Essays

George Saunders and the Question of Greatness

By posted at 6:00 am on May 20, 2013 13

coverI think it might mostly be the way George Saunders puzzles things aloud, but there was, I don’t know, just something about listening to him defend the short story on “The Colbert Report” shortly after Tenth of December came out a few months back, those endless variations on a theme. It’s a joke. It’s a pop song. It’s three minutes until the train leaves and you’ve got to convince her that you love her. It’s eight pages to make someone cry.

It must have been a week or so before that, when my friends and I were huddled in the very back corner of Greenlight Bookstore here in the middle of Brooklyn, just a few feet from the stockroom, so many shelf-lined antechambers away from the man that we may as well have been in a different city, listening to him read a teasing bit of “Escape from Spiderhead” and answer questions over the PA system, and the first one was that old chestnut, where’s the novel we’ve all been waiting for?, and after he said that he lacked the momentum to “accrue pages” — “I think of my stories as kind of like those little toys and you wind ’em up and put it on the floor and it goes under the couch” — the guy beside me let out this soft, disappointed sigh, like he’d just learned exactly why his child had been sent to the principal’s office, or he was watching the scene in a movie where two lovers fated to die come this close to finding each other — but not quite.

The hype surrounding Tenth of December in the early days of the calendar year was kind of staggering. I nodded along: yeah, I’d seen that big piece in the Times magazine, the sheer bravado of the title — “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” — and sure, I would read it (I hadn’t yet, then). It was the article that Saunders himself credited for the crazy turnout at Greenlight that evening, in an admission of extreme modesty that was both believable and charming (because it was that very piece that’d rightly asserted that “for people who pay close attention to the state of American fiction, he has become a kind of superhero”).

The backlash followed not long afterwards: a dust-up when it was suggested that someone who can’t seem to accrue enough pages to pen the Great American Novel couldn’t actually be considered the writer of our time. The whole debate volleyed around the bookish corners of the Internet for a few days, one of those weird, insular, overly prescriptive bouts of literary navel-gazing. Whatever, I said. The conversation was an irrelevant one. I loved George Saunders. I was going to love this book.

Because I’d read a few of Saunders’s stories before and I’ve been known to bestow the same superhero-worship on him that a lot of people do. Something about the first story I’d ever read of his — a photocopy of “Sea Oak” during a fiction workshop my senior year of college, probably one of the most important things that I read that semester, so startling and dizzyingly well-executed that it made me want to do what I want to do with most perfect short stories: pull them apart, figure out how the trick was pulled off, the three-minute train-platform confession, I guess, because I suspected then (and know for certain now) that I’m not one of those people that can put together a proper short story, or, at the very least, spin out something that feels, on the surface, so crazily effortless.

(I came home that summer and handed my mother the photocopy of “Sea Oak,” insisting that she read it. But my reading recommendations to her have historically been almost universally selfish: I press a book on her because I’ve loved it, not because I think there’s something in particular that would compel her to it, and most of the time she likes my suggestions — they’re usually good books! — but sometimes, well. She’s very diplomatic. She didn’t say anything about “Sea Oak” for a long time, and I thought that she hadn’t gotten to it yet, until one day I asked her, and she quietly affirmed that she’d finished it. Well? “It was…disturbing,” she said slowly, and it was then that I remembered that there was more to it than being an immaculately crafted short story — it was also about a zombie, basically, a dead woman reanimated, her body parts dropping off one by one as she nags her descendants into getting their lives in order. A fair point!)

But here’s the thing: I bought and began to read Tenth of December and faltered a bit before pushing through to the end — because I don’t actually love it. I’ve been picking it up and putting it back down since I saw, or rather, heard Saunders read aloud — since January! All of 2013! — which feels kind of stupid, because it’s not terribly long and it’s not all that technically challenging. On a page-to-page, sentence-to-sentence level, it’s often a delight, equal parts wry humor and gentle pathos: a joke, a pop song, a speech on a train platform. In other contexts, I’m always happy to see his byline. It’s a respite, tucked between the heavy reporting and critical rancor in The New Yorker; it’s a relief, wedged in amongst the largely dreary and neurotic stuff that’s made up the recent “Best American” anthologies. But stories that I’d read before felt weirdly stifled stacked up on top of each other. An entire book of them, back to back — it’s hard to explain it, but for me, trying to read them one after another often felt like trying to take in all the air in the room at once. It’s impossible to take a proper breath when your lungs are already full.

