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Interview with George Saunders

The American short story writer George Saunders has the kind of reputation that makes one hesitate before typing his email into an address line. It’s not really his outsize presence in the contemporary literary world, though this is staggering: he is the winner of Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, while Mary Karr called him ‘the Best’ short story writer working in English when TIME picked him as one of the most influential people of 2013, the same year his latest collection, Tenth of December, won universal acclaim for its blend of emotional immediacy, familiar absurdity and ethical complexity. What gave me pause, though, was his reputation for kindness, the theme of his (now viral) 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University. Presenting himself with typical humility as ‘some old fart, his best years behind him’, Saunders used the occasion to tell his audience (and within days, the world) about his regrets. All, he said, were ‘failures of kindness’. ‘Try to be kinder’ is the speech’s title and its soundbite: Saunders admits that it’s facile, but he also reminds us that as a maxim it can be really, really hard.

 

His stories are violent, hilarious, confusing – but I’ve always felt behind them an animating spirit that was essentially, unfalteringly benevolent. Mechanically, too, his stories feature characters striving to be kinder (and often failing): fathers struggling to provide for their kids, kid-veterans seeking stable definitions of ‘family’ and ‘home’, or wearied workers wandering clumsily through worlds strange but too much like our own to be labeled, comfortably, ‘the future’.

 

Consciously or not, Saunders never presents himself as the artist-as-intellectual, artist-as-culture-hero, or artist-as-formidable-genius (though he is all these things). His writer-persona is the artist-as-gentle-craftsman, and his answers, as he explains his craft, are surprising, resourceful, cordial, given weight by the gravity of one preternaturally awake to wonder. In the interview below, Saunders uses whatever tool comes to hand: metaphor, confession, concession, contradiction; touchpoints in his generous answers include Gerald Stern and David Hickey, Dylan and Chekhov, Buddhist thought and black boxes.

 

Working on a Master’s dissertation triangulating Saunders among the post-postmodernists, I caught George at a busy time, and it wouldn’t have tarnished his reputation for kindness if he’d refused my questions. But he accepted. ‘I’m in the throes of finishing up a new thing but would be open to an email exchange,’ he wrote (perhaps referencing the long-awaited first novel, which he recently hinted in conversation with Jennifer Egan would be set in a Saundersised 19th century). ‘Fire when ready.’ Reading and rereading his answers, one feeling remained an undertone, constant through each new discovery. How grateful we must be, I thought, for this man’s ‘throes’.

Q

The White Review

—  Ben Marcus offers one of my favourite descriptions of your work in his introduction to your 2004 Believer interview: ‘The Suits call his writing “stories”, but they are really soft bodies to wear for a larger experience of life, hollowcore person-shapes that one can slip on in order to attain amazement.’ But his description, like your stories, might be deceptively simple, because while we ‘slip on’ these fictional bodies, they aren’t always easy acts of empathy. Your stories seem to hold a challenge to the reader like the one implied by the narrator, a returning veteran, to his family, in your story ‘Home’: Empathise with me.

A

George Saunders

—  Sure, yes. I think this is what all fiction does, really, or tries to do – encourages us to step out of ourselves and into someone else, temporarily. Which, in my view, is de facto a moral experience. What might take a given story out of facile advocacy (‘Be nicer, everyone!’) is its complexity and particularity. I guess I believe in the idea that love equals attention and vice versa – so if we pay enough attention to a fictional character, even if he’s a total shmuck, the resulting piece of prose will be an act of love (in its highest and best sense) toward him.

 

And yes – I always say I try not to write with a definite intention, and that is true. But lately it’s occurred to me that one of the reasons I’m so emphatic about that is to counterbalance my very natural tendency to write with a definite (dogmatic) intention, i.e., to know too well where I’m going. It’s sort of an autocorrect I’m doing on myself to counteract what I know is a lazy or preachy tendency, that doomed a lot of my apprentice stories to lying flat on the page.

 

Or: because I take it as a given that stories are about highly charged moral situations, I have to work against making the situations too didactic or easily solved – have to force the fictional universe to push back against my lazy assumptions and habitual moral stances.

