An Encouraging Reminder: Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis Was Rejected

An Encouraging Reminder: Kurt Vonnegut's Master's Thesis Was Rejected
Thanks to Open Culture and graphic designer Maya Eilam, we have an excuse to talk about Kurt Vonnegut and the decidedly unrigorous work that he submitted as his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago. In Palm Sunday, he says, it “was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun.” He’s probably right. But it’s a catchy enough concept:

The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads

But what about the shape of its assholes?

This is an asshole.

This is an asshole.

For story shapes, the vertical axis is good fortune at the top, ill fortune at the bottom, and the horizontal axis is that great Vonnegut obsession, Time, which in these graphs at least has the decency to unfold in a linear, straightforward direction, no matter what Rust Cohle might think. Eilam’s recently posted infographic illustrates several of Vonnegut’s sample plot trajectories, converting them from the sketches he would draw on blackboards at lectures into a cheerful internet-friendly format; here are a couple of them:

vonnegut graph 3

Vonnegut pointed out that the “Man in a hole story” (which doesn’t have to be a man and doesn’t literally need a hole) is probably the most reliably profitable plot around; it’s the Book of Job and the uplifting story told by teen mothers who get their GEDs and go on Ellen. Not coincidentally, it also isn’t too far removed from the Biblical story of creation, fall, and salvation. Which also follows much the same trajectory as Cinderella:

vonnegut graph 4

Here’s part of one of Vonnegut’s lectures, with him sketching on a chalkboard to explain his point:

Vonnegut’s own fictions tend to be messier, of course, what with all the war and whizzing around in time and planetwide catastrophes. Of course, he didn’t start writing novels until after he’d already figured out the chart idea, and he didn’t like being too easily pegged. He wasn’t terribly big on happy endings, at least not in his novels, although try as he might he never really went off into pure bleakness — I keep thinking of that line from Slaughterhouse-Five, the critic friend who tells him, “You know what you do? … You put bitter coatings on very sweet pills.” Vonnegut may have poked fun at the impulse that wants all graphs to point upward at their rightward edge, but he certainly recognized its attractions.

[Open Culture / visual.ly / Lapham’s Quarterly]

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  • msanthropesmr

    Vonnegut was genius – I saw him give this lecture at Virginia Tech in 1990, I think. His explanation of story arcs was excellent – I still remember the “punch line” of his explanation of Kafka – “And then, if things couldn’t get any worse, you wake up as a cockroach”.Ahh – the lectures at Virginia Tech – that year I saw Vonnegut, James Burke, and sat on the floor cross legged to hear Allen Ginsburg read Blake. I think I used to be smarter.

    • Annie Towne

      We all did.

    • glasspusher

      “The older I get, the better I was”

  • Metadude

    I have firsthand knowledge of this situation. I have read the original MA thesis. It was outdated but interesting in a general way, harkening back to the cultural evolutionists of the early 20th century, especially Frazier. My advisor at Chicago was the person who agreed to accept the manuscript of Cat’s Cradle as a thesis. It still resides in the seminar room in Haskell Hall. So, the narrative that U of C failed to recognize his genius is false.

  • Rick Strandlof

    so my thesis on elastic phase states in basaltic intrusions was not rejected does that mean i am a genius