Opinionista Ben Williams 3 September 2019

Books Column: It feels like we’re characters stuck in Kurt Vonnegut’s Creative Writing 101 class

Every day brings another sadistic turn of the screw. But not all hope is lost.

If God were a writer, and all of us mere characters in a 1,000-page dystopian extravaganza produced by a celestially demented mind that lost all sense of humour during the Mesoarchean Era, which novelist do you think He’d most resemble?

My vote goes to Kurt Vonnegut. It feels as if we’re living inside his Creative Writing 101 class, one of whose principles, he wrote in an introduction to a short story collection, is:

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

I’m made of the gristle and jelly that a dog leaves in its bowl for the flies to pick over, at this point – so unequal do I feel to the daily challenge of facing Twitter, much less Life. The news is unbearably grim, the times are unbearably tough. Someone, please call the sadists off.

In the same piece dishing out creative writing nuggets, Vonnegut also advises:

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

Someone to root for? That’s not half bad – a good idea, in fact. It just might help. In the spirit of Not All Is Lost, then – try to block out the ending of Cat’s Cradle – here are three writers from real life to cheer on.

First, Sam Beckbessinger. Her book Manage Your Money Like a F*cking Grownup is The Little Financial Advice Title That Could. Not only has it boxed with the international heavyweights on the Daily Maverick Best Seller list – hanging with the likes of the equally profane but ultimately less practical Mark Manson mega-hit, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – it also just won Book of the Year at the annual meeting of South African publishers and booksellers.

Sam Beckbessinger, ladies and gentlemen: someone to root for!

Second, Dr T. That is – Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, whose Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure was launched last month. She is the revolutionary that South Africans need right now: she brooks no bullshit, takes no prisoners, and dispenses advice on everything from how to give yourself (and others) a good, safe orgasm to how to give the government a good hiding in the streets, with equal panache.

Dr T, ladies and gentlemen: someone to root for!

Finally, Dame Professor Coach Her Honour Lady Excellency The Right Honourable Captain The Most Eminent Margaret Atwood, whose sequel to the astrological handbook for our times, The Handmaid’s Tale, will be out later this month – on 10 September to be precise – to worldwide fanfare.

No one knows much about her new book, The Testaments, aside from its title. Does Offred burst out of the van to lead the Mayday resistance to final glory, or does the Gilead counter-revolution make good, plunging the world into further generations of darkness? We’ll know on 9/11 (appropriately enough). But one thing’s for certain: if Margaret Atwood were God, the Creative Writing 101 course we’d be stuck in would be about how to avoid dystopia, not manufacture it.

Margaret Goddam Atwood, ladies and gentlemen: someone to root for!

Here’s what her fellow rootee Sam Beckbessinger had to say, upon learning that hers was South Africa’s Book of the Year:

“Books matter. Books can change the world. They can give us a different perspective on life. They can make us see that the world can be different than it is and that we can be different than we are.”

Go on, then: practise self-care and shut the world out with a book, if only for a few hours, and if only with the intention of changing the very same world when you’re done. Sam, Dr T, Margaret – and even Kurt, one suspects – are probably rooting for you, too. ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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