Q

The White Review

—  I notice that while your characters may find difficult redemption within these ‘highly charged moral situations’, I can’t find any instances of broader, lasting social or structural change. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil might be representative, as it ends with a pretty strong hint that peace won’t last, that demagogues are as inevitable as the human tendency to invent difference, and pull from difference suspicion, and then hate… You’ve mentioned didactic tendencies: do you ever feel drawn to use fiction as a field to test visions of a better world?

A

George Saunders

—  I’m not sure how that would work. I mean, if, in a piece of fiction, you ‘show’ a certain type of social-action working successfully, what have you done? What have you actually proven? You are working in Jello, essentially. If I show ‘my’ solution working, no doubt I’ve loaded the deck somehow, if you see what I mean. When I say that fiction shouldn’t be didactic, I don’t mean that it shouldn’t or can’t have political or moral-ethical heft. I’m saying that stories shouldn’t exist as too-easy proofs for one’s pre-existing beliefs. And this isn’t really a moral statement by me, or an aesthetic credo – it’s more owner’s-manual stuff: a story like that simply won’t work. It’s proceeding by methods which are counter to the physics of the form.

 

When we think of how ‘solutions’ might be presented or represented in a fictive setting, we might want to remember Chekhov’s admonition that art doesn’t have to solve problems, it just has to formulate them correctly. Fiction writing is pattern-making. We aim to make beautiful patterns, but how to do that is not rigorously known, since each pattern’s beauty has to do with the extent to which the pattern is aware of, and referring to, itself. In a fictive space, the mere suggestion of an impulse is often enough. The fact that some people in ‘Bounty’ are trying to revolt is meaningful. The small motion the ‘Semplica Girl Diaries’ narrator has made toward awareness, imperfect as it is, indicates that change is possible. Eva’s existence indicates the notion that ‘good people can exist’. So if we see fiction as a scale-model, you only need one railroad car to suggest a national transportation system, and one of the pleasures of the fictive scale model is that sense that everything is present and accounted for and in some sort of pleasing proportion. Whatever might move a human being towards perfection or enlightenment can be shown in a story – maybe fleetingly, maybe through its absence – but I don’t think we need to worry about solutions.

 

If, as Marcus suggested, art can be hollowcore person-shapes that one can slip on in order to attain amazement – well, then, that would be, in and of itself, an incredible moral-ethical (i.e. political) accomplishment. Like, if a song, whose lyrics you couldn’t quite make out, made you fall in love with the world and resolve to be smarter and more alert – that, I’d say, is a moral accomplishment. It’s a thing-that-is-doing-something, rather than a rational statement or piece of advice. And as such, might need to be supra- or anti-logical…

Q

The White Review

—  Is the act of writing an inherently ethical undertaking, for you, then? And do you see your narratives as fictional ethics?

A

George Saunders

—  Well… I think I’m going to say yes. While writing, I’m always trying to imagine that the character is as real as me and as engaged and heartful and smart. With maybe a few flaws or intentional differences from me – me on a different day. And then I want the character to proceed in a roughly sensible way (i.e. the way you or I would). So I guess that’s an ethical approach. But there are real limits to this, since, as mentioned above, I am controlling all the variables.

 

My go-to model for my stories – a model that actually helps me write them – is that a story is a black box, into which the reader goes, and something happens. Something big and breathtaking and non-trivial. I don’t have to know what that thing is beforehand – it’s going to reveal itself to me at speed and I don’t need to be able to pithily reduce it. I just have to micro-manage the machinery inside the box so as to maximise the various effects – to sharpen the curves, so to speak. Now, mysteriously, thinking of stories this way does tend to produce themes and ethical resonance and all of that – how, I don’t know. But I’m OK with not knowing. I just want to get better at the doing.

 

I think people consider my stories political because they tend to be morally intense: people are put in fictive situations where what they do matters. That is: in situations where life is made to seem valuable and precious and fraught. I write those kinds of stories just because… those are the kinds of stories that got me interested in writing fiction in the first place. I want fiction to do emotional work, or why bother? The difference between one writer and another might just be the means he or she applies to achieve that end – one’s view of the world will tell one how best to go for the throat. What I’ve found over my years of writing is that straightforward realism doesn’t get me where I want to go. I don’t have that gift. My realist writing feels too safe and reactionary – I feel more outrage in day-to-day living than a realist approach allows me to express. Or: when I think of what’s actually going on here – the briefness of life vs the ‘normalised’ way we go through our days (denying death, planning very sanely for everything, as if we’re going to live forever) it feels that conventional narrative is insufficient. It’s kind of like, if you see a snake and it scares the shit out of you, typing, ‘Suddenly I saw a snake’ doesn’t get it – has nothing to do with what you felt in that instant. How to use or exploit or get at that (having-seen-snake) energy? The energy of what you actually felt in that instant? That’s the question. And the answer – the prose that could achieve that – might have fuck-all to do with snakes, if you see what I mean.

