Recently, we came across Kurt Vonnegut’s term paper assignment for his 1965 “Form of Fiction” course at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, recently reprinted in Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield. Needless to say, the assignment is almost a short story in and of itself — filled with Vonnegut’s delicious turns of phrase and serious expectations, plus his advice on how best to read fiction, or in particular, how best to read short stories that one can then talk or write about well. Inspired, we hunted around for other famous authors with opinions on how best to read — get a little instruction in something you’ve been doing all your life after the jump.
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.
Read the full assignment here.