The Literature Lessons of George Saunders


Leigh Haber: You write that “in a well-told story, the reader and the writer are so close that they form a single unit”. Is this closeness important just to produce the best possible story, or is there something deeper at work?

A swim in the pond in the rain

George Saunders: It is a very good principle of life: always assume the full and interesting humanity of the person with whom you interact, making it a habit to set aside any assumptions or projections I may have about a person. In the first drafts when I write, I tend to caricature. I know too much about a character; he or she simply does my bidding. Then the story chafes at that and I have to start finding out more about the character, being open to what the story wants (the real energy of the moment in prose). There is a mysterious method which, for me, consists of focusing on individual sentences – their sound, their veracity. If a sentence sounds bad, it’s often because it contains a lie. So by trying to squeeze the lies out of your work, you squeeze out the easy projections. They are one and the same thing: “lies” and “projections”.

You write in Swimming in a pond in the rain: “The real beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration of the reader’s mind that has occurred along the way.” What is an example of this?

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye awoke a feeling in Saunders he hadn't felt since Catholic school.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye awoke a feeling in Saunders he hadn’t felt since Catholic school.

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I remember reading The bluest eye for the first time, when our children were small. The “alteration” had something to do with feeling an intense identification with the main character, which took me back to Catholic school, when I felt real empathy and connection with everyone, inspired by what I imagined Jesus to be. Toni Morrison kind of awakened that mindset in me – she reminded me that everyone and everything is sacred. She moved my mind into a state of hyper-compassion. I was a different person when I was done.

What does reading fiction have to do with empathy?

When a person walks around in a human body (as people tend to do, ha ha), it feels like the consciousness that emerges is the only one. Reading fiction helps us understand that this is not the case. We imaginatively inhabit another person (the character) through the language of another person (the author), and yet everything feels real and vital, as if it were happening to us. The magic lesson is that our mind is a malleable and temporary thing. We’re not stuck in ourselves – or don’t have to be. There, inside all these other bodies, there are consciousnesses that also think that they are the only true consciousnesses.

We might come away from reading a work of fiction all the more willing to believe that guy over there is as real as we are, and a bit more interested in how things seem to him. But it is important to keep in mind that all of this is temporary, personal and gradual. Fiction has yet to solve the world’s big problems, but my feeling is that, at the local level (inside a given human head), it is doing…something.

How does reading sharpen our “built-in, shockproof shit detector” – Hemingway’s words – in sharpness?

According to Ernest Hemingway, reading helps us refine our
Scribner According to Ernest Hemingway, reading helps us sharpen our “built-in, shockproof shit-detector.”

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Language, in the hands of a good writer, is good enough to get in there and try to represent how things are in the world. When a writer does a good job, we get that shock of recognition when something true has been said, when it’s been described so well that we recognize it in our own lives. Conversely, when someone tries to sell us a lie (“Everyone in that little town was brave and good” or “The air in the chemical plant smelled so fresh and clean”), that’s a different kind of choc. We back out of a story like that, because we suddenly lost communication with the writer.

As in Chekhov’s Olenka, how getting to grips with a deeply flawed character and loving her anyway translates into real life.?

Anton Chekhov is considered one of the greatest short story writers of all time.
Anton Chekhov is considered one of the greatest short story writers of all time.

You know how when there’s a person you have a complicated, maybe even conflicted, relationship with, and that person dies, there’s a period of… reconsideration? There might be a little flash of, “Well, it wasn’t her fault she was like that. She was just. She was like a bush or a deer or a sunset – she came into the world somehow. I think fiction has a version of it: it can teach us to see another person as a tender and temporary phenomenon, who had no choice in how they came into the world or what happened. once she got here. In other words, a story helps us step out of the present moment and our own (often self-protective) concerns and see others for what they are: beings worthy of attention.

How can reading fiction help us better understand, or tolerate, the vagaries of life?

Fiction teaches us about mutability and the fact that nothing lasts, as in The Great Gatsby, writes Saunders.
Fiction teaches us about mutability and the fact that nothing lasts, as in The Great Gatsby, writes Saunders.

By providing perspective. When this curve arrives, if you’re a reader, you’ll probably know that it’s not the first of its kind in history. Also, through the situations it describes, the fiction informs us about mutability and the fact that nothing lasts (Gatsby’s mansion ends up emptying), but also about its unfolding (we have an expectation of the beginning of story which seems very solid but which turns upside down: a lesson on the danger of waiting or on impermanence). Fiction also shows us that other people suffer and struggle just like us. We are not alone, no matter how we feel.

People have always been overwhelmed by life – it’s “nasty and brutal and short”, and we feel it even when we’re in it. So, storytelling can be seen as an organized way of asking, “What’s going on here, and what am I supposed to do about it?”

What has being a writing teacher taught you about life?

Most of the time, this talent is eternal – each generation shines in its own way. You can never go wrong trusting a youngster and trying to think the best of him. And that artists can cross the generational divide. There is something timeless about anyone who sincerely commits to making a work of art. Perhaps more importantly, it taught me that it really is possible to clear your mind of any preconceptions you might have about another person and truly receive what they offer. All the usual decorative traits (age, sex, class, race, etc.) are just beautiful embellishments in addition to the essential person, and we can find and know that person, and can encourage them to come out more fully, with our trust. And then, because it’s offered from that mindset, your guidance isn’t all tainted with agenda, superiority, and condescension, and the student can possibly receive it.

Read Story Club, by George Saunders.

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