George Saunders: ‘These trenches we’re in are so deep’

From The Guardian:

George Saunders was born in Texas in 1958 and raised in Illinois. Before his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won the 2017 Booker prize, he was best known as a writer of short stories, publishing four collections since 1996 and winning a slew of awards. In 2006, he was awarded both a Guggenheim and a MacArthur fellowship. His latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, draws on two decades of teaching a creative writing class on the Russian short story in translation at Syracuse University, where he is a professor.

. . . .

What prompted you to turn your creative writing class into a book?
I was on the road for a long time with Lincoln in the Bardo. When I came back to teaching, I just thought, man, after 20 years of this, I really know a lot about these stories. There was also that late-life realisation that if I go, all that knowledge goes too. I thought it would be just a matter of typing up the notes, but of course it turned out to be a lot more.

The book focuses on stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol. What is it about Russian writers that has held your interest for so long?
I tried to teach a similar class on the American story, and it wasn’t as good. I just have a connection with [these Russian writers] – with the simplicity and also the moral-ethical core of the stories. They’re all pretty much about: will this guy live? Did this person do right or wrong? And that resonates with my mind.

This is more than just a how-to-write book: there are lessons here, too, about how to live and what fiction can teach us about being nicer, more empathic people.
I think the main thing that it [fiction] teaches us about is the process of projection that we’re constantly doing. I’m a Buddhist, and we believe you really do make the world with your mind. So a story is like a laboratory to help you identify your own habits and projections. Also, it’s about being in connection with that other human being who wrote it. Working on this book made me realise that when you’re reading a story and analysing it, you’re really reassuring yourself that connection is possible, and that even though this person looks like my enemy, there is – maybe, not always – a way to temper that a bit. So I got a little more confident that connection prevails. Until it doesn’t. And then you’re in America in 2020.

You write about the virtues of revision and that slow, incremental process that is vital to telling good and truthful stories. With that in mind, what are your feelings about social media, which thrives off instantaneous reaction?
There’s something wonderful about the spontaneity of social media, but I think at this point it’s becoming 100% toxic for people to be firing off the top of their brains. One of the things this book says is that the deeper parts of our brain are actually more empathic. If you revise something 20 times, for a mysterious reason, it becomes more social, empathic and compassionate. With Chekhov, you feel he’s always saying: “Well, what else?”, “Is there anything else I should know?”, or “Maybe I’m wrong.” And all of that seems to be designed to foster love, or at least some kind of relation to the other that’s got possibility. So I’m not a fan of social media. I’m not on it. And I won’t be, because I think it’s killing us, actually. I really do.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Per typical Big Publishing sloppiness, there’s no look-inside showing on the Amazon listing for Saunders’ latest release.

2 thoughts on “George Saunders: ‘These trenches we’re in are so deep’”

  1. As has been pointed out here before, it’s a pre-order and Amazon doesn’t show look-insides for pre-orders. Not for trad pubs nor for indie/self pubs.

    Reply
  2. I’m from Russia myself, so for me the selection of stories is too narrow. Even if we take only 19th century, The Queen of Spades by Pushkin, The Red Flower and Signal by Garshin (actually, thrillers on a few pages), The Black Hen by Pogorelsky, some of stories by Leskov and Saltykov-Schedrin should be included as well.

    Reply

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