If you've ever read a George Saunders story, here's something vaguely unsettling to consider: He's one of the most down-to-earth guys you're ever likely to meet. Which means what? Every average Joe is walking around with crazy shit like this in his head?
It's one thing to be a small country, but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.
— from The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
We'll be doing some innovative sheep-praising, which you might think is nutty, but after you see the impressive gains in wool yields, I think you'll do a one-eighty. They come up and lick your hands as if to say: Hey, I like who I am.
— from "Bounty" (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline)
Giff's in the ChristLife Reenactors. During the reenactments they eat only dates and drink only grapejuice out of period-authentic flasks. He says this weekend's reenactment was on the hill determined to be the most topographically similar to Calvary in the entire Northeast. I ask who he did. He says the guy who lent Christ his mule on Palm Sunday. Rimney says it's just like Giff to let an unemployed Jew borrow his ass.
— from "CommComm" (In Persuasion Nation)
Saunders has won three National Magazine Awards; four times his stories have appeared in O. Henry Awards
anthologies. Realism, however, is not his shtick. "If I try to write a sensitive story about a recently divorced couple living in Syracuse, it's going to be lame. I don't have the chops to make it interesting," he claims. "The energy of the prose goes down."
Three volumes of stories, a political fable, a captivating children's book, and an essay collection on the way — quite an output for the one-time geologist whose literary debut landed just over ten years ago. "Mr. Saunders's satiric vision of America is dark and demented," Michiko Kakutani announced in 1996. "It is also ferocious and very funny."
And still the prose goes deeper than that, beyond uproarious humor and biting social commentary. What sets Saunders's work apart is the wonderfully twisted path he blazes, yes, but also its destination, a compassionate and deeply vulnerable heart.
Dave: Have you ever participated in a reenactment?
George Saunders: No, but I play the guitar, and many years ago I played at a friend's wedding at the Genesee Country Museum in Rochester. Unlike the place in the book, it's really cool — they fastidiously restored 19th century houses. We went early for the rehearsal. We had the whole church to ourselves for the day. I've taken my daughters back there a couple times to look around.
Dave: I wondered whether after writing about several of these places you'd be invited to visit one.
Saunders: One time somebody had contacted me to go to Disneyland and write about that, but no.
There's something about those theme parks. If I stick to one of those I tend to write more interesting prose than if I'm trying to write about something more quotidian. If I try to write realism, the energy of the prose goes down.
It might be that if literature is a kind of scale model, then a scale model inside a scale model can be fun. To say: Literature is a theme park where we rarify the air and leave things out and cut to the chase, basically, in the hopes of giving ourselves pleasure, in the same way that theme parks do.
Dave: So here's a theory, developing now for all of thirty-six hours: Reality TV is not unlike a theme park modeled after contemporary life. It shows how we live now.
Dave: And one reason it's so popular is because Americans are too narcissistic to care about other cultures and too lazy to seek them out.
Saunders: That's probably true, but for me it's more technical or functional. Having done a few theme park stories, suddenly you have a bag of tricks. You don't want to use a bag of tricks, so your mind looks around for something similar. Reality TV is at hand. It allows the same kind of linguistic bypass that I first discovered through theme parks.
To me, what's scariest is the blank page. Most authors go for whatever will flood in there easily. If you know ballet, you go right to ballet. If you're Turgenev, you know the Russian countryside and you talk about that. Somehow, the pop culture stuff, I have a lot of it, and I know what to do with it. If I'm writing a story made all of commercials, I won't be able to trip myself up with my fake-Hemingway impulses. Thematic elements arise, but at the point of starting out it's more of a survival tactic.
If I try to write a sensitive story about a recently divorced couple living in Syracuse, it's going to be lame. I don't have the chops to make it interesting. But if I write about a recently divorced couple that happens to work at a Siberian Gulag theme park, I'm going to get to the same emotional stuff and I'm going to have more surface material to work with. It comes from not wanting to fail. You do the thing that has energy.
