In this letter Kurt Vonnegut writes to fellow Cornell alumnus Knox Burger, who published Vonnegut’s first short story as the fiction editor of Collier’s. Burger had left the magazine to become a book editor at Dell by the time of this letter’s writing. Vonnegut thanks his friend for reading his first novel, Player Piano, published that year by Scribner. The novel is a dystopian story about mechanization, detailing the decline and eventual irrelevance of human labor. In an interview for Playboy magazine, Vonnegut reports that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of [Aldous Huxley’s] Brave New World.” The “Max” referred to in the letter is Max Wilkinson, one of Vonnegut’s first agents.
Tuesday 21 July 1952
It’s good of you to read the book and take an interest in it. I’m sorry about its roughnesses and slow passages. So help me God, I didn’t know they were there. They wouldn’t have been there (in profusion, I guess) if the book had passed through the hands of an editor, but it went from me to the typesetters… What roughnesses and slow passages are you talking about? …
Some enterprising advertising salesman sold Scribner’s on advertising the book in S-F magazines, or they wouldn’t have thought of it. I took Rosenau to Scribner’s so he could give their advertising & publicity set-up the double-0, and he was favorably impressed. Young and enthusiastic and optimistic and energetic, said Rosenau, though inexperienced (in terms of Rosenau). $1500 has been appropriated for them to spread around on ads for the book, and it’s going to go to some S-F magazines, The New York, the Saturday Review, and the N.Y. Times Book Review. And there’s a fair chance, I hear, of our getting a couple of $35,000 pages from Life for nothing. Nothing sure about that, of course. I saw a G-E career broken one, because a guy went around telling all the vice presidents that he’d placed a big G-E story with Life. It’s been about five years since Life accepted it, and any day now…
I guess the jacket is pretty dead. I was on it originally, but was taken off because the green made me look like death warmed over. That’s what they said.
I’d love to make Max sweat, Knox, but I’ve never got it straight what it is he’s supposed to do for me. I hope to become a more difficult client as time goes on, but right now I don’t know what to ask for.
Exciting new things happening to Collier’s. A fiction folio. What alarms me is the ease with which the folio may be detached from the rest of the book. And so many surgeons looking for a quick and easy reputation. Fictionectomy. Dakin’s incision. Literary jim-crowism (step to the back of the bus).
Maybe it’s a fine thing. The fiction folio in the 7/26 issue looked more substantial and interesting than article folio. As long as fiction is going to be set apart, the point of separation in the book should be more dramatic than it is. I didn’t find the little red box on page 42 until the third trip through. If the articles get any worse, the fiction folio should secede.
For $20,000, I will put the article side back on its feet during the next year. I was editor of the General Electric Monogram, which never lost a subscriber. This is a firm offer. Love to Otis.
From Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Edited by Dan Wakefield. New York: Delacorte Press, 2012. pp. 44-46.
Read Vonnegut’s first short story, “Thanasphere,” published by Knox Burger in Collier’s Weekly in September, 1950.
Read The New York Times’ 1952 review of Player Piano, in which Vonnegut is portended to be a “sharp-eyed satirist … whether he is a trustworthy prophet or not.”
Read McSweeney’s 2002 interview “The Best Jokes are Dangerous,” in which Vonnegut discusses World War II, his 1999 work God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian and what he refers to as Bill Clinton’s “oral office.”