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12 October 2022

How George Saunders became literature’s Mr Nice Guy

The author of Lincoln in the Bardo on US politics, his “limited talent”, and the curse of being seen as the Tom Hanks of American letters.

By Erica Wagner

George Saunders suggests we meet at the La La Land Kind Cafe. White and hyper-modern, selling lavender matcha lattes, it’s on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, and there’s something about it that calls to mind the surreal, post-postmodern settings of many of his stories. Then, of course, there’s the name of the place. For Saunders – named by the New Yorker in 1999 as one of the best American writers under the age of 40, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, winner of the Booker Prize in 2017 for Lincoln in the Bardo – has come to be perceived as the Tom Hanks of American letters, a man whose niceness is an impenetrable carapace.

In 2013 the commencement address he gave the graduating class of Syracuse University went viral. “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” he told his young audience. He urged them to “do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

During the run-up to the American election in 2016 he travelled to rallies for the then presidential candidate Donald Trump and talked to Trump’s supporters, kindly, rationally; his thoughtful analysis was published in the New Yorker on 4 July, four months before Trump’s victory. “LeftLand and RightLand are housemates who are no longer on speaking terms. And then the house is set on fire. By Donald Trump. Good people from both sub-nations gape at one another through the smoke,” he wrote.

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Sure enough, here at the La La Land Kind Cafe, Saunders is being super-nice, buying my lavender matcha latte when I should be buying his, apologising profusely for taking us to sit outside in the broiling Los Angeles-heatwave heat because he is still being Covid-cautious: his wife, Paula, has to be mindful of her health. He knows I have a book coming out and asks about my own writing, thoughtfully, genuinely. Is it a burden, I wonder, being the Patron Saint of Nice?

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He laughs. “Yeah, it’s a curse!” he says – but then, as is his way, approaches the question with care. “My job is to be aware of that, and be a little sceptical of it and try to poke it. But here’s the truth: your ego loves it. I mean, as a former Catholic, sure why not, I’ll be a saint, that’ll be great! And then you see yourself doing some shitty thing or having some errant thought, and you have to go, ‘Wait, that shtick is not true.’ So, one: don’t believe it; two, interrupt it.”

Saunders was born in Amarillo, Texas in 1958 – though there’s no trace of the state’s signature twang in his warm, pleasant voice. His background is not typical for a literary writer: his degree, from the Colorado School of Mines, is in geophysics and, according to his author biography, he has worked “as a geophysical prospector in Indonesia, a roofer in Chicago, a doorman in Beverly Hills, and a technical writer in Rochester, New York”.

He was not raised among what’s often called the liberal elite; his empathy with those at the opposite end of the political spectrum comes from his upbringing as well as his early inclination. It was his own process of self-education that moved his political leanings away from hard-line conservatism. As a younger man Saunders fell for Ayn Rand, whose 1943 novel The Fountainhead is a talisman for those who believe in the triumph of the individual over the collective. “When I was young I thought, ‘She’s great.’ I couldn’t find a flaw in it. Then I started reading more, and now I can go back and say, ‘Oh, syntactically, this has got a big red flag out saying: I’m lying to you.’”

British readers may know him best from his only novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. It is a symphony of more than 150 voices, most of them ghosts who populate a Civil War-era cemetery visited by a living President Lincoln who searches for the spirit of his dead son, Willie. Yet Saunders has been, primarily, a master of the short story. His first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, published in 1996 – now in development as a television series – is full of the extraordinary combination of innocence and darkness that makes his voice unique.

His literary agent, Esther Newberg, tells me: “No one is like George. Period.” She has represented the author since his first story appeared in the New Yorker, in 1992. “He is as kind as anyone I have ever known,” she says, and cites the “humour and gravitas” of his fiction. “I think he is a genius. Lincoln in the Bardo? How did he even think he could make that a book?”

Saunders’ work is often set in what seems to be a not-too-distant future in which American society has been – surprise! – brutally divided between the haves and have-nots, the latter imprisoned in dystopian theme parks or dead-end jobs that are both banal and terrifying. That early work is prescient: we seem increasingly to be living in George Saunders’ world, helpless as huge forces beyond our control drive us towards dysfunction and, perhaps, extinction.

The aura of oracular niceness around Saunders is peculiar, given the actual nature of his work. You don’t have to read much of it to observe that it is, simply put, full of terrible shit happening to folks who have, for the most part, done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

In the title story of Liberation Day, his new collection, the narrator, Jeremy, is enslaved by a pleasant middle-class couple and their adult son. In their version of our world, pleasant middle-class families don’t sit in front of the TV streaming Netflix; instead, a troupe of humans, memories of their prior lives having been somehow totally wiped, are pinioned to the wall of the family’s pleasant middle-class home. There they are made to perform elaborate narratives, in a ritual known as “Speaking”. The performers feel no hardship for they have no knowledge of their former lives. Their enslavers don’t believe they are doing any wrong.

Part of what makes the story so disturbing is Jeremy’s equanimity. “I love my work. I aspire to always be feeling more, thus Speaking with more gusto, thus evoking greater emotion and engagement in my Listeners,” Jeremy tells us. His situation – I won’t give any more away – is clearly horrifying; yet the reader seeks a place to locate her horror, because the narrator himself resists it. The tension in Saunders’ work arises from realising how powerful is our wish to be comforted, even in the most awful situations. Nearly all of his characters are trapped and must make the best of it. But then, that could be said of all of us.