Dave: It's hard to talk about humor. Comedy is tragedy plus time, according to Alan Alda's character in Crimes and Misdemeanors. What do you think? How does humor work?
Saunders: To me, it's just the truth told faster. The truth told without the normalizing bumpers we normally put on.
You and I, we don't know each other, but we're talking nicely. One truth is that in x number of years we're both going to be corpses in a box — not the same box, unless something happens. But that's weird. If you wrote about it in a purple tone, it wouldn't be funny, but if you state the truth abruptly in an unexpected way, we laugh.
I do write some pieces that are just trying to be funny — I'm writing for the Guardian now, and those pieces are mostly trying to be funny in five hundred words — but usually I'm trying to trim out the normalizing bullshit, the literary ticks. Frank, an attractive man in his mid-thirties, very interested in the insurance business, made his way up Bushberry Road. Uch. Who's saying that? As you start cutting it, you end up getting into some realm of higher truth.
I'm not sure, but for me humor is a byproduct of some other factor, maybe a sense of urgency or an unusual vector through the material. Humor is a side product.
Dave: So much of your writing sets the mundane and the absurd, extremes, side by side. In "Bounty," for instance: "Tanner's is a brothel in a former Safeway." And another great passage in the same story — it's actually a single word that amplifies the conflict:
|What was I supposed to do, contradict Dad in front of Mack? To tell you the truth, Dad scares me. I wouldn't be surprised if someday he didn't hold me down and burn a hole in my neck. Gosh, we probably shouldn't be going on like this.|
Innocence and horror in the same passage.
Saunders: When people talk about writing, I always imagine a telescope. There are two ends. One is the end you look in when you're reading, and it tends to be more analytical and conceptual. The other end is the one you look in when you're actually writing. At the moment that sentence ended, about burning a hole in his neck, my mind is looking for a next line. Why does it go to "gosh"? Complicated.
I think it's because I'm aware that the previous line was so stark. And I'm vaguely aware that the literary convention would be for the character to be some scowling brute of a man. Eh. Boring. We know that one. So your mind veers a little and asks, "Can I counterbalance that?" Gosh. It's that quick.
It's more or less a hustler's instinct. I was raised Catholic in Chicago. As kids, we were constantly trying to stay out of the way of nuns, but once you got busted there was always a way to spin yourself out of trouble. It wasn't exactly a lie; it was a tonal lie. "Sister, I'm really sorry about that. I didn't mean to push Father Jim down the well."
I'm writing, you're reading, and if you sense some big fat Moral with a capital M coming, and I sense that you sense that, I can undercut it with a line. In such a subtle way. It's not conceptual. Suddenly you're back on my side again. Really, a whole story is just that: an elaborate, real-time dance. I think that's actually the answer to almost every question about craft.
You give your reader credit. You don't say, "Let me teach you something. I know a little something you don't." Instead, you say, "Wow, isn't this life weird that we're in together? You're in a different place, but still we have this in common." Talking frankly, in a way that you would talk to yourself. Then you get that beautiful experience, like a sidecar: I'm leaning left, and you're with me.
Whether it's Nabokov or Shakespeare or Toni Morrison, any of the great writers, you feel that they credited you a hundred percent and they always knew where you were. It's part of that great literary game, the reader thinking, I'm going to close this fucker if you don't pick it up, I'm going to close this book. The author is playing that game: Give me another line. To me, that's the whole experience.
Dave: There's so much texture in your stories. You describe in such vivid specifics. More than once, I was reminded of Amy Hempel's writing. There's very little slack in the prose. But at the same time the voices you use, especially in dialogue, create a slack tone because they're colloquial, they're not highly educated. It made me wonder how much you refine and edit.
Saunders: A lot. Eighty percent of the work is that. And actually, Amy teaches at Syracuse now.
Dave: I didn't know that.
Saunders: I love her work, for the same reason. You can feel the power of her deliberation. She reads those short pieces, and you can see that none of it is there on accident, even if it sounds colloquial or if it sounds as if it just flows out. We've talked about it. She's a reviser. I love that level of revision.
