Monday, March 25, 2013

George Saunders’ Perceptive Understanding of the Short Story as a Narrative Form

When George Saunders' first collection of stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline appeared in 1996, it received rave reviews, with well-known writers such as Garrison Keillor and Thomas Pynchon calling Saunders a "brilliant new satirist" with a voice "astoundingly tuned."  Based on that one book, Saunders was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award, and New Yorker magazine named him one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty.  If that were not encouragement enough, three of the stories in Pastoralia (his second collection) won O. Henry Awards prizes: "The Falls" in 1997 (which won second prize), "Winky" in 1998, and "Sea Oak" in 1999. After the publication of his third collections, In Persuasion Nation, reviewers called Saunders "a cool satirist," "a savage satirist," and a "searing satirist." Comparing him to Vonnegut, Pynchon, and T. C. Boyle, critics praised his demented black comic view of modern American culture. 

A primary way Saunders creates this cultural view is to zero in on our pop entertainments.  The focus of the title story of Saunders' first collection is a virtual reality theme park that simulates America during the Civil War era, and the locale of the title story of Pastoralia is a museum in which two people pretend to be a cave man and woman for the entertainment and edification of the public. When asked in an interview why theme parks are often featured in his stories, Saunders said that they create a sort of cartoon-like mood that keeps him from becoming too earnest and serious, reminding him that he is not writing realist fiction and giving him permission to "goof off."  However, Saunders is not just "fooling around" stories like “Pastoralia”; as usual, he has a target, in this case the world of modern work in which bosses are distant anonymous entities with whom workers communicate by fax machines and who insist that we perform in accordance with their view of artificial reality. The couple in Saunders' story, controlled by sophisticated technology, must make their living by pretending to be dumb and inarticulate--a metaphor, Saunders suggests, of how most Americans consider the role they play in the world of work.

The popular interest in Saunders’ satiric stories often overshadows his more universal theme of the male "loser" who cannot succeed in the real world and must create a fantasy compensatory reality.  In many ways, the most perfect example of the short story as a form in Pastoralia is "The End of FIRPO in the World," in which a young overweight and disliked boy named Cody takes imaginative revenge on classmates and neighbors who torment him by putting boogers in their thermos and plugging their water hose to make it explode.  During a bike ride, Cody imagines that his ultimate revenge will occur when he is famous for his splendid ideas, such as plugging up the water hose.  The story ends with irony and pathos when he is hit by a car and the only person who has ever told him that he is "beautiful and loved" is the man who has hit him

 Although Saunders has always had a devoted following for his satiric stories, it is only with his fourth collection, Tenth of December that he has been discovered by a wider audience. Part of the reason for this may be what Jon McGregor in The Times of London calls his “dialing back on the satire, relaxing into realism, letting the clear voice of suffering sing through.”  Saunders told one interviewer that he thinks his fiction is “bigger-hearted” in this new book.  I don’t intend to analyze individual stories in Tenth of December in this blog entry.  I have no doubt that if you read them, you will see the excellent way they embody the virtues of the short story as a narrative form.  Instead, I want to highlight Saunders’ perceptive understanding of the short story.

As of this writing, Tenth of December has been on several bestseller lists for two months and Saunders has been interviewed by everybody from Charlie Rose to George Stephanopoulos.  The most common (and I do mean common) question of most of the interviewers with George Saunders in the past few months has been, “Why do you write short stories,” as if that were some sort of neurotic notion in which no one in his right mind could possibly engage. Saunders always says something about the short story being his form “neurologically--that he is wired for it.  He believes that when writing you have to have a feeling for beauty and says that he knows it at eight pages, not eighty pages. “I think it is the limit that makes [the short story] magical,” says Saunders.  “Give me eight pages and I’ll do something.”

Indeed, he does “do something”—something that is particularly characteristic of the short story form at its best. And it is not always his popular satiric short stories that are his best.  I like what Saunders does with the short story, and I like the way he talks about writing in general and the short story in particular in his interviews and essays (See The Braindead Megaphone, 2007).

In his interview with Charlie Rose, Saunders says he used to think that the artist had an idea he or she wanted to get and then sort of dump it on the reader.  Now, he knows that really doesn’t produce anything; it is condescending. When you study writing, Saunders says, there’s this intentional fallacy that the writer has a set of ideas and the story is just a vehicle for delivering those ideas. He says his experience has been totally the opposite. “You go in trying not to have any idea of what you are trying to accomplish, praying that you will accomplish something and respecting the energy of the piece and following it very closely.” 