Why, though? If it’s so important to me to figure out how these stories work, it feels similarly important to understand how the sum of their parts seems to fall short. I felt, at times, that the stories themselves were unevenly matched: big famous ones, like the two bookends, “Victory Lap” and the final, eponymous story, shine so brightly that some of the others feel like paler echoes. And then there’s the literal echo — Saunders’s language, the tricky rhythm of modern colloquialisms that’s often so beautifully awkward — in the words of that Times piece, it’s frequently “a kind of heightened bureaucratese” — can feel gimmicky in story after story, the sheen wearing off a bit. These criticisms — the pace, the shtick —  are ones I and many, many others have leveled before all sorts of short story collections — and it’s there that we loop back around to the silly question of whether a writer who only produces short stories can really be considered the pinnacle of the profession. The question makes me cringe, for reasons I can’t quite articulate — maybe it’s because it does feel like a weird, insular, overly prescriptive bout of literary navel-gazing. Or maybe it’s because I’m beginning to suspect that it’s true.

A few weeks ago, I started from scratch: I picked up the book again, with a little more restraint, and began reading the stories one at a time, spaced apart, in small doses. If they were carefully arranged in a particular order, I’ve ignorantly stomped all over that: I started with the last, Tenth of December, and all that superhero-worship came rushing back. It has occurred to me many times that my opinions of the book — and of Saunders’s work more generally — are not particularly sophisticated bits of criticism. It’s barely criticism at all — it’s gut reaction and instinct. So it’s only fitting that by carefully rereading the collection, I’m slowly falling in love again. Some of it’s incredibly funny, but I’m more interested in how heartbreaking much of it is, eight pages to make someone cry, and now here’s me, crying on the subway. Mission: accomplished.





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13 Responses to “George Saunders and the Question of Greatness”

  1. bewhatwedo
    at 4:35 pm on May 20, 2013

    I had a similar feeling, but I blazed through it. I wasn’t sure that I loved the book, though – perhaps it wasn’t possible to love it as much as the hype would have suggested. But when I sat down to write my review, I realised even more how brilliant it was. And I keep thinking about the stories, so perhaps I should take your more measured approach to reading them all again, one at a time.

  2. Mads Kjeldgaard
    at 5:50 pm on May 20, 2013

    The debate about him not writing a novel and thus not being the great american novelist is weird – it suggests that short stories are a lesser art form than novels.

    Which I certainly don’t think they are.

    That said, I don’t think Saunders’ latest book is the masterpiece it’s made out to be in the media. It’s funny and inventive, yes, but also too inventive and smart. In my opinion, in his pursuit of inventiveness his stories become moralizing instruments of his own predefined message.

  3. Robbie
    at 7:05 pm on May 20, 2013

    Page count as an absolute value really shouldn’t enter into discussions of literary excellence, if only for the simple reason of Jorge Luis Borges. Very few novelists have contained as much expansive genius in an entire book as Borges fits into each of his stories.

  4. Joel
    at 1:22 am on May 21, 2013

    Do you have an article or review in mind for paragraph four’s “dust up”? When did that happen? I can’t think of an author more universally admired in this country than Saunders, and citing to a specific example or two would have helped.

  5. David Biddle
    at 10:19 am on May 21, 2013

    Great writing is great writing. You have to be a serious snob (and a fool) to think that producing a novel is the only way to be considered a superstar. A friend once sent me a story he’d written that was not so terribly good, but it had two sentences in it that were unbelievable. I read the story, took a green pen to every line except those two sentences and sent it back to him with a note: “Write like this.” Those sentences kick George’s sentences ass. He’d agree too, I’m sure.