You know what, though? You develop a shtick. My shtick has always been, "Yes, I revise fanatically." And I do. But also, the truth is, as you get older you get more confident. I'm at the point that if by chance a really good paragraph drops out, I know better than to fuck with it. I'll take it as a gift.
The complex truth is that I rely on revision to give me the leeway to not lock up. If I were going to write something, I certainly couldn't know it was going to be any good, but I would know that I could shape it later. That shaping might mean cutting it entirely, but that freedom gives you a power to write. For me, the most colloquial things are the hardest. I learned this from Isaac Babel, the Russian writer. I don't know exactly how he wrote, but I suspect he did a lot of red-lining.
Most of what our mind creates is banal. Most of what any mind creates is going to be the same as other minds create. It's like the Bell Curve. If you say, "Write a story about a guy standing on a dock," most of us are going to write, "The choppy waves..." There's going to be a list of eight or nine things that everyone will think of first. The trick, or part of it, is to wait yourself out. Of course the choppy waves, of course the seagulls. That's all fine. But is there one thing in that list that maybe you and I would think of differently? That's what revision does.
Jim walked into the midsize apartment and sat down on the couch, waiting for Valerie.
Fine. It's grammatically correct. But then you think: midsize apartment. Do I really need that? Does a reader care that it's not big or small? What is midsize? Cut that. Now: sat down on the couch. Do you have to sit down on a couch? No. Cross out the word down. Jim sat on the couch waiting for Valerie. Okay. Does he have to sit? Is the sitting essential to what is going to happen? Probably not. Interesting. Jim waited for Valerie. If the next line is, "Valerie walked in," we don't need that sit. In cutting that, you've eliminated a banal line. You have nothing now — you have zero words so far — but at least you're not full of shit yet.
That's the thing about cutting: You can take your own banal mind and let it settle down. Then you look: Is there anything in this vast field of banality that might not be banal? Select that, move it over, and start again.
Dave: You've started writing nonfiction. Essays.
Saunders: I wrote some pieces for GQ. They sent me to Dubai first, and then to Nepal to see this little kid who'd been meditating seven months without food or water. I drove the whole Mexican border for a piece last summer.
Those have been really fun. Twelve thousand nonfiction words. It's been a great midlife thing to do. As you get older, at least for me, your mind starts staying on the side of the pool a little bit. Oh, I know about that. I have an idea about that. So it's been amazing to go to those places and in each case to have my conceptual mind, have its ass kicked, if that's not too mixed of a metaphor.
That book [The Braindead Megaphone] is coming out next year with Riverhead. I'd never done reporting at all. Andy Ward at GQ was so great about saying, "Trust yourself. Come back with ten thousand literary words."
Dave: Why you, do you think? What do you bring to the task?
Saunders: Andy and Jim Nelson, the executive editor, had read my fiction, and the first assignment they thought of was Dubai, which is very theme-parky, and also it's got a crazy class divide where there's a handful of rich people hiring a bunch of very poor people to build this paradise. So I think that was their first thought. And their instincts were good. It was weirder than anything I'd ever written.
The first one was sort of a trial. It worked, and they knew I was Buddhist, so they thought maybe Nepal would be good. But Jim, when he was younger he worked for Harper's. He was there when they ran my first couple stories. He remembered that.
It was fun to have to describe a room. In my fiction I don't usually do that. But you have to describe the hotel. You have to do it, so you do it the best you can, and you find out that you actually have some gifts you didn't know about, or you can come up with a way to do it.
Dave: Do you find yourself having to resist taking off a little bit, fictionalizing?
Saunders: A little bit. But something about writing short stories, your long practice with language, and what will and won't sell in a fictional world — that really helps when you're reporting because there are things that don't feel like stories, but as a fiction writer you know that they can be. I'll give you an example.
In Dubai, the community got together and made snow in an exhibition hall. It's a hundred thirty degrees out, the kids have never seen snow, so they super-refrigerate this room and make a little tiny pile of snow. It's almost as if you took a frozen parking lot in Syracuse and chopped it up, not really snow but big ice chunks. But there's a big long line, a thousand people waiting to get in.