 

But having said all of this – I think we have to be a little careful when we start talking about fiction-as-ethics and all of that. A story based on that idea can turn out awfully facile and thin. Mainly because fiction is an argumentative system with movable parameters, supplied by the author. Any meaning that comes of a story is not related to the outcome of the events in the story – or, let’s say, is only related to the extent that the system is fair and rigorous. It’s the internal dynamics of the story that cause meaning. The way that A opposes B, and so on. The existence of C in the same story as D, and the way they push off one another.

 

So that’s why I’m a little uncomfortable with talk about ‘moral fiction’. I do think art does moral work, but that work has more to do with destabilising us and making us re-examine whatever position we are holding – humbling us, as it were. That’s a moral position but not a position of ‘knowing’ or advocacy.

 

So I don’t think fiction exists to demonstrate ethics, or advocate for certain actions. I think it exists to remind us of the complexity of living. And the beauty. And the horror. My favourite English phrase is ‘on the other hand’. Fiction does a lot of that. It ‘on-the-other-hand’s us into a state of confusion and uncertainty that is very holy and very hard to achieve or sustain.

 

Q

The White Review

— How do you know when a story is ‘finished’? When it resists your writerly/readerly attempts to draw out an easy meaning, a rationale?

A

George Saunders

—  Well, for me, this is something that happens continuously along the way. You keep creating too-easy meanings and then complicating them. And that has to do with keeping my attention on the line-to-line energy. Improving that improves everything. It undercuts the too-easy ideas and intentionality, it raises the ambient intelligence of the piece, etc.

 

So you start out and try not to have any intentions and so on, but then, partway through (you can’t deny it) there’s some ‘meaning’ appearing. Then your job is to be sceptical and interrogate that meaning (by these line-to-line methods). Or, to continually ask yourself if the apparent meaning of the story is more facile than what the eventual meaning might turn out to be.

 

If the story wants to go in a new direction, you let it. If a line is good but it doesn’t fit with your plan, keep the line, kill (amend) the plan. I always quote that Gerald Stern bit: ‘If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.’ Along with Einstein’s bit: ‘No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.’ Those two quotes are the essence of this approach. Let the story lead you.

 

All of this is based on the idea that the subconscious (or whatever the correct term is for that great under-intelligence we all have that comes to the surface now and then) is vastly powerful – much smarter and wisdom-infused than our everyday minds.

 

At the end I know where the story has energy and know that I have investigated every possible change and wouldn’t change a line – but I might not ‘know’ what it means in terms of being able to reduce it to a pithy statement. Three things to remember in this context: first, a story always means beyond its thematic valence. The ‘how it proceeds’ is why we love it, more than the ‘what it means’. Second, the goal is for that meaning to be complex and irreducible. Third, the meaning will, often, show up very late in the game, without me expecting it or seeing it coming. It’s like a new or more complex meaning sort of falls into place, because I change a line or add a line or invert a couple of sections or something. And those changes came in response to close, intuitive line work – often what I’d consider an ‘ear thing’. Something sounds better, or two sections work better if transposed, or the addition of a new section suddenly lifts the whole thing up. But all of those changes occur via intuition, at speed. So it goes: make a move, notice related change in meaning.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you ever worry you’ve written a character that might be beyond a reader’s powers of empathy – or wonder if you could?

