Take a look in Palm Sunday, the “autobiographical collage” of renegade genius Kurt Vonnegut, and you’ll find that the nonconformist writer once engaged in an interesting bit of self-reflection. Thirteen books into his career, Vonnegut decided to grade his own work, including Palm Sunday itself from within its own pages, as if evaluating a student. This is how the report stacked up:
Player Piano B
The Sirens of Titan A
Mother Night A
Cat’s Cradle A-Plus
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater A
Welcome to the Monkey House B-Minus
Happy Birthday, Wanda June D
Breakfast of Champions C
Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons C
Palm Sunday C
His addendum read: “I have graded my separate works from A to D. The grades I hand out to myself do not place me in literary history. I am comparing myself with myself. Thus can I give myself an A-Plus for
Cat’s Cradle, while knowing that there was a writer named William Shakespeare. The report card is chronological, so you can plot my rise and fall on graph paper, if you like.”
He preferred his earlier work, not unsurprising considering these novels are most beloved for drawing on a wellspring of the sort of wild, untampered creativity that can run dry if mined often enough.
Occasionally it can be good to be as objective and biting as Vonnegut when we square up our own work. After all, we should know better than anyone whether or not we’re improving, but what should really be absorbed here is Vonnegut’s choice of lanyard; measuring himself against himself.
Trying to measure the gradient of your work against a different, often masterful writer’s can be less informative than simply interrogating your own. By comparing previous projects, a writer can gain insight into what made one piece better than the other, about the direction they should be taking their work in, about what ideas continually crop up and govern their stories.
This subjective measurement helps keep things in perspective, though it seems even our advocate for this method fell short of his goal. In an interview years later, recalling his self-assessment, Vonnegut notes
that he gave Slapstick the lowest possible grade of D, considering it a failure, because critics had trounced it upon release, and surely “they knew more about it than (he) did”.
He reevaluated the novel in the intervening years, finding it to have a lot more merit than he had given himself credit for. Even with caveats, self-assessment always has its trappings. Funny to think that even someone with an attitude as flippant as Vonnegut’s could be swayed by outside opinion when they’re explicitly trying to measure their own performance.
Still, it’s an experiment that’s worth conducting. Rather than relying solely on first impressions and individual critique for each project, gather your work and set about comparing each with a critical, but pragmatic eye. Past a certain point, improving your writing has far less to do with emulating others and everything to do with besting yourself.