I'm in line, and I know I'm going to write about it. And just at that moment, inexplicably, there's this guy dressed up as a goose, this really dirty, cheesy, Disney costume of a goose, but with a long tail. Kind of like a cross between a dinosaur and a goose. And there's a guy following him around whose job it is to make sure he doesn't run into anything. It's not the story, but the guy who was minding him seemed to be in love with him. He'd pick up the tail and stroke it, and he was always whispering things to the goose. As a fiction writer, I knew there would be funny sentences in that somehow, whereas if you were stricter I don't think that would necessarily occur to you.
On the Mexico trip, I spent a night with these minutemen, these guys who are "guarding" the border, quote. We went on a morning "recon" with them, recon again in quotes. They got hopelessly lost in a space about the size of this room. All lost. It was so funny. They're doing all this military talk: "Attention all units. We've got a body of water in front of us, possibly one foot deep. Let's try to circumscribe that thing."
I was with a couple of AP reporters, and I'm practically peeing myself. I can't wait to get back and report this. They were like, "We can't use it." There was no story. But the fiction writer in me said, "Oh, no. This is writable. I know how to make a scene out of this."
Also, you learn. I've learned a lot about structure. If you set a nominal outline for yourself and fill it in — that's probably how you do a novel, which never has occurred to me before, somehow. Knowing that I had twelve thousand words and eight things I wanted to write about — well, okay, let's take some index cards, put those in... Lifting your eyes up from the line to look at the bigger structure was really educational for me.
Dave: And working on a deadline.
Saunders: Right. Saying it can't be perfect, but can it not be sucky?
Dave: "93990" is so different from the rest of In Persuasion Nation. It feels like nonfiction. There's no accessorizing of the scientific report. There's no dialogue. What set you off to write that?
Saunders: I worked for a pharmaceutical company before I wrote my first book. It was an old fashioned place, a horseshoe-shaped building around a nice courtyard — the upstairs was offices, and downstairs were the animal labs. When you'd go to your car, you'd go down through the labs.
My job was to take three hundred-page studies and condense them down, a series of twelve, into another report that would be sent to the FDA. I would read these studies all day and then pithily summarize them. A study like the one in the story came across the desk. Cynomolgous monkeys.
It was this whole thing about one monkey that for no reason at all didn't respond to the drugs and couldn't be killed. They kept pumping up the concentration dosage, and it never showed any symptoms. After everyone else in its control group had died, this monkey was fine. The last line was, as it is in the story, "The animal was tranquilized via dart, removed from the enclosure, sacrificed, and necropsied." I almost started crying when I read it. You'd come to love that monkey for its Christ-like qualities, and suddenly it's dead.
I guess I was interested in the way that you could take something that never became literary — it maintained its voice and its scientific reserve — but still there was a story behind it. I turned up the volume just a little bit. As someone who read those reports all the time I could see how unusual it was, but for people that didn't I felt I had to turn up the volume in a few places.
Dave: In the first or second line of one of your stories, I forget which, the narrator talks about "my coordinator." I wanted to go back and reread that story, but I couldn't even begin to guess which it might have been, or from what book. I had no idea.
So many of your characters are in that relationship with a superior. And there's often a fault line, an easy slip into something more like bondage.
Saunders: Just look at our lives. You're always working for somebody. Even when you're not, you could fall between the cracks — and the system is not kind to the people who fall between the cracks.
A lot of it is just mimesis. I grew up in a working neighborhood. Everyone worked, and it cost people. And I always have to be careful — it's not as if going to a job is like going to the gulag. It's not. But it would be blind to say that working twelve hours at a factory, or working twelve hours at Google, isn't taking something away from you. When you come out of that, unless you're an extraordinary person, you're not as generous and present as you were at eight in the morning.
