“Write like a human” has been my advice to university students for years; imagine my delight to see those same words from Kurt Vonnegut to his pupils in Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style. For any writer, novice or not, advice on the craft from someone like Vonnegut is well worth your time. Fans of his will wince a bit at my purposeful use of a semicolon in my opening sentence.
The book’s cover lists Kurt Vonnegut and Suzanne McConnell as authors, though he’d been dead for 12 years by the time this book was published. The attribution is appropriate. McConnell includes so much of his work and words, it’s only fair he gets top billing.
McConnell was a student of Vonnegut’s at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went on to a lifelong friendship with the storied writer and his family. Not meant to be a biography but so much of his life and personality inspired or surfaced within Vonnegut’s writing, this book wouldn’t be complete without those details. With her close connection to the family, McConnell includes rare photos and reproductions of letters, marked-up drafts and—my favorite—assignments and notes to students. I now need to up my game with my university course materials.
McConnell gives us bite-sized reading, with attention to page layout that would bring a sly smile to Vonnegut. It’s an organized primer—inspiration, mechanics—up to and including how to build community and take care of oneself in this solitary business we call writing.
Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style by Kurt Vonnegut & Suzanne McConnell. Seven Stories Press, 2019.
Reviewer bio: Lisa Graham-Peterson is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. More about Lisa at lisagrahampeterson.com.
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