Sunday, April 15, 2007

So it goes

Kurt Vonnegut now exists in all of his past moments, but there will be no more future ones. Vonnegut was/is a an odd character. As an author, he wrote rather disjointed texts in the unflowery language of a college freshman, with short paragraphs that often end in a punch line. He made it a point to write nothing high-minded, to avoid creating literature.

When Billy finally got home to Ilium after the airplane crash, he was quiet for a while. He had a terrible scar across the top of his skull. He didn't resume practice. He had a housekeeper. His daughter came over almost every day. (Slaughter-House Five, p. 25)

None of his characters were heroes. Some of them weren't even interesting. Billy Pilgrim, the time-travelling character of Slaughter-House Five, is an optometrist. Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a Service Engineer with General Electric, turned Nazi. Many of his characters are writers, usually unsuccessful ones. One of these is Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer that no one has ever heard of.

His books are about death, war, religion, more death. And somehow the man managed to be adolescent throughout his life, at least as far as his writing is concerned.
"Maturity," Bokonon tells us, "is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." (Cat's Cradle, p. 198)
I had my own run-in with Vonnegut, or with a distant digital surrogate of him. The story is rather Vonnegutian in nature. In 1999 I wrote a short piece called "Information Granfalloons" that I put on my web site. The term Granfalloons comes from Cat's Cradle, and it represents a group that is based on meaningless characteristics. In the book, Hoosiers are an example of a Granfalloon. There is nothing important in anyone's life about belonging to such a group. A meaningful group is a Karass. If you lived in a commune, you would probably see the members of the commune as a Karass, but a Karass can also be people you encounter throughout your life who make some kind of difference in your life. (When Vonnegut explains it, it comes out as a joke, of course.) Trying to explain why the Internet is not a library, I used Vonnegut's terms from Cat's Cradle: the Internet is a Granfalloon, and the library is a Karass.

I was very surprised, a year or so later, to see in my web logs hits coming to my site from I went onto the site and tracked it down to the page where they were (and still are) selling an ebook version of Cat's Cradle. Rosetta was at the time embroiled in a copyright battle with some hard copy publishers of its books who claimed that only they had the rights to produce the books. (See second part of this article by Lolly Gassaway.) Rosetta was claiming that the original contracts were for the publishing of books, and that the dictionary defined a book as "printing on paper." Since the ebooks were not printed on paper, the contract for the hardcopy did not not apply. The judge agreed, and Rosetta is still selling these books, victorious in its copyright battle.

There's a link from the Cat's Cradle page called "Commentary" that links directly to my piece on Information Granfalloons. I was both pleased and a little miffed. They hadn't asked permission, and I didn't like my piece being used on a commercial web site. But it seemed only right to take a Vonnegutian attitude about it. I could conclude that my piece, should anyone actually read it once they reached my web site, was as likely to put off a potential purchaser as it was to encourage him or her to buy the book. The only plausible approach for me to take was to just say "So it goes."
I hope they bury him with a tombstone like the one from Slaughterhouse Five. It reads:
"Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt."
It's funny, because we know it isn't true.


Anonymous said...

Hm, do you think that someone should (even just for politeness) ask permission before linking to a public web page?

That surprises me. To me a link is really only a citation (albeit one which magically takes you to the work cited--so long as it's still there), and just like a citation, no permission is or should be needed (by either law or even courtesy) to cite or link to your work, which you've made publically available.

Whenever I see people asking permission to link to something, or expressing the opinion that permission should be obtained--I'm always a bit surprised, and think they don't 'get' it. But I'm even more surprised to find you appearing in this role, Karen!

Jonathan Rochkind

Karen Coyle said...


I don't mind people linking to my works, but this particular link seems to have been incorporated into a form of advertising. I usually put a CC license on everything with "attribution" and "non-commercial." This seems to be neither. The link doesn't have my name, it just says "Commentary." And it's under a heading that says: Rosettabooks Connections, as if I have any connection with the company -- I don't. I have to say that it's a mixed emotion for me, because it's flattering in a way.

I do appreciate some requests or "heads ups" about links. For example, if someone is linking to something of mine as part of a course the request (or information) is a reminder to me that there are people depending on my not changing the locations of those items in the middle of a semester. It also lets me know how my work is being used, and it's nice to know that.

I was once at a seminar where I proposed that web links should be bi-directional. I thought they should work like the "see also from" references in authority records. No one agreed with me. But if the link were bi-directional I could create a web of pages that link to mine -- basically, my own personal Google page rank. I would like that -- I would like to know when people are linking to me because it tells me both about my work and about how it is affecting others. (p.s. searching for a site on search engines doesn't work well)