George Saunders


Things for which there is no time to be:
Bloatedly intellectual
Merely clever

He was born George Saunders and has kept the same name his entire life. Sometimes he moves through the streets beneath a great coat designed to keep himself from being killed. Otherwise he is fearless, naked in the evenings, a family man. There has been a moustache, a beard, a bald face. The area locale where he has chosen to live is brutal and cold and produces a large share of lonely people. He sleeps and eats and functions as any person might. But there the similarities end.

For part of each day, Saunders is a hero. He would never agree to this designation. But his modesty, his generosity, his expansive imagination, and his fully developed tenderness-generating technique are a large part of his heroism. His heroism is fitted with a blind spot that keeps Mr. Saunders from knowing about, or being able to acknowledge, the ways that he has beautifully scoured and remade—through artisan-quality writing—the people in many countries. His writing appears in books and magazines and quickly subsumes them, explaining the appearance of horizon fires in the far Northeast. The books of fiction are called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and Pastoralia. The Suits call his writing “stories,” but they are really soft bodies to wear for a larger experience of life, hollowcore person-shapes that one can slip on in order to attain amazement. Saunders writes bodies, and his readers wear them. Some of these readers are probably in your house. If they are glowing or trembling, now you know why.

The following conversation took place on an old Toshiba calculator.

—Ben Marcus


BEN MARCUS: Rather than ask who your ideal reader is, since I have met your ideal reader and he hurt me physically, I wanted to ask you how aware you are of entertainment, as a specific gift to a reader, and whether or not there’s ever a tension for you between what you feel you ought to do as a writer, and what you actually do. This is not a question about capitulation to a generic sense of what a reader might want, but rather a question of a potential discrepancy between what might please you and what you feel will please others.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: This question rattles me, because it makes me realize that I make no distinction between what pleases me and what might please a reader. That is, if I feel the reader will be pleased by a thing, I simply want to do that thing. Period. My feeling is something like this: The basis for literature is the fact that all of our brains are essentially, structurally, identical. First love in 1830, in Russia, beneath swaying pines, is neurologically identical to first love in 1975, back of a Camaro, Foghat blaring. That’s why that wonderful cross-firing occurs when we read. It is not the case, as we sometimes feel, that the writer is making us feel what she felt. It is, rather, that the writer is poking that part of our brain that already felt (or knew, or sensed) what the writer felt (or knew, or sensed). Without getting too Star Trekkie, there really is, I believe, one universal mind, but the basis for the existence of that universal mind is the structural similarity of all those individual minds. Because the brain is a machine, and all those individual minds are just slightly different versions of that machine, only so many mind-states exist, and therefore you can know what I think, because it is what you thought, roughly. So, when I’m writing, I am trying to move myself, or impress myself, or prevent myself from getting bored and walking away—in the faith that, if I succeed in this, the writing will have some equivalent effect on the reader. On every reader? No. On every reader, to some extent? I think so. I hope so. Anyway, that’s what I assume.That, to me, is the really magical thing about writing: if I write toward my own best nature, I am also writing toward the best nature of others. It sort of doesn’t make sense, and even feels a little fascist, but I think it’s true.

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Ben Marcus is the author of The Father Costume, Notable American Women, and The Age of Wire and String.

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