, if they did."

She also wrote to the sales representatives for the publisher, thanking them for their efforts, and offered herself for readings. The result, says McMillan, was "things started happening." Mama, about a Michigan mother's travails, went though multiple printings; her second novel, Disappearing Acts, did even better; and her recently released Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction is commanding widespread attention.

McMillan, who will be speaking Oct. 27 at Spauldings Library in District Heights (call 301-699-3500 for information), describes the genesis of Breaking Ice this way:

"I was sitting in Wyoming, freezing and looking out my window at the snow and icicles -- just stuck there. And I was really trying to figure out what was it our work was trying to do or had been doing over a period of ten to 15 years. And I said, what black writers have been doing is breaking ice -- not only in getting into print, but in getting attention." As she writes in the introduction: "It's often been cold and hard, but we're chipping away, watching it slowly melt."

Faded Lilies

"THE CHINESE people are keen to note disinterestedness, and if these men who have risen up show that they have the good of the people at heart much may be done. If they have the corrupt heart of many of the old-time officials, China will remain as before, so far as the great mass of her men are concerned."

Does this sound like a Chinese noblewoman of a century ago? Or a Chinese noblewoman as freely translated by an English missionary? Or a Chinese noblewoman as invented by an English missionary?

Viking is making last-minute adjustments to Golden Lilies, a memoir in letters that was designed to combine the appeal of The Joy Luck Club and The Diary of an Edwardian Lady. But the material involved, of which the above is an extract, now seems less authentic than first assumed.

In its original form, Golden Lilies was called My Lady of the Chinese Courtyard. Novelist Elizabeth Goudge discovered the book in a dusty corner of a California library, and was sufficiently entranced by missionary Elizabeth Cooper's "translation" of the letters of late 19th-century noblewoman Kwei-li to adapt and republish them.

The problem, as Goudge writes in a revised version of her preface: "It is not clear what liberties Mrs. Cooper may have taken in embellishing these letters with her own research and observations." There is a long tradition of missionaries writing "memoirs" of the natives, which tends to lessen their value as authentic pieces of Eastern culture.