A

George Saunders

—  I don’t think that’s possible. If I genuinely revised myself into a position of empathy, then the reader will follow. If I don’t feel empathy (or if I force a fake empathy) that will be felt in the prose, and the reader will depart from me. (And hopefully I’ll have caught that in the revision process, and disallowed it.) So your question is, to my mind, more a technical question than an ethical or aesthetic one. In stories like ‘The Barber’s Unhappiness’ or ‘Al Roosten’, I started out disliking the character, feeling mostly scorn, but then the process of revision forced me to a better, richer understanding of these guys. I had to gain that new understanding or the story would continue to be moribund. Improving lines and transitions and the internal logic is exactly equal, strangely, to improving one’s ability to empathise with the (unlikeable) main character. It’s like compassion training wheels: a slow-motion opportunity to improve one’s way of regarding other people, through close attention to one’s prose.

 

But maybe what you’re asking has to do with another question that’s been on my mind lately – there must be people/characters for whom empathy is not the right approach. Let’s call these ‘real dicks’. (Or, we might say, conventional touchy-feely kindness/empathy isn’t what’s needed – to apply that would be a form of what Buddhists call ‘idiot compassion’.) How are these people to be regarded and represented in fiction? There’s something lame about auto-applying the same kind of soft empathy to everybody. There are people who are manifesting zero good traits and have very little hope of ever doing so – sociopaths, brutal dictators, etc. Again, here, for my answer, I guess I’d turn to the ‘attention = love’ trope. If we paid very close attention to the specifics of, say, Hitler’s life, we might feel the judgment (‘Hitler sucked!’) fall away and get replaced (or supplemented) by… something else. A sort of plain seeing – a kind of cold understanding, let’s call it. We might be able to grasp what the world looked like to him. That is powerful. We would have a better handle on what ‘evil’ really was. (That is, it doesn’t look like evil to the person manifesting it.) If you want to eliminate or transform (insert name of evil entity), then endeavour to understand (insert name of evil entity), and even to sympathetically, generously understand (insert name of evil entity).

 

Also – the story form, as I’ve experienced, is meant to represent those for whom change is possible and imminent – so maybe Hitler just doesn’t belong in a short story. If someone really couldn’t change (and there are certainly real people in that category) then it would be hard to construct a story around them, unless that story was, ‘Craig, a total a-hole, should have changed on that day, and almost did – but didn’t.’ And that could be a story, for sure.

Q

The White Review

—  ‘Ethical critics’ like Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum argue that fiction’s quality of encouraging empathy is a unique moral tool, while aesthetes like Richard Posner say that this cheapens fiction, that empathy is an amoral act – citing for example our empathy with Shakespeare’s villains. You shared your own discomfort with fiction as a vessel for ‘ideas’ (especially moral or political ideas) with David Sedaris, but do you think there’s an inherent ethical value in fiction’s power to encourage empathy, no matter the work or character in question?

A

George Saunders

—  But villains should be empathised with – what’s the harm? We don’t want to confuse ‘empathy’ with ‘forgiveness’ or ‘apathy’. As I started to say above, if we understand empathy not to be something warm-and-fuzzy or New Age but, rather, let’s say: ‘seeing, shorn of projection’ – then it is amoral, in the sense that it just lets us see what is. Which, you could argue, helps us act efficiently, when action is necessary, and also helps us defer action, so as not to make stupid mistakes. So if we have some perceived enemy and work ourselves into a froth and project all of our shit onto him, we will be inclined to make dumb decisions, as we try to change him. Whereas if we look at the world from his viewpoint (and again, not with the aspiration of feeling warm-and-fuzzy towards him, but just of really seeing him, or seeing things from his POV) then anything we do will just be more on-point. It will be based on the way things really are.

 

But having said that, I think we have to be careful. The more we talk about the moral aims and abilities of fiction, the more we paint ourselves into a certain corner. The critic Dave Hickey has written about this – how, if we say what art should or can do, this can get twisted and misunderstood as saying what art must do – which can become good ammo for anti-art reactionaries. Art is, or should be, a place of total freedom, and we don’t know what it does, precisely, or why, or how. We don’t need to know and don’t want to. Each work does something new, or tries to.