After grad school, I was trying to write, and I didn't like writing about work because it seemed boring. Well, what else is there to write about? Look at the literature. Hunting. I don't hunt. Exotic vacations where extramarital affairs occur. Didn't do that. The whole pantheon of literary subjects had nothing to do with the life I'd lived to that point, or the life that anybody I knew had lived. Then you have to say, "Okay, I have to write about work. I need to try not to make it dull."
And work isn't dull when you think about it. At one point I was working for an engineering company. We were a small satellite office of a big company in Austin, and we were getting all these crazy emails concerning rumors about people that we'd never met, but that affected our livelihood. We would literally check our email to see if our lives were still viable.
It's mostly a matter of saying that my life has always been work, so how do I work that into the stories? The same idea as earlier: You have a blank page. What are you going to fill it with? Work.
Dave: It reminds me of the guy in "Pastoralia" who's going to be in a shitload of trouble if they close Sheep May Safely Graze.
Saunders: A lot of people have an idea about corporations. I didn't ever want to work in an office, but I was at that place where I was either going to be Kerouac and run away from my family, which wasn't going to happen, or do something else. So I started working for this corporation, and it was weirdly beautiful. These were people exactly like me. They didn't have a dream when they were kids of someday sitting in a cubicle. But then you also saw that it was a cooperative venture: If we in the Rochester office could keep our heads above water, we could continue to have health insurance. It was interesting to get on the inside of that and realize that actually it's not us and them.
That became a way of thinking for me, which is to say, whenever you start thinking us and them, run around and get into them. Because people don't do things for no reason. Nobody wants to be diabolical. Everybody wants to be happy and good, basically. What gets interesting is when your definition of good and mine are at odds. That's part of the work thing. Let's get in there and see.
If you want to look for conflict in modern life, at some point you have to get down to the level of resources. If you and I were multi-bazillionaires with perfect health guaranteed for all eternity, there would be much less conflict in our lives. There would be some, I'm sure, but much less. For most of us, moral issues come up where there's a scarcity of resources.
Dave: Which describes The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.
Saunders: Right. And what happens when you create the us and the them. Since you're them, I'm going to turn you into something nonhuman so I can kill you without qualms.
Dave: Why didn't the characters in that book have human bodies?
Saunders: The book started out to be something entirely different. Lane Smith had challenged me to make them abstract shapes, but it just wasn't working. "The triangle said to the rectangle..." It seemed flat.
I was looking for a way to get a little more energy into the sentences. At one point, they were kind of like androids, but even that: Whoa, robots! So just the idea of adding a plant part...
It was supposed to be a kids' story and kind of spun off track. At that point, I thought, Maybe I should just skip it. But there was something about it that I really liked. Really it was an ongoing experiment. What I loved was that dodge of constantly trying to stay out of the rut of the metaphor. Is this about Bush? Um, not really. Kind of. I tried to avoid the easy reduction.
When people review books, I think they assume you have a big plan. That book, I'd been working on it for six years. And I liked it. I didn't think it was perfect. In fact I knew the problems immediately.
Dave: What was one problem?
Saunders: I started writing it way back when, and then 9/11 happened. My attention turned to Bush. Well, the story is not a good metaphor for that — it's set up wrong — but I couldn't help some of that leaking in. So I knew a lot of the reviews would say, "This is the most inept satire of Bush," and I'd go, "Yeah, I know." On a micro level, what was I satirizing? Actually, I was just trying to experiment and see if I could make the story play out to the end.
And then also there was a problem with the tonality. It starts off with a kids' book tonality, about genocide, and in some ways that's good because you don't have to get all heavy. You're really not allowed to because of the tone. But at certain points I found that I didn't have the language at my disposal to get the emotional depth I wanted. I didn't have the language to humanize those things as much as I would have liked, so I had to do it somewhat cartoonishly.
But that's what I love about art: Everything is a problem. You have three hundred sixty degrees of possibility, and as soon as you write one sentence suddenly you're down to twenty degrees. You're eliminating options. You're writing yourself into something like those Chinese thumbscrews. Until at some point your trap becomes your way out — and you can get out, but not without conceding a lot of the ground.
