I’ve been reading Kurt Vonnegut’s latest work, a man without a country, and as always with this great writer I’ve been struck by how simply he writes.
I’m sure a lot of writers get into putting words on paper because they actually like words – their complexities, their implications, their undercurrents. But with Vonnegut it’s almost as though he’s gone past that. He now recognises that it’s more important to be read widely and understood than to ‘dazzle’ with erudition and the use of words of more than two syllables. So he uses the most simple of sentence construction and the simplest of words.
And you know what? His writing has enormous power, dignity and truth because of it. Here’s the briefest of samples:
“Many years ago I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.”
The simplicity lies in the straightforward sentence construction, without any sub-clauses. It lies in the use of active verbs and simple vocabulary. And it lies in the rhythms he establishes by using the word ‘dream’ in each of the three sentences, and by the repetition of the phrase “when there were no/was no”. The most complex word is ‘generation’, which has four syllables, but is a simple word to understand nonetheless.
Reading Vonnegut, to me, is a continual masterclass in how to communicate through writing. It’s as though he learned the lessons that George Orwell tried to teach in “Politics and the English Language” and took them one step further.
This simplicity, and power, is something we could all do well to aspire towards. That is, if we want our writing to mean something.