 

When I talk about empathy, I’m talking about a space the reader and writer agree to participate in together, within the playing field of a work of prose – in which they agree to make up a person and, together, go, ‘What would it be like to be her? How does she think? From what valid impulse do her mistakes stem?’ And so on. And actually, the real love or empathy in a work of fiction is not only writer loving character, but also writer loving reader – manifesting respect in each line and so on. We always think of empathy in fiction as going from reader towards character – but I think the reason fiction moves us has to do as much with the notion that somebody out there (the writer) thinks well of us, and is regarding us as his equal and so on…

Q

The White Review

—  I’m interested in the role naïveté plays in your fiction. The almost-fifteen-year-old Alison in ‘Victory Lap’ is one example: she says, ‘To do good, you just have to decide to do good.’ As you said on the Organist podcast, she believes it, you believe she believes it, you kind of like her for believing it, but you have to be sceptical, you have to test it. And then in ‘Semplica Girl Diaries’, the daughter Eva’s complete naïveté acts like the family’s conscience – ‘If we want to help them, why can’t we just give them the money?’

 

Your fiction always shows that it’s so, so much harder than that – but it seems that to be able really to test these expressions of naïveté one has to be able to entertain them, so the reader recognises the legitimate impulse behind that naïveté, without ultimately accepting the viewpoint.

A

George Saunders

—  Right. I always think of a thing Dylan said in his book, something like, ‘Sometimes I write what I know to be true; sometimes I write what I know to be false; sometimes I write something and don’t know whether it’s true or false.’ So if I have a character say, ‘It’s terrible that children are starving in India when I have just eaten three Big Macs’ – well, that’s true. But it’s also a little smug, showboaty. It would be bad writing, I suppose, if you felt that I, the author, very simply agreed with that statement – that I didn’t know that the person saying that is being a little naïve or unrealistic or self-satisfied or whatever. I can communicate my knowingness by having someone else say, ‘Well, why don’t you FedEx three Big Macs over there, dumbass?’ or I can have that character do or say something else that, taken with that statement, presents him in full, or challenges him, or penalises him, or ‘shows’ that I do not consider him 100 per cent right. I think here of Chekhov’s story ‘Gooseberries’, which has this beautiful and very passionate and naïve speech, in which the character urges some friends to do good, eschew happiness, etc. – it’s too late for him, but they should live more purely. And Chekhov does this really brilliant thing of making that guy’s speeches incredibly persuasive and intelligent – you can’t deny that what he is saying is basically correct. And the reader goes, ‘Hell yes, I agree with that guy.’ But then Chekhov has the friends be bored by this (didactic) speech, and that night, when the speech-giver goes to bed, he leaves his smelly pipe on the nightstand, and the pipe keeps one of his friends awake all night with its bad odour. So instead of being a one-dimensional propaganda piece (a tract on self-denial and do-goodery, with which we might mostly agree) it becomes a beautifully complicated reflection on the role of pleasure and happiness in our lives. Now, I’d contend that this story is a furious and wonderful moral-ethical object – it’s moving and disturbing and it brings forth all of one’s feelings about happiness and decadence and how we privileged few should live in the world, given that there’s so much suffering – but I don’t think it ‘advises’ anything. It sets the problem on its feet and says, ‘Huh, look at this’. And whatever ‘moral’ work the story might do, it does in that ambiguity – in the holy confusion it makes – which would, I think, make one slower to act and less confident about moral tidiness. You walk away thinking not ‘Now I see what’s right’ but ‘Ah, yes, it’s like that, isn’t it? Complicated.’

 

So the writer might be seen as an idea-generator. The job is to generate these in a vivid way, so that they come to life. It doesn’t matter which idea the writer ‘believes’. His job is not to argue or persuade but to be really good at making living breathing beings, who run around saying interesting and convincing things, and then the writer runs over to the other side of the table and makes a living breathing being who says some interesting and convincing things that totally contradict the other guy.

 

That’s where fiction grows out of being mere polemic and starts being beautiful art. Stories as dynamic systems of contradiction, the upshot of which is something like: 1) Don’t be too sure and 2) Love the world.

Q

The White Review

—  Often your fiction seems like a fulfillment of what David Foster Wallace said in 1993, at the end of his essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’. He predicts the next literary ‘rebels’ will toss out irony and maybe even embrace naïveté, risk even sentimentality, melodrama, credulity. (The critic Adam Kelly puts Wallace at the vanguard of this movement, calling it ‘The New Sincerity’.) So, you haven’t tossed out irony, but you’ve resisted the postmodern impulse to sneer – and without that drone note, the reader can hear more voices (representing overlapping worldviews). Did you ever see sentimentality as a risk? What about too much irony?

