Around the time that George Saunders’ most recent book Tenth of December was released, The Times magazine published a story about him entitled simply: “George Saunders has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Saunders, who has long enjoyed the slavish devotion of prose writers across the spectrum, had become a bona fied cultural giant. So you can imagine my surprise when, a few months later, I opened by inbox to find a message from Saunders’ publisher, Random House, inviting my book group, Writers Who Read, to do an intimate phone chat with the author.
I was floored. How had the Random House folks ferreted out our little group in Portland, OR? It was like the lit dork equivalent of winning the lottery. It all seemed so implausible . . . especially the part about Saunders doing book groups. I mean, really? In the weeks leading up to the call I spent a lot of time thinking about the state of contemporary fiction–about how those of us who’ve devoted ourselves to the craft stand less and less chance of earning a real living at it. If George Saunders is still expected to shill his own work door-to-door the economic prospects for the rest of us seem dim indeed. All of this had me in a little bit of a funk before the call. Then we actually talked to him.
I still can’t say why Saunders decided to do this meet n greet. It’s possible that the Random House publicity department had him on a grueling schedule of phone calls with book groups across the country. It’s possible that this is truly what it takes to get a book out there in an era when fewer and fewer people are reading magazines and newspapers. But having now spoken to the man I’m inclined to think his reasons for speaking to us were simpler: I think he likes it. George Saunders, it turns out, is a real people person. For some readers, this might come as a little bit of a surprise. Saunders, with his satirical-cum-surrealist approach, doesn’t often evoke the warm fuzzy feelings of, say, an E.B. White. He’s known for being funny and trenchant and fairly violent, none of which are commonly equated with being nice. But it turns out he is nice. Really, really nice.
Saunders was wonderful to our group, which is made up largely of fiction writers. He spent a lot of time talking about craft and the writing prompts and exercises he uses to help grease the skids for his MFA students at Syracuse. He let us into his process–the tricks he uses to help move a story along if it has stalled out (hint: violence, both emotional and physical, is often his go-to catalyst). He talked about his early struggles getting published; what it’s like working with an editor to hone a story; his trepidation about committing to a longer piece of fiction. He talked about books he loved. (Middlemarch!) He was humble and patient and utterly winning. I think all of us in the room were left with the impression that Saunders is more than a remarkable writer; he is a remarkable man.
All of this came back to me as I read the transcript of Saunders’ recent convocation speech at Syracuse in which he exhorted students to embrace kindness:
When young, we’re anxious – understandably – to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .
And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
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.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those readers that demands all of my literary idols to be superheroes. For me, one of fiction’s great powers is that it offers a safe space to explore the moral gray areas. Moreover, I find it helpful to know that literary geniuses aren’t all saints as well. One of the most liberating aspects of meeting a handful of the writers I admire is that I was able to confirm that they were, in fact, just human beings, full of the usual cocktail of flaws and contradictions. Knowing this makes me feel a bit less like I’m flying into the sun on a set of wax-molded wings every time I sit down to do my own writing. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have something to aspire to as a human being and I think Saunders is providing as good a model as anyone.