Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Saunders

The tendency blanket

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This Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko wrote, “Man is excellently made and eagerly lives the kind of life that is being lived.” I love the idea that there’s this thing we might call human tendency, and it’s like a big blanket that gets draped over whatever conditions a given time period has produced. So you know, the Spanish Inquisition comes along, and human tendency gets draped over that historical reality, and “being human” lays out in a certain way. Or it’s 1840, and you’re living in Iceland, and human tendency drapes itself over whatever is going on there and—“being human” looks another way. Same blanket, different manifestation. The Internet shows up, and social media and so on, and the blanket of our human tendency gets draped over all of that, and “being human” looks yet another way.

Likewise, if we drape that tendency blanket over some imagined future time where everybody’s eighty percent prosthetic, it’s still the same blanket. So the writer’s ultimate concentration should be on the blanket, not on what’s underneath it. What writing can do uniquely, I think, is show us fundamental human tendencies, and the ways these tendencies lead to suffering—Faulkner’s good old “human heart in conflict with itself” idea. That’s what we’re really interested in, I think, and why we turn to literature.

George Saunders, in the New York Times

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

A series of gas stations

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George Saunders

I can’t speak for anyone else, but my feeling is that you have to first and foremost keep your eye on the fact that your prose has to kick ass. It has to compel and entertain, and your job is to make that happen, per your taste…My work first got meaningful when it got entertaining…

When I was a kid, I had this Hot Wheels set. A car would approach the “gas station,” which was just two spinning rubber wheels that would push the car forward to the next “gas station.” A story could be thought of as a series of these little gas stations. You want to keep the reader on the track—giving them little pleasure bursts—with the goal of pushing them forward toward the end of the story.

So learning to be a writer could be understood as getting into relation with one’s own little gas stations—finding out what sort of micromoments you are capable of creating that will keep the reader moving through the text.

George Saunders, in an interview with Mike Sacks in Poking a Dead Frog

Written by nevalalee

November 19, 2016 at 7:30 am

Exorcising the ghosts

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George Saunders

Over the weekend, The New York Times Style Magazine ran a fascinating series of short pieces by writers confronting their own early work. (The occasion for the feature is an auction being held at Christie’s next month by PEN American Center, in which seventy-five first editions with annotations by their authors will go up for sale. If I could get just one, it would be David Simon’s copy of Homicide.) The reflections here are full of intriguing insights, one of which I quoted here on Sunday. There’s Philip Roth’s description of the analytic session in Portnoy’s Complaint as “an appropriate vessel” for the kind of uncensored, frequently repellent story he wanted to write—a nice reminder of how a novel’s most distinctive qualities often represent a solution to particular narrative problems. I also liked George Saunders’s account of revisiting his first collection of short stories, which is full of “ghost-phrases” that he was positive were there, but must have been cut along the way. The version of a story that a writer carries in his or her head is an amalgam of variations, with each draft superimposed over the one before, and it sometimes bears little resemblance to what finally ended up in print.

But the comment that stuck with me the most was from Lydia Davis, who writes tightly compressed, elliptical short stories, some of them only a paragraph long. (I’ve only read a few of them, but they’re extraordinary—worthy contributions to