In his PBS interview with Jeffrey Brown, he says his approach is to go into a story not being really sure what he wants to say.  He finds a little seed crystal and tries to divest himself of any ideas about it.  He calls writing the short story an elaborate exercise of being comfortable with mystery. (I have talked about this aspect of the short story in many places in print and on this blog.  It is the most prevalent understanding of the short story by many writers who excel in the form.)

Saunders has talked most about essential short story characteristics of mystery, ambiguity, the process of discovery, and human sympathy in the title essay to his collection The Braindead Megaphone:

“The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us.  If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible.”

In his essay, “Mr. Vonnegut in Sumatra,” Saunders says that before he read Vonnegut, he always thought the function of art was to be descriptive, a kind of scale model of life to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think what the writer did.  Then he began to understand art as a kind of “black box the reader enters.  He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.  The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’—he can put whatever he wants in there.  What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.”  He says that for Vonnegut the change that takes place in the reader is that his or her heart is softened, our capacity for pity and sorrow encouraged.

Saunders told George Stephanopoulos, that he believes  fiction is not a great propaganda tool, that overt political fiction doesn’t work, explaining this way:

“There’s something about the intimacy of the exchange demands openness on both sides.  On the writer’s part, openness means ‘I really don’t know.’  “The way to get to those ideas is through the language, paying close attention to phrases and sentences, and if you do that in kind of an open state, not only will the ideas show up, but they will be the highest form of your ideas; they won’t be propagandistic; they won’t be superficial, but they will deep and sort of ambiguous.”

Telling interviewers that the litmus test for him is always the language, Saunders talks about the importance of looking very closely at the prose and seeing if it has any energy or not and then trying to get that feeling in the prose and to follow where it leads, even if it is not going where you want it to.  In his essay, “Thank You, Esther Forbes," he talks about his discovery of the importance of the sentence when a teacher gave him Forbes’ historical novel Johnny Tremain when he was a child.  He was most impressed with the sentences, which seemed to have more life in them than normal sentences:

“They were not merely sentences but compressed moments that burst when you read them…. “A sentence was more than just a fact-conveyor; it also made a certain sound, and could have a thrilling quality of being over-full, saying more than its length should permit it to say.  A sequence of such sentences exploding in the brain made the invented world almost unbearably real, each sentence serving as a kind of proof… By honing the sentences you used to described the world, you changed the inflection of your mind, which changed your perceptions.”

Saunders says you “start off with a kind of condescending relationship to your characters almost by definition, and as you work with sentences you find that the bad sentences are equal to simplicity or condescension, and as you work with language you move yourself toward complexity and often to a state of confusion where you really don’t know what you think about the person… You’re sending out a bundle of energy, you know, concentrated energy that you’ve made with your own sweat, really, and your heart, and it goes out and it jangles somebody. Now, there’s another level where you do hope to make people more alive in the world, maybe more aware of the fact that we have more in common with others than we think we do.”

It is not incidental that George Saunders often mentions Anton Chekhov’s short story “Grief” as an example of the importance of language in the short story to human understanding.  "”Grief" is a lament (as the title is sometimes translated)--not an emotional wailing, but rather a controlled objectification of grief and its incommunicable nature by the presentation of deliberate details in carefully constructed sentences.  It therefore indicates in a basic way one of the primary contributions Chekhov makes to the short story; that is, the use of the form as the expression of a complex inner state by means of the presentation of selected concrete details rather than by presenting either a parabolic form or by depicting the mind of the character. Significant reality for Chekhov is inner rather than outer reality; but the problem is how to create the illusion of inner reality by focusing on externals only.  The answer for the modern short story is to find a story that, if expressed "properly," that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details in carefully constructed sentences will embody the complexity of the inner state.  T. S. Eliot will later term such a technique "objective correlative," and James Joyce will master it fully in The Dubliners. Saunders calls “Grief” a great political story.  If you want to explore a political idea, says Saunders, you embody it in a person, a human connection.

Like his colleagues, Steven Millhauser, David Means, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Edith Pearlman, Joy Williams, and others, George Saunders is a master of the short story.  We can only hope that his recent and well-deserved popularity will stimulate new interest in the form. In his PBS interview, he told Jeffrey Brown: “I love the idea that more people will read short fiction. It’s such a humanizing form. It softens the boundaries between people.” “If I can do even a little bit of work to get the short story out there, I’m thrilled.”

