Kurt Vonnegut was in a mood to talk about writing yesterday. That was a good thing, since seated around him were about 30 students in the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars -- and nearly all could not find a single question to ask one of America's esteemed men of letters.
There was a time, maybe 20 years ago, when college students would have peppered him with questions about the writing of his classic novel "Slaughter-House Five," about his mordant short-story collection "Welcome to the Monkey House," about his satirical style or his observations on America's cultural decline. But it was 1991, and Mr. Vonnegut, 69, no longer is a campus icon, nor is he in current literary fashion. Yesterday, save some prodding from Writing Seminars professors John Barth and Stephen Dixon, and a reticent question or two from a few students, it was an hour punctuated by awkward silences.
"This happens sometimes," Mr. Barth acknowledged afterward. "I don't know if the students get shy or whatever, but a big-name writer will come in and they just clam up."
But this seemed to bother Mr. Vonnegut not a whit. He was the picture of low-key charm: Rumpled and sleepy-eyed, he stretched out comfortably on the couch, looking bemused and somehow finding the ironic and the quirky in just about everything. He went on genially and wittily about the differences between male and female writers, the role of writing schools, why he doesn't write short stories any more, and What He Really Wishes He Had Done With His Life.
That last question came from Mr. Barth, himself a successful novelist. He wondered if Mr. Vonnegut perhaps had a few woulda-coulda's locked away in his psyche.
"I've achieved all I could possibly have wanted," Mr. Vonnegut answered cheerfully before giving the question a moment's thought. "I wish I had given the world Sherlock Holmes. I wish I had given the world 'The Wizard of Oz.' I wish I had given the world 'Treasure Island.' But I do have to be content with what I have done."
A minute later, the real answer came in -- as usual, from left field. After telling the students, "I think that TV, objectively, is making us very stupid," he broke in quickly, deadpan: "But I would rather have written 'Cheers' rather than anything I've written. It seems that everything that comes out of someone's mouth in that show is wonderful."
Mr. Vonnegut was in Baltimore for a speech last night at Hopkins on "The Importance of Free Speech: Thoughts by an Author." His speech is the final of a series in the Eisenhower Symposium Series that dealt with the topic "The Imprisonment of Ideas: The First Amendment in Crisis."
The topic befitted Mr. Vonnegut's reputation as a serious, and at times extremely pessimistic, observer of American society -- in his last novel, 1990's "Hocus Pocus," he depicts a United States that is polarized by racism, as well as financially and spiritually bankrupt. But during his session with the students, talk veered toward the less philosophical. There was, for instance, this pronouncement about how male and female writers differ:
"Women can write about almost anything. Men have to do it a couple of streets away -- they use science fiction, cowboy books, mysteries and the like."
There were chuckles from the group. "That's an egregious statement," Mr. Barth told him teasingly.
Mr. Vonnegut smiled. "Women are discussing life all the time," he answered. "Look at high school -- even then, the girls are talking about what is really going on.
"As for the boys, they put on these helmets with holes around the ears" -- he placed his hands around his own ears to illustrate, and he indeed looked quite goofy -- "and they run up and down the field with people yelling at them. That's what I mean." It was an odd illustration but an effective one, judging from the appreciative laughter in the room.
"I really like his generosity, his decency and his humor -- which isn't a sweet humor but somehow doesn't take away from the first two qualities," said Andy Markham, 27, a graduate student in the Writing Seminars who was one of Mr. Vonnegut's few questioners. "And he's written three books that really helped me get started as a writer."
Naturally, someone in the group did wonder how helpful a university writing school could be to a struggling author. Mr. Vonnegut recounted his own experience as an instructor in the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop in the mid-1960s.
"What I tried to teach the young writer was sociability -- to be a good date for the reader," said Mr. Vonnegut, who numbered novelist John Irving among his students (they now are friends and neighbors on Long Island).
But he could not resist rattling a few cages later on. "Almost any writing school is a scandal -- you're almost all bound to fail," he said earnestly, and a few students drew in their breath. What would he say next?
Mr. Vonnegut paused a beat, looking around the room as if he were waiting for some kind of challenge; he seemed to savor this moment. Then he went on: "It would be intolerable if they ran a pharmacy school and nearly everybody failed. But that's what writing schools are all about. Hardly any of you will make it."
Anybody could tell this group that writing is a tough profession; Kurt Vonnegut could make the point more memorably with a slightly outrageous statement that, upon further reflection, made perfect sense. And, before retiring to his hotel room to prepare for his speech, he gave one more vivid reminder of what lay ahead for them as writers.
Writing, he said, "is like a World War I charge -- everyone goes over the top at dawn. And almost everyone's going to be draped over the barbed wire or will fall back into a shell hole. The attrition rate is terrible.
"But thank God so many people are trying to write, or we wouldn't have a culture."