“That’s what I’m starting to realise,” Saunders says. “So: do not ask for whom the bell tolls, because to a greater or lesser extent, yes, we’re trapped. I think that’s always been my move, to talk about trapped-ness. And to really come to ask: what if the trap is stronger than you? I write myself to a point where a spectacular escape is about to happen – and I know how to do that – but what if this is one of the times where it doesn’t? Then where’s the compassion? What becomes of the person? That was an interesting corner to get into.”

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Despite living in California – he and his wife moved west six years ago, ground down, he says (only half-joking, I can tell), by the unrelenting terror that they might fall down on the icy driveway of their home in upstate New York – he still teaches on the graduate writing programme at Syracuse. It was from that programme that A Swim in a Pond in the Rain emerged. In the book, published in 2021, four Russian writers give, as the subtitle promises, “a masterclass on reading, writing and life”. Saunders leads the reader – as he has led his students over the course of more than two decades – through the short stories of Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, his humane, open-hearted analysis offering the kind of welcoming education many of us feel we missed along the way. It’s a project he has continued in “Story Club with George Saunders”, his Substack subscription course.

What comes through in A Swim in a Pond and his newsletter is the sense that he’s talking to himself as much as he is to his audience; that he’s still learning. In the course of our conversation he refers to “a limited talent like I have” – and this pulls me up short. How do you see your talent being limited, George?

“It’s from two directions,” he says. “One is my early training was weird and my reading is not as deep as it should be. The second is my personality.” His tone is frank, a little apologetic. “The strength of it is: I’m an entertainer. The weakness is: I’m an entertainer, so there’s something in there that’s always hyper-aware of what you’re thinking of me – which sometimes is good for a writer and sometimes is not so good, because I know too well what you want. And there’s a third thing: I always feel like I’m somebody talking about the splendour of the world in a really limited diction, which can be funny, and that’s who I actually am. But that, I think, is different from what a certain kind of writer can do, a writer who can just walk up to the splendour and get it.”

Yet is it precisely that “limited diction” that gives his work its sense of absolute sincerity. In the new collection this is most apparent in “Love Letter”, which originally appeared in the New Yorker. Dated “February 22, 202_”, it takes the form of a letter from a grandfather to his grandson Robbie. It is set in an America we recognise, or almost recognise; one where a lack of loyalty to the government can result in the loss of a job – or much worse. The grandfather refers to the political situation as “this thing”. He is careful in his letter only to name people by their initials; he tells Robbie that he himself has had his activities surveilled. Robbie wants to know whether he should try to intervene on a friend’s behalf; in offering counsel, his grandfather describes his own apathy as the political landscape changed, inch by inch, around him, until it was too late.

It did not seem (and please destroy this letter after you have read it) that someone so clownish could disrupt something so noble and time-tested and seemingly strong, that had been with us literally every day of our lives. We had taken, in other words, a profound gift for granted. Did not know that the gift was a fluke, a chimera, a wonderful accident of consensus and mutual understanding.

“Love Letter” dispenses with the stylistic effects that can mark (and, often, illuminate) Saunders’ work: unconventional grammar, unusual elisions. He tells me that an original draft was trickier; Deborah Treisman, the New Yorker’s fiction editor, advised him to try to “write it plain”. “It was an interesting thing,” he says to me, “that you don’t always have to be dancing.”

But then, the moment does not always call for dancing. Did he think, after the writing he did about Trump in 2016, that we’d still be living in such polarised times – that they would be worse? That the US Supreme Court would be packed with Trump-appointed justices, that rioters would have tried to overrun the Capitol, that Roe vs Wade would have been overturned?

“No,” he says simply. “But that’s because I misunderstood the moment we were in from the beginning. Even in that piece, you can see I’m going, ‘Gosh, everybody’s so mean!’ But really, back-reading to the Civil War, none of this is new. It’s got a different leader, but I’m amazed that I didn’t see it more precisely at the time. I have often said, ‘Don’t write the overtly political’ – but in a time like this, what’s political? They’re coming for rights, that’s a factual truth: that’s as factually true as”– he points towards the foliage that surrounds us – “that planter is off-white. So, if somebody declined to write politically because of some dictum that they had, you’re defaulting because you’re not writing about reality.”

His art speaks to the dreadful present; his open-handed style, his skill as an educator, offer hope by encouraging each individual voice to find courage to speak. In his Substack column, he advises readers to seek their own “radical preference”: what we like just because, well, we like it.

The idea is that, when we write and revise, we are trying to get in touch with, and honour, and use, and play around in, these radical preferences. They are all we have. They are what differentiate us from every other writer in the world. Isn’t that at least part of what you love about your favourite writer? The sense that she is joyfully indulging herself in preferences she isn’t bothering to defend? And that eventually these make perfect sense?

It must make sense; it’s all we have. Sitting in the heat of a Los Angeles afternoon, George Saunders puts the task simply: “The job is: put yourself to the test, eliminate the part where you go, ‘I don’t know.’ Just trust and launch in.”

“Liberation Day” by George Saunders is published by Bloomsbury on 18 October

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?