A

George Saunders

—  Well, the thing is, this is what literary rebels have always been doing, including Shakespeare, Gogol, et al (becoming ‘sceptical of irony’ or sceptical of ‘mere’ irony).

 

For me, the main thing was (and is) to not make trivial work – work that poses too-easy answers to not-critical questions. We’re here, we’re living, loving, but won’t be for long – so I want my stories to somehow urgently acknowledge all of that. So I don’t think we’d want to risk sentimentality, if we define sentimentality as ‘causing unearned emotion.’ I think we’d want to risk earned emotion. But to do that – to risk earned emotion – we might have to pioneer new techniques. Or depart from regular old realism as necessary (as storytellers have always done, going even back to the cavemen and so on).

 

But actually – let me go a little further, and contradict myself, and say, yes, we could even theoretically evoke genuine emotion via sentimentality or melodrama – or whatever. There are no limits to the way we can evoke genuine emotion. That is the big principle of art. Maybe the emotion gets evoked in the reader when he notes the author stretching a given form, working it beyond its usual limits. To say it another way: a story is a dynamic system and we perceive meaning and delight via the way the thing moves internally. Here I’m thinking of a couple of experiments I tried – ‘In Persuasion Nation’ and ‘Brad Carrigan, American’. They were overtly ‘ironic’ and used a sort of easy satirising of pop-culture and advertising, and so the experiment was: could I get that soufflé to rise, i.e. could I get the stories to evoke emotion, even though their materials were designed for mockery? I felt that, in the end, the answer with both was, yes, sort of. But that led me to believe that a work of art makes us feel things to the extent that 1) we don’t know what we’re trying to do or how it’s going to get done and 2) we keep working toward more and more intensity of form (maybe it’s that intensification of, or within, a given form or constraint that causes the reader to feel something).

Q

The White Review

—  How do you feel about reviewers still calling you a satirist, then? I’ve only read a handful (Sam Lipsyte comes to mind) who’ve challenged this, but it’s on the book jackets, it’s in most newspaper reviews: ‘Savage satirist’. The genre’s associated with scorn, with moral surety – things that have no place in the kind of tense ambiguity you just described.

A

George Saunders

—  Honestly, I’ve just learned to accept it, inaccurate as I feel it might be. To me, satire is more one-dimensional and sure of its relation to its subject. I’ve always – always – thought of myself as a fiction writer with comic inclinations. So this recurring identification as a satirist doesn’t really bother me but I can’t do much with it.

 

Sometimes I use that question as an occasion to make a distinction between satire and the comic. Or I might acknowledge that there are satirical elements within my stories – places where I seem to be satirising, you know, advertising or corporations. But if someone feels that’s all I’m doing – that that’s the primary mission – then I’ve failed.

 

It’s just much cleaner to go: I’m a fiction writer. I use any- and everything I need to get certain effects that I’d describe as ‘emotional effects’ – to do the good old aesthetic work that stories do. So, in other words, as a producer of art, I try to keep things as simple as I can, i.e. the questions of my place within satire, or satire’s place within the broader cultural project, don’t interest me that much – aren’t necessary for me to do what I do and might (might) even be harmful. Because if I decide X about my role, or my style, or whatever, and then venture into a story where clinging to X is causing me to miss the actual energy of the story – well, then shame on me. So I think originality would be related to one’s ability to resist self-labelling and the related self-policing. Steer toward the energy, no matter what. Hope that you somehow break a mould or two, intentionally or not.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve mentioned conversations with Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, in the early 1990s, when you talked about the challenge of writing emotionally honest fiction. What were their hangups and what were yours? Have you (singular; collective) succeeded?

A

George Saunders

—  My memory of those talks is just that, under the surface, each of us was struggling with a sort of inherited idea that art had to have edge and mustn’t be too realistic or emotional or mushy… a suite of ideas, the ones Dave was talking about in his essay. And these ideas were sort of roping us off from what fiction has always strived to do – we were sort of prisoners of our own inherited idea of the necessary level of hipness or something. And each had, in his own way, hit a sort of ceiling with that outlook. It was the struggle to retain a kind of newness in the prose and the approach (in order to serve the eternal newness of the world, or the weirdness of our particular time) but without sacrificing heart and/or the old honourable work of fiction – the part about engaging the big moral questions and so on.