    That said, why in hell do people persist in trying to talk about writers as singularly at the top of the pyramid? Even The Beatles had to contend with Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, etc. George Saunders is one fucking amazing writer. He throws humor and cultural references into weirdly haunting and disturbing stories and writes like a genius. But James Salter is right up there too, as is Don DeLillo. So is Haruki Murakami (yes, I know he’s not American). And Toni Morrison is no slouch either. I think Amy Hempel and Diane Williams are in the mix as well. And I wish to hell Annie Dillard was still willing to write for us. For that matter, I wish that David Foster Wallace and Barry Hannah were still kicking, although Hannah’s novels have never done a thing for me.

    How can good readers of the world possibly be fooled into thinking there is a single “writer of our time?”

    I loved this essay, though. Tweeted it, Facedbooked it, an’ everything. Thanks so much.

  6. B. Gopinath
    at 12:14 pm on May 21, 2013

    The “Writer of Our Time” is someone, right now, whom no one reads, who resides on the margins, who, in 30, 50, 70, years, will be exacavated from the slush pile of contemporary fiction and resurrected. The “Writer of Our Time” is currently writing for people who aren’t even alive yet. And if you think that’s a bunch of bullshit, then you haven’t been paying attention to literary history. George Saunders is a wonderful writer, but his writing has nothing to do with Now and everything to do with Yesterday. And by Yesterday I mean 15-20 years ago.

  7. Elizabeth Minkel
    at 12:36 pm on May 21, 2013

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all of your thoughtful insights into this.

    Joel, I just wanted to point you towards the main piece I was talking about, by Gawker writer Adrian Chen (from late January):

    http://gawker.com/5978325/writer-of-our-time-george-saunders-needs-to-write-a-goddamn-novel-already

    The piece and its myriad comment threads encapsulate a lot of the conversation that I was referring to—one I shied away from linking to directly here because none of what I said was meant to be a direct engagement with all of that. But Chen and many of the commenters make some very interesting points!

  8. Robert
    at 9:00 pm on May 21, 2013

    Amen, amen, amen to the Annie Dillard comment.

  9. Peter Massey
    at 2:55 pm on May 22, 2013

    I’ve often thought there was a “size matters” aspect to literature, and the short story being short had a hard time measuring up. Joyce didn’t stand pat with “Dubliners” for example, which is about as perfect a collection of short stories as you’ll find. The appeal of “big” is hard to resist and most writers don’t. On the other hand, Chekhov did pretty well for himself with his short stories and Hemingway’s stories are much better than most of his novels. Also, poems are often short, and no one seems to hold that against poets. I hope Saunders decides to write a novel, if he does, because he feels he has something valuable to say in the format, not because some people think he can’t be important unless he does.

  10. Matthew
    at 11:24 am on May 26, 2013

    Do you feel the same way about Annie Proulx?

  11. Bob Wake
    at 12:56 pm on May 26, 2013

    Excellent piece. I felt similarly about why Saunders’ recently published ebook single “Fox 8,” works so well as a stand-alone. He chose to leave it out of “Tenth of December” and it shines all the more for the decision. http://bit.ly/1an9aJp

  12. Robert
    at 2:54 pm on September 19, 2013

    I may be a minority o this one, but the National Book Award long lists
    are out today, and of course G.S.’s book is among them. (With a TIME
    cover, who could be surprised. What I am pleased about, though, is
    the fact that the beautiful, fragile “Someone,” by Alice McDermott, which
    was also nominated, will be overlooked when push comes to shove.

    For my money, McDermott wins by several lengths. I don’t think it will
    happen, but I hope to hell she wins.

  13. Robert
    at 6:56 pm on September 19, 2013

    Oh, duh. Why will I never proof a comment? The above comment is
    insensible. What I meant was simple: 1) I am pleased that McDermott’s
    book wasn’t overlooked among all the big boys, and 2) I’m afraid
    the book might not make the short list. (There. That wasn’t so difficult
    to type out, was it, Bob?

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