Our most beloved writers were often teachers of literature before or alongside their writing profession. David Foster Wallace, Stephen King, Zadie Smith, Brandon Sanderson (still teaching), Frank McCourt, John McPhee (still teaching), J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few.
I find it fascinating to dig up some remnants of their teaching syllabus and imagine what it would be like to be a student in their class.
Imagine if you were in Kurt Vonnegut’s class:
I find it even more fascinating – and educational – to actually follow their homework assignments.
My particular favourite is a term-paper assignment from Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Form of Fiction’ course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
You may have already read about this assignment and, like me, noticed that the book required to do the work is out of print.
Well you can still do Vonnegut’s homework assignment even if you don’t have a physical copy of the book handy!
I did a little digging and found sources for all of the texts you will need. So you can load up your Kindle and dive right in.
First let’s look at the assignment and then I’ll give you the sources.
Kurt Vonnegut Reading Assignment
FORM OF FICTION TERM PAPER ASSIGNMENT
November 30, 1965
This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro. It will probably be Animal Husbandry 108 by the time Black February rolls around. As was said to me years ago by a dear, dear friend, “Keep your hat on. We may end up miles from here.”
As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”
I invite you to read the fifteen tales in Masters of the Modern Short Story (W. Havighurst, editor, 1955, Harcourt, Brace, $14.95 in paperback). Read them for pleasure and satisfaction, beginning each as though, only seven minutes before,you had swallowed two ounces of very good booze. “Except ye be as little children …”
Then reproduce on a single sheet of clean, white paper the table of contents of the book, omitting the page numbers, and substituting for each number a grade from A to F. The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it. I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.
Proceed next to the hallucination that you are a minor but useful editor on a good literary magazine not connected with a university. Take three stories that please you most and three that please you least, six in all, and pretend that they have been offered for publication. Write a report on each to be submitted to a wise, respected, witty and world-weary superior.
Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique. Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.
Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not bubble. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know.
Where to find the texts for the assignment
Isn’t that the most beautiful literary assignment you’ve ever seen?
As someone who has designed syllabuses and taught classes for a living, this particular assignment makes several of my most engorged appendages swell with jealousy.
This is the kind of assignment that will succeed in achieving what David Foster Wallace aimed to achieve with his own classes. To use his words here, this assignment ‘aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write—clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly—about stuff you’ve read.’
Now – where do we find those texts?
You could track down a smelly old secondhand copy of Masters of the Modern Short Story (which actually has 24 short stories as opposed to 15 quoted by Vonnegut)…
Or you could just follow these links and grab a bunch of ebook versions so you can dig into some homework.
I’ve tried to track down free copies as far as possible. Many of the stories are in the common domain so you’ll find them (usually in bigger collections) at places like Amazon and Gutenberg. If you have to pay for any, it’s usually a small price to get something part of a collection. There are just three stories I couldn’t quite track down (they are marked). If you manage to find these, please let me know.
- Joseph Conrad – Youth
- John Galsworthy – The Apple Tree
- Saki (H. H. Munro) – The Seventh Pullet
- W. Somerset Maugham – Lord Mountdrago
- A. E. Coppard – Arabesque: The Mouse
- E. M. Forster – The Celestial Omnibus
- James Joyce – A Little Cloud
- Virginia Woolf – The New Dress
- D. H. Lawrence – The Rocking-Horse Winner
- Katherine Mansfield – The Daughters of the Late Colonel
- Stella Benson – The Desert Islander
- Aldous Huxley – The Claxtons
- Edith Wharton – The Debt
- Sherwood Anderson – Brother Death
- Ring Lardner – Harmony
- Conrad Aiken – Mr. Arcularis
- Wilbur Daniel Steele – For They Do Not Know What They Do*
- Katherine Ann Porter – Maria Concepción
- William Faulkner – The Bear
- Stephen Vincent Benét – Too Early Spring
- Ernest Hemingway – My Old Man
- John Steinbeck – Flight
- William Saroyan – The Pomegranate Trees*
- Eudora Welty – Old Mr. Marblehall*
Most people won’t follow Vonnegut’s assignment in full. Like the Bradbury Trio, it looks like too much work.
But if you’re looking to boost your appreciation of literature, improve your writing style by osmosis, and skyrocket your ability to adeptly critically assess why you like or dislike a piece of art, this is a fantastic exercise – and a bunch of fun to boot.
Follow Vonnegut’s advice, read the stories (one a day, one a week, whatever you can manage), give them a grade, and write up your reviews.
If you want to share your reports with someone, feel free to hit me up. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.