George Saunders’ Lessons in Literature

Leigh Haber: You write that “in a well-told story, reader and writer are so close together they’re one unit.” Is this proximity important only to produce the best possible story, or is there something more profound at work?

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

George Saunders: It’s a pretty good life principle: Always assume the full, interesting humanity of whoever you’re interacting with, getting into the habit of setting aside whatever assumptions or projections I might have about a person. In early drafts when I’m writing, I tend toward caricature. I know too much about a character; he or she is simply doing my bidding. Then the story chafes at this and I have to start discovering more about the character, being open to what the story wants (to the actual energy of the prose moment). There is a mysterious method to it that, for me, is about focusing on individual sentences—the sound of them, their truthfulness. If a sentence sounds bad, it’s often because there’s a lie in it. So, by trying to squeeze the lies out of your work, you are squeezing the easy projections out of it. Those are one and the same thing: “lies” and “projections.”

You write in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: “The true beauty of a story is not in its apparent conclusion but in the alteration in the mind of the reader that has occurred along the way.” What’s an example of this?

Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye reawakened a feeling in Saunders he hadn't felt since Catholic school.
Vintage Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye reawakened 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 kids were little. The “alteration” had something to do with feeling an intense identification with the main character, which shot me right back to Catholic school, when I was feeling real empathy for and connection with everybody, inspired by what I imagined Jesus was all about. Toni Morrison somehow reawakened that whole mindset in me—she reminded me that everyone and everything is sacred. She moved my mind into a hyper-compassionate state. I was a different person when I was done.

What does reading fiction have to do with empathy?

When a person is walking around in a human body (as people tend to do, ha ha), it feels like whatever consciousness is arising is the only one. Reading fiction coaches us in understanding that this isn’t the case. We imaginatively inhabit another person (the character) through the language of another person (the author), and yet it all feels real and vital—as if it’s happening to us. The magical lesson is that our mind is a malleable, temporary thing. We aren’t stuck in us—or don’t have to be. Out there, inside all of those other bodies, are consciousnesses who also think they are the only real consciousnesses.

We might come out of reading a work of fiction just that much more willing to believe that that guy over there is as real as we are, and a little more interested in how things seem to him. But it’s important to keep in mind that all of this is temporary, personal, and incremental. Fiction has never yet solved the great world problems, but my feeling is that, on the local level (inside a given human head), it does…something.

How does reading refine our “built-in, shock-proof, shit detector”—Hemingway’s words—into sharpness?

According to Ernest Hemingway, reading helps us refine our “built-in, shock-proof, shit detector” into sharpness.
Scribner According to Ernest Hemingway, reading helps us refine our “built-in, shock-proof, shit detector” into sharpness.

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Language, in the hands of a good writer, is pretty good at getting in there and taking a shot at representing how things are in the world. When a writer does a good job of that, we get that shock of recognition when something true has been said, when it has been so well-described that we recognize it from our own lives. Conversely, when someone tries to sell us a falsehood (“Everyone in that small town was brave and good,” or “The air from the chemical plant smelled so fresh and clean”), that’s another sort of shock. We pull out of a story like that, because we’ve suddenly failed out of communication with the writer.

As in Chekhov’s Olenka, how does acquainting ourselves with a deeply flawed character and loving her anyway translate to real life?

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

You know how when there’s a person with whom you have a complicated, maybe even an adversarial, relationship, and then that person dies, there’s a period of…reconsideration? There might be a little flash of “Well, it was n’t her fault de ella she was like that. She just was. She was like a bush or a deer or a sunset—she came into the world a certain way.” I think fiction does a version of that: It can teach us to think of another person as a tender, temporary phenomenon, who had no choice about how she came into this world or what happened once she got here. That is, a story helps us step out of the present moment and our own (often self-protective) concerns and see other people as what they are: beings worthy of attention.

How can reading fiction enable us to better understand, or tolerate, life’s curveballs?

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 that curveball comes, if you’re a reader, you’ll likely know it’s not the first one of its kind in history. Also, through the situations it describes, fiction teaches us about mutability and the fact that nothing lasts (Gatsby’s mansion ends up empty), but also by how it proceeds (we have an early-story expectation that feels very solid but gets overturned: a lesson in the danger of expectation, or in impermanence). Fiction also shows us that other people suffer and struggle just as we do. We’re not alone, no matter how it might feel.

Forever, people have been outgunned by life—it’s “nasty, brutish, and short,” and we feel it even as we’re in it. So storytelling might be seen as an organized way of asking, “What the hell is going on down here, and what am I supposed to be doing about it?”

What has being a teacher of writing taught you about life?

Mostly that talent is eternal—every generation shines in its own way. You can never go wrong by trusting a young person and trying to think the best of him or her. And that artists can cross-talk across the generational divide. There’s something ageless about any person who is earnestly engaged in making a work of art. Maybe most importantly, it’s taught me that it really is possible to clear the mind of whatever preconceptions you might have about another person and really receive what they are offering. All of the usual decorative traits (age, gender, class, race, etc.) are just beautiful embellishments on top of the essential person, and we can find and know that person, and can encourage that person to come out more fully, with our trust. And then, because it is being offered from that state of mind, your advice isn’t all tainted with agenda and superiority and condescension, and the student can, possibly, receive it.

Read Story Club, by George Saunders.

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