I had the great pleasure many years back to hear Kurt Vonnegut Jr. speak at my college. He delivered a witty and funny and irreverent speech enhanced with hand-drawn graphs that depicted various story structures, some of which worked and some of which didn’t.
Eventually a version of this speech was printed in Vonnegut’s book A Man Without a Country, and recorded versions are available on the internet, such this one here on the Brain Pickings site. It’s short and funny and worth checking out, especially if you’re a writer. Like Vonnegut’s writing itself, it packs a lot into a few choice words. Go ahead and do it now, or click on to something else, because now I’m going to talk about it.
Beyond the video, Vonnegut goes on to say: “The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say. Is anybody going to argue that it isn’t?” He proceeds to discuss Hamlet and how impossible it is to know whether any individual incident is good or bad. The story of Hamlet is ambiguous. We are as indecisive as Hamlet himself when it comes to pegging whether we’re “up” or “down” on Vonnegut’s “Good/Ill Fortune” axis.
The horizontal line, then, is pretty much a straight vector with no ups and downs.
Then Vonnegut says something puzzling: “I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.”
Why “Arapaho”? Where’d that come from?
Well, you won’t find it in A Man Without a Country and I couldn’t find it after diligent minutes of online searching, so I’m going to tell you now: In the speech I attended back in 1980-something, Vonnegut opened with a graph of a typical Native American creation myth. The GI line was yardstick-level as a character walked from here to there and did this and that and that’s why we have rivers or stars in the sky or whatever. Vonnegut considered this to be a boring story structure.
I remember this element quite clearly because I love mythology, particularly the myths of the randy Greek and Roman gods and the high adventure of the Norse lineup. I read a good number of Native American myths, too, and while they were imaginative, I was never engaged by the stories themselves. I felt bad about that, as if I were too stupid to find them fascinating.
Vonnegut had just explained to me that the fault lay not with me, but with the storytelling as viewed through our Western/European lens.
I don’t know why he took that graph out of his speech. I don’t like to think it, but I’m afraid he might have succumbed to political correctness–criticizing Native Americans for anything just isn’t done these days. Calling their religious stories “boring” had perhaps already landed Vonnegut in hot water. I don’t know.
But if you wondered about that line about Shakespeare being as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho, now you know.