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Mr. Saunders of Sesame Street

George Saunders, "Lincoln in the Bardo"James Ley’s attitude in his review of George Saunders’ recent novel Lincoln in the Bardo is… well… I’m not quite sure what. Let’s say it’s in the region of prickly/irascible/dyspeptic but without any trace of genuine displeasure or hysteria:

Saunders is a formally adventurous writer; he has his characteristic quirks and obsessions, his own distinctive style. But his work sits quite comfortably within a well-established tradition of postmodern American fiction. In fact, it is hard to think of another contemporary author of comparable renown whose aesthetic is so obviously stitched together from other writers’ old fabric scraps. His fiction is a patchwork of Donald Barthelme’s conceptual whimsy, Thomas Pynchon’s zany cultural satire, and Kurt Vonnegut’s avuncular wisdom, interwoven with an anxious humanism and a demotic turn of phrase that takes a perverse delight in malapropisms, solecisms, absurd jargon and ridiculous brand names — qualities that are more or less direct cops from David Foster Wallace.

And later, building off Zadie Smith’s praise for Saunders as “a  morally passionate, serious writer,” Ley adds:

Maybe I am the only person to detect something a little Gertrudian about this observation, but it sounds to my ears rather like an indirect expression of concern that there is at least a faint possibility that someone, somewhere could mistake Saunders for a morally indifferent, frivolous writer. Would anyone bother pointing out that, say, George Eliot or Franz Kafka or Jenny Erpenbeck are ‘serious’ writers?

The implied anxiety is of interest, I think, not because it suggests that a writer who works primarily in a comic mode cannot also have a serious purpose (a proposition so obviously false that it hardly needs refuting), but because it suggests a buried insecurity about the moral authority of literature itself. The point not only bears upon the reception of Saunders’ work, but the form and content of his moralism. It is not a coincidence that among the most prominent champions of his fiction are a cohort of novelists of a certain vintage — Smith, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jennifer Egan — all of whom are, in one way or another, haunted by the DFW-shaped hole in contemporary American literature. It has been Saunders, more than any of his peers, who has taken it upon himself to address the issue raised by Wallace in the early 1990s, in the context of a generational debate about the cultural status and purpose of serious literature — namely, whether a work of fiction might yet affirm positive human values in a chronically frivolous cultural environment that equates irony with sophistication and ingenuousness with naivety and simple-mindedness.

I’m tempted to quote further, especially to quote Ley’s judgment on the profundity of Saunders’ “seriousness and moral passion,” but that’d risk ruining the pleasure of his review in its entirety. Ultimately, I guess, it’s a takedown of Saunders, but it’s an exceptionally articulate and insightful takedown that makes ample effort to appreciate the intentions and virtues of Saunders’ work. It’s one of those rare essays that is not only more sophisticated in its own right than the subject under discussion, but that also renders its subject in more sophisticated terms than those in which the subject can render itself. It’s a doozy and it deserves your full attention.

Rigorous and Iterative

Last weekend’s Guardian Review featured a long essay by George Saunders on the process of writing a novel. What Saunders wants to offer, as he announces at the beginning, is a description of “the actual process” of writing a novel and a refutation of the way the process exists in the cultural imagination. A work of art, Saunders complains, is “often discuss[ed]” as the product of an artist who “had something he ‘wanted to express,’ and then he just, you know… expressed it,” as if “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.” In fact, Saunders confesses upon the publication of his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he feels as lost at sea as Marilynne Robinson when he attempts “to talk about [my] process as if I were in control of it.”

I read the first two sections of Saunders’ essay with a chime of recognition ringing through my thoughts. As with most of Saunders’ work from the last decade or so, the essay quickly swerves into the maudlin territory of “the empathetic function in fiction” and the writer’s duty to set about “generously imagining” his or her readers. Before that point, though, it could equally stand as a description of my own process, even though the process itself is too intuitive and impressionistic to be worthy of that name:

My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

“The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist,” Saunders says, taking part in a “rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” and “always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?” That’s true in my experience as well, although I’d be careful to specify that “those thousands of incremental adjustments” don’t necessarily alter the course of “the story” so much as the course of the work. For me, in fact, even though incremental adjustments have already devoured the lion’s share of the time I’ve spent writing Winter Fugue, and even though I know that they will continue to do so as I revise the novel, the story is by far the least of what will be changed in the process.

I wrote the first draft of Winter Fugue over the course of maybe two weeks, producing something between 5,000 and 10,000 words per day. Those words were all extremely rough, hastily chosen, and nowhere near fit for purpose. What exactly would be their purpose? At a rudimentary level, the purpose of the words in a novel is to capture and hold a reader’s attention by conveying a series of narrative events. Often, however, those events can be conveyed with equal effectiveness through any number of different words. Finding the right words for a novel, and putting them in the right order, has less to do with selecting them for their effectiveness in ordering the events of a narrative and more to do with their own intrinsic aesthetic properties: their capacities for evocation and connotation, and especially the acoustic resonances of their prosody and tone.

I wouldn’t deny that words enable readers to envision the action of a narrative, but I’d say that to use them primarily for that purpose is to treat them as instrumental things in the utilitarian sense of the term. This is how I treat them when writing my first few drafts, before I switch on what Saunders calls the “forehead needle.” Once that needle starts flicking from side to side, once I set out on the “rigorous, iterative engagement with a thought system,” the narrative already has its shape and the needle registers only the relative merits of what words can do to a reader beyond conveying narrative events. My needle treats my words as instrumental in a musical sense, measuring their distance from or proximity to the sound, the susurration, I can still hear in my head.

Aside

Why Tenth of December?

Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth of December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something like conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?