When I was younger that was my biggest problem: I wanted to be every writer to every person. You learn the hard lesson that you have to choose, and choosing equals reduction.
I think it's why I write short stories. If I say, "I'm going to write a story that's all commercials," a voice in my head says, "That's going to be stupid. You're not going to get very deep on that one." But you say, "I know. But it's only going to be twenty pages. It's not going to take the rest of my life, so let's try it." It's like Houdini. If Houdini said, "I am going to get up from this chair," no big deal. But if he's chained into the chair and then he gets up, now that's entertaining.
If you make yourself a trap for the story — in one story, commercials — the odds are it's going to be a clever little story. And I knew that. So I wrote it and I wrote it, and it kept staying just clever. I liked the jokes, but... Finally, at the end, I hope I got a little extra out of it that moved it into the realm of the short story. Months before, I'd conceded that it wasn't going to be "The Dead." But for me that's the fun of it. Get yourself in a trap.
Phil was like that. Halfway through I realized, Hey, this is complicated. It's not like anything I've done before. I don't know how to get out of this, and I'm not entirely sure that it's doing useful work.
I'm not a deeply talented person. There are some little things I can do. If I get a story that doesn't put me to sleep, I'm going to finish it. I'm going to try to make something happen. If it doesn't happen one hundred percent, I'll say, "Thanks, I'm going to be dead in forty years anyway. Let's move on."
Dave: That's where the energy comes from, the tightrope walk. Maybe this isn't going to work. In the very first paragraph of The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, a town is teetering that way. Will it survive?
Saunders: Right. If you don't have a risk, the reader feels it, and that's not very fun. It's like going on a date with somebody who's brought index cards. "7:06. 'Your hair looks very attractive.'" It's condescending.
Short stories are risky. They're like jokes — if it doesn't work, you know it. If someone tries to fake their way out of a story, a reader feels it.
Many times for me, the first half of a story is so much fun, and then you hit the point where you're like, Oh, God. Now I have to get out of this in a way that doesn't disregard what I just did. But what I just did makes it impossible to get out of this. That's where the real fun starts. You're playing a kind of high wire, psychological game with yourself.
It often means going back, looking at the first part of the story, and outing yourself for your own falseness. There's a story in this new book called "CommComm" where there's a guy named Giff, a born again Christian, an obnoxious, proselytizing, in your face kind of guy. I started that story because I'd been in contact with an old friend of mine who'd gone far right. He was telling me that Saint Augustine would be a hundred percent for the invasion of Iraq. I was so disappointed in what he had become, and I thought, I'm going to take a few swipes at that way of thinking. So I did. And it was really easy to make fun of that. But then you get halfway in and you're like, If I was reading this I would think, liberal guy making fun of fundamentalist, and that's a little too easy. So, okay, duly noted. That's where I find it kind of spiritually rewarding because you find out about your own bullshit.
A short story is not about nailing somebody. It won't hold. It's almost like relationships: It's fun to get involved, and then at some point you realize, Oh, this is also about my shit. I can't put it all on you. I have to take responsibility.
That's also why it's so slow. If it were so easy, it wouldn't be as harrowing. I wrote the first two pages of "Bohemians" eight years before I finished it. I kept looking at it and thinking, Impossible. But finally, over that eight-year period, one little trick let me finish it, and I finished it about a week after that.
Dave: I must ask: What is your rating on the Ken Byron Manly Scale of Absolute Gender?
Saunders: I'm a 5 and falling. I'm getting more and more Fem every year.
Dave: In many of your stories, characters suffer some kind of public humiliation. Care to share any personal recollections?
Saunders: I've had them, but in the stories it's more a symptom of being a not-subtle writer. To evoke sympathy, some writers would give you long pages of subtle, internal monologue. I just have a guy fall down.
