Sean Broadhurst talks to Man Booker Prize 2017 winner George Saunders about obsession, capitalism and satire in the age of Trump.
George Saunders is the bestselling author of several short story collections including, Pastoralia, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the Folio Prize winning Tenth of December.
He recently kindly took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions on craft and his own writing. Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo was published in February 2017 and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2017 this week.
PS: Every writer starts by giving themselves permission to be a writer. What advice would you have given yourself when you started?
GS: Well, I think the best advice is that everything comes via hours of labor. That, really, is the method by which we take ourselves seriously as writers. All of our strengths, weaknesses, issues, interests will be revealed and dealt with only by sitting there working.
As far as giving oneself permission, I always remember the following incident from when I was in my mid-twenties and trying to make the jump to thinking of myself as a writer. I’d gone over to see a friend but he wasn’t home. His father was, however – this man who’d raised seven kids driving a truck, and to whom I’d never really spoken. He asked what I was up to and I said I had decided I wanted to be a writer, and then he said, “Is that your dream?”
“Well….yes,” I said. “It is.”
“Then you better do it,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, heartened.
“Because if you don’t,” he said, “you know who you’re going to blame.”
“Yes,” I said. “Me.”
“Bullshit!” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and kids.”
So, the point of this story, as I see it, is that if we have a strong desire to do something, we have an obligation to our future selves and our future families, to do all we can to deflect future bitterness. This doesn’t mean we have to succeed – that is a more mysterious and nebulous and elusive thing – but I think it’s good to, at least, TRY.
But along with that I’d say this: a young writer should be willing and able to do work other than writing as she serves her apprenticeship. Nothing wrong with constructing a life where one makes a living in some other way and writes when not at work. Here, in the U.S., I am detecting, increasingly, a slight undertone of entitlement – this sense that a writer has to do nothing but write in order to improve. Not so, and, in fact, what are we to write about if we haven’t had our asses somewhat kicked by the world?
I also think this attitude might stem from the fact that capitalism in its current heartless mode both overworks and under-rewards young people, making it very hard for a young artist to write at night, for example, or part-time – so they sense, correctly, that our system is increasingly making it an all-or-nothing proposition.
PS: Sticks is a story that always stands out when I read Tenth of December. It’s less than 400 words but I felt like I knew the characters intimately and it made me think of our obsessions, and how they aren’t always important to everybody else. Writers often obsess over their work, and this can be useful if we keep it check, but how do you decide when that obsession is getting in the way of the writing process, and how do you try to avoid it?
GS: I take a really functional and “entertainment-based” approach, i.e., how is the story landing on the reader? So, everything should be in the service of the reader’s energetic response to the prose. It’s fine to be obsessed, but only if that obsession produces text that moves and entertains the reader.
Now, the million-dollar question is: How do we determine that? And I guess that’s part of what each writer is trying to determine for herself: How do I intuit what will jangle my reader’s cage?
What I do is, in a sense, imagine that there’s a meter in my head, with P – positive – at one end and N – negative – at the other, and then I just try, at-speed, to see where that needle is, as I re-read my own work. It’s a delicate, non-reductive, visceral process; trying to be honest, trying not to cling to what you “think” the piece is doing, trying, in other words, to read it with a fresh mind, or at least a simulation of a fresh mind. And then, editing the piece to maximize the P-deflection of the needle, and believing that even a tiny change can cause positive inflection.
My approach also involves a lot of iteration; repeating the above process over and over, micro-adjusting the text each time. The idea is that the story is in there, perfectly told, somewhere, but in drafting it up you dropped and broke it – this process is essentially re-piecing the story into its, uh, Platonic wholeness.
PS: You mostly write novellas and short stories. What is it that draws you to shorter forms of writing?
GS: For me it’s really always a question of what the piece wants to do. I find I tend to like to reduce, cut, compress and find the most efficient way through the material. The same principle applied for this new novel; I tried to keep it as quick and precise as possible. So it’s sort of a case of trying to force the material to reveal itself in the most honest way possible, without unnecessary elaboration or any attempt to “go on.”
PS: Do you have any advice for new writers looking to publish their own short fiction?
GS: I think the best advice is to study the journals and magazines in which they hope to appear. There are so many wonderful venues out there and reading them will have the effect of re-calibrating one’s work – teaching one where the bar is, so to speak. But the other thing that is really important, especially for early writers, is to detach a little from the notion of publication and just focus on beauty, on one’s evolving conception of what is beautiful. My experience was that it was important to sort of privatize my sense of beauty – find a way to create, in prose, some version of the beauty I was seeing in the real world. And I guess I’d advise trusting that, if we do that, the publishing world will open itself up to us. That’s the hope anyway.
PS: Many of your stories highlight corporatism and the effect it has on society. Tenth of December does this but there seems to be something that sets it apart from your previous collections. It doesn’t seem as pessimistic about the effects of capitalism. No matter how dark the story or how screwed a character’s life is, there’s always that chance for redemption, there’s always room for hope. Since publishing CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, how have your views on capitalism evolved and do you think it’s having an impact on your writing?
GS: I feel about the same way about capitalism – that, per Terry Eagleton, it “plunders the sensuality of the body” – but I think I am getting better at communicating that that particular tyranny is not absolute. We still live and love and enjoy within it. OR at least we have to try. I’m also feeling, maybe, that the sin of capitalism, if that capitalist system is high-functioning, can be absolved somewhat by focus on the places where people are hurting. That is: if there’s enough bounty in a capitalist culture, it should be possible for everyone to be doing all right. That’s not the case now. On the contrary, the wealth is going upward so fast it’s breathtaking. But it could be the case.
But then again, to be honest I’m not sure I would have said, in those early days, that I was writing “about” capitalism. I always felt that I was sort of seeking pathos – those moments when our grace is insufficient and we’re sad about it. Because of what my life looked like at that time, the stories ended up being centered around money and work and class – but that’s where the sadness was. And also, I felt back then, where the beauty was – in our struggle against those grace-denying forces.
PS: With Donald Trump as President, is it still possible to write satire?
GS: Oh, sure, I think so. Although honestly, I never really considered myself a satirist, except in the occasional humor piece. I always thought of myself, and still think of myself, as someone who is trying to induce a feeling of empathy and pathos, via, sometimes, comedic means. If one wanted to take a satirical stance on Trump or Trumpism, I think you’d want to look at the world around him, especially the media world, that allowed him to come into being. The rise of right-wing media, where it was o.k. to discard truth if that was inconvenient, and where language got ritually distorted and misused – that could be funny. Or very, very sad. While funny.
- Photo courtesy of The Man Booker Prize.