And so are we, Mr. Saunders.  Thank you for your keen understanding of the short story as a form, for sharing that understanding with us both in fiction and analysis.  Congratulations on your success with Tenth of December.


Dorothy Johnston said...

Where is the line between ambiguity and obscurity? You might say there isn't one, and, even if there were, it wouldn't matter. But it matters to me if, as a writer, (and this has happened to me often), I am criticised for being too obscure.

Charles E. May said...

I am very happy to hear from you, Miss Johnston. I apologize that I am not familiar with your writing; although I know you have published short stories, my research indicates that you are best known in Australia for your novels. And truth to tell, I don't read many novels.

When I was teaching, I always distinguished between obscurity and ambiguity by suggesting that something in a story was obscure when it was personal to the writer or for some other reason relatively unknown to the reader. Ambiguity, on the other hand, resulted when something was so complex that it could not be resolved by discursive explanations. I think both terms are more reflective of the reader's response than the writer's intention. What is obscure to some readers may not be obscure to others, depending on their education, reading experience, or general knowledge, don't you think? And what is meaningfully ambiguous to some readers may not even register as being complex to others. I realize this is a simplistic response, but I need to think more about it. And I will. Thank you for reading my blog. I am honored by your interest. I look forward to hearing from you again.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Thank you for your response, Professor May. It's every bit as insightful as I expected it to be. I read your posts more often than I comment on them because many of the writers you discuss are unfamiliar to me. My reading list grows and grows. I always learn something from visiting your site. I think the point about complexity that can't be resolved by discursive explanations is a crucial one. And I do find that readers seem to expect explanations nowadays; perhaps more than when I was young. Either readers expect the explanation to be offered within the story (or the novel) itself, or they expect the kind of direct prose and straightforward intention that does not require one. I thought it was interesting that Diaz was going to such lengths to 'explain' his prize-winning story.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

A very impressive blog. I found it by doing a search on TENTH OF DECEMBER, which I began browsing and then was drawn into reading.

We share the same ideas of fiction--mainly that, as Pulitzer-winning author Richard Russo pointed out, the end of literature is empathy and compassion. Which is why there are vastly more liberal authors of fiction than conservative (using the Republican Party's definition of conservative rather than Wendell Berry's).

On my blog, this last Groundhog Day, I reviewed David Levithan's novel, EVERY DAY, in which his protagonist wakes up every day in a different body, which naturally leads him to empathy over time. This is sort of a metaphor for our reading lives.

Re: Your response concerning the line between ambiguity and obscurity. The literary ambiguity we treasure in literature was defined as "recalcitrance" by Austin Wright in his marvelous novel/study, RECALCITRANCE, FAULKNER, & THE PROFESSORS.

Wright takes on Faulkner's AS I LAY DYING and the infinitely creative interpretations on the way.

In MOBY DICK, Melville gave us all the different interpretations of the illustrated coin nailed to the mast, each crewman giving an interpretation based upon his own perspective.

In BLOOD MERIDIAN, Cormac McCarthy reprised this, with the Judge telling the man a parable which had every man in the company thinking that it was his own story. The lesson was that every story, properly told, is every man's story.

A story with enough recalcitrance will appeal to any reader who will then be able to find his own truth in the universals. The great novels are magic mirrors in which we can find our true selves.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Richard, for your comment. I am happy that you mentioned Austin Wright's concept of recalcitrance. I first encountered Austin's work in his book on the short story and over the years was happy to have shared the podium and dinner with him at more than one conference. A fine scholar and critic and a true gentleman. I am reading several books of research on empathy and fiction and will post about my findings soon. Thanks again for commenting on my blog.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Thanks again. I first encountered Austin Wright's work in his noir crime novel TONY AND SUSAN, in which he uses the trinity of murderers to signify the mythical furies, in the way that Joseph Conrad does in VICTORY and in the way that Cormac McCarthy does in OUTER DARK.

I was then so charmed by his use of the mythic metaphors that I sought out all of his other books, his study of recalcitrance among them. I learned that he was from Cincinnati but unfortunately he died before I discovered his work.

I'll certainly look forward to your upcoming literary discussions on this blog.