 

My arc has been, basically: a very traditional writer and thinker (traditional by default because he was a rube who, when younger, didn’t read much contemporary fiction) finally lived enough to wear out his attempts to imitate older writers (Hemingway, Kerouac). When I was around 25, I read Stuart Dybek’s ‘Hot Ice’ and that threw open a lot of doors, because it was very moving and was set in a place I knew (southside of Chicago) and also was just magical and mythic and it seemed that nothing was disallowed. It was also emotionally true to what my teenaged life in Chicago had felt like and sounded like and so on. But it wasn’t straightforward realism. Anything went. So that was interesting, to see what a piece of fiction that was coming out of ‘my’ world sounded like and what it made bold to include.

 

Reading Dybek was the beginning of a long schlep, to try to find a way to express some truths I was discovering, about what life in America was like when a person found himself in a state of paucity, under financial duress. I read Carver, and that was eye-opening. I loved the severity of his style and the fact that he was taking on class issues and so on. I read the postmodern guys and didn’t really quite get it – they seemed too removed from what I was going through. My problem was, I found I couldn’t get much heat going in straightforward realism – even in Carveresque realism – and I wasn’t intellectually sophisticated enough to really understand postmodern writers like Barth, Coover, Barthelme, etc. I’d had little intimations that I could be weird and funny, and that I responded to a certain sort of absurdism in art (Monty Python loomed large) but I didn’t feel this strange stuff was ‘literature’ (i.e. it wasn’t ‘real’ enough). Around 1986 I’d had a mini-breakthrough with a story called ‘A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room’ that was very much like what CivilWarLand in Bad Decline would be, later, but because I couldn’t quite intellectually justify it or understand it (and couldn’t sustain it) – I sort of froze there and went back to imitating Hemingway et al.

 

Anyway, years later, when we’d had both our kids, something snapped into place: the idea that there was no difference, at all, between so-called experimental writing and emotional writing. You did the ‘experiments’ in order to go to the wall emotionally. There was no other reason to do it. An ‘experiment’ was just whatever was necessary to get the desired energy into your work. So the dichotomy cleared up: do whatever it takes. Steer toward the energy. Don’t worry about being edgy or not being edgy or being soppy – if the emotion of the story is real and earned, it sort of retroactively justifies whatever form you’ve used.

Q

The White Review

—  If your aim suggests continuity – to do what the best fiction has always done, but for your time – do you see your writing (and that of Wallace et al) as in any essential way different from what came immediately before?
A

George Saunders

—  Honestly, I struggle to answer this. Mainly because I think the answer lies in the future doing. I am trying my best to do something new and non-trivial and bold. It helps me to read what came before – and then react to or against that, intuitively. To think conceptually about it doesn’t help me much, I’ve found. Read, live, react. Revise. That’s really it for me, in a nutshell. And I don’t mean that as an anti-intellectual position – but a revved-up form of intellectuality, that includes intuition as a legit arrow in the quiver. What’s going to make my work vital and new is my taste, applied maniacally, over sufficient time.

 

It’s not that I don’t think about this sort of thing – I spend a lot of time mentally kvetching about culture and old forms of art and other writers and so on, and what America is becoming, and all of that – but I don’t articulate the results very well, because they are essentially inarticulable. When a hitter is up against a great pitcher, how does he get better at hitting the guy? Some thinking, some study – but mostly via thousands of muscular and mental micro-adjustments that happen faster than language. Writing is similar, I think. Sometimes criticism seems uncomfortable with this aspect of art but in my experience, it is 99 per cent of the game. Criticism tends to put, in my view, an undue emphasis on intentionality – as if the writer had it all planned out in advance and as if his main goal was to ‘demonstrate’ or ‘prove’ something. I really want to play, and discover the internal dynamics of the story – find out, via intuition, what thrills the story wants to deliver.

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


​Aidan Ryan is a teacher and journalist based in Buffalo, NY. He has written on travel and the arts for CNN and Traffic East, and is a regular music critic for The Skinny. He is also co-founder and editor of the poetry magazine Foundlings.