But when you said that, here's what came to my mind. When I was a kid, I had a crush on this girl in our school. I'd see her during the week, and I always hated that I had to wait two days to see her again. On Sunday her family would go to mass. My family had kind of stopped going, but I knew the mass she went to, and I'd go just to see her. Something about seeing her with her family, there was something really novel. I'd only seen her in her school jumper. On Sundays, she had civilian clothes on, with her mom and dad, and I had the whole projected fantasy of someday that will be my family. Kind of creepily I would stand in the back of the church, basically living for the moment when she would walk out.
One day it had been snowing. If you got there late — and I always calculated to — you'd have to stand against the wall in back. So I'm leaning against the wall, and I have snow boots on. Partly to show that I was not really that Christian I leaned kind of jauntily. It was the quietest part of the mass, and my feet gave out from under me. Instantly. I didn't even know I was falling. I was just down. Down on the ground with the memory that I had just went, "OOOMPH!" really loud.
"OOOMPH!" The whole church turns around and looks, and by this time I'm up on my feet but it's obvious I'm the one who's fallen.
That's what I thought of.
Dave: What is the last really good book you read?
Saunders: I just reread all of Mary Gaitskill's work because we're talking tonight [at an event hosted by Portland Arts and Lectures]. Those are all amazing books.
I read the new Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores. I hadn't read a book like that in a long time, that got me excited about writing.
Last year I reread a bunch of Jhumpa Lahiri that I was really thrilled with. But I don't read as much as I should. I think I have a little bit of a self-protecting instinct against reading too much because that's my job, teaching. I have to read too much.
Dave: Give one example of something you've found that works in the classroom.
Saunders: The last grad class I taught at Syracuse, we committed to having no outside reading. We would read one story in class and talk about it for three hours. We also committed to keeping away from an academic approach. That was really interesting.
I would try not to read them beforehand. I had read them at some point but not recently. We would say, "Let's treat reading as truly experiential. Let's actually talk about what happened as we read it. If we can." Almost meditation-reading, where you're watching your own mind. And be comfortable being quiet.
It was amazing how deep you could get into stories that way, when you didn't have the option of bringing up four other stories. You'd read a six-page Salinger story in class, and you had to talk about just that one. And then when someone would make an observation, you'd have time to say, "Let's go back and see if that's true. Where exactly did you start to not like Character B?" And you could track it down, literally, to mid-phrase, which is really empowering. You realize that the emotional effects you were experiencing didn't happen out of the blue. You could literally trace them to lines in the text.
Also, you'd see where different young writers would be totally divided about the way a piece was working, and how that mapped their aesthetic values. As someone who wasn't really educated in English Literature, I have that insecurity about going into a class and having nothing to say. This worked against that. Fine, I'm going to go in and we're going to read this son of a bitch. If we have nothing to say, we won't say anything. And if we start to say something full of shit we'll stop.
That was a really productive class. You see that all the stuff you'd normally talk about, character and theme and all that, it only comes at you a line at a time. It's empowering to see that you don't have to have a big theory about theme or character; you just have to keep the reader going from line to line. Literally, when the mind shuts down, you've lost them, you're done. But if you can keep that alive, you're a storyteller, and all those other things will slot in.
George Saunders appeared in Portland for Portland Arts and Lectures, a program of Literary Arts, on March 15, 2007.
Turns out the story that starts with a reference to the narrator's coordinator is "Jon," from In Persuasion Nation. In typical Saunders fashion, "Jon" is completely absurd and yet incredibly sweet, not cloying but complex. It begins:
Back in the time of which I am speaking, due to our Coordinators had mandated us, we had all seen that educational video of "It's Yours to Do With What You Like!" in which teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching, which what we leaned from that video was, there is nothing wrong with self-touching, because love is a mystery but the mechanics of love need not be, so go off alone, see what is up, with you and your relation to your own gonads, and the main thing is, just have fun, feeling no shame! Maybe I'm biased. I saw Saunders read "Jon" a few years ago. I'd enjoyed the story when it first appeared in the New Yorker, but to hear him perform the piece, to listen to the audience rollick and swoon... Funny that I couldn't recall its first line — a long first line, but still. "Jon" is about as funny and moving a story as I know.