Saunders Gives Advice to Writers
To some, the fiction style of writer George Saunders has established itself as a kind of literary mode a la something from Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style. Select an unremarkable piece of prose, such as the script for a television commercial. Then, insert a few unconventional question marks here, remove a character’s toes there, relocate the piece to a dysfunctional working-class environment and voila, you have yourself a bona fide George Saunders story. It is no surprise that Saunders’s work has garnered an enviable range of reactions — it has been called everything from “dazzling” to “just really wacky.”
On Wednesday night in Craig Lecture Hall, Saunders, who was awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” grant this year, reaffirmed the power of his unique and “really wacky” voice to transform ordinary stories. He emphasized that his role as a live reader was to tell stories rather than to read from a text. He read from his newest collection of short stories, In Persuasion Nation, and from one other book, for only 40 minutes before opening up the floor for questions.
Saunders preceded each reading with an anecdote about how the story came to be. Rather than sounding like craft talk or overly modest disclaimers, these bits and pieces gave the audience another reason to laugh at Saunders’s desperate, flawed characters.
That storytelling outside the text actually made up the bulk of the reading also reflected a point that Saunders made later, quoting David Mamet. When you’re really telling a story, he noted, you’re not exactly thinking; it’s more like “writing a piss-off letter to a girlfriend or boyfriend, or imagining your funeral.”
Saunders, who teaches in the M.F.A. program at Syracuse University, made the most of the question and answer session as well, applying his enthusiasm for storytelling to his replies to questions about how he writes. When asked if his job experiences had informed the zany environments and characters in many of his stories — such as a Civil War reenactment theme park — he replied that his magnetism toward “the weird” was a forced reaction to his own imitative, sentimental tendencies.
“In grad school,” he said, “I was just trying so hard not to do bad Hemingway…Most of the time it would be like ‘Nick walked into the Wal-Mart.’”
Having grown up in blue-collar Chicago, Saunders said he began to do his best writing when he forced himself to use language and material that was familiar enough that he could riff on it. He encouraged the younger writers in the audience to do the same.
“You’re 20 years old, you know a lot about the moral universe,” he said. “You have to have the confidence that what you know is sufficient.”
Ultimately, he said, writing comes back to the tenet of not knowing or thinking so much.
“Themes…you don’t get them by thinking about them,” he mused, “you get them by making language that doesn’t suck.”
Saunders’s own language — which hardly sucks — was rewarded once again as a throng of students and faculty lined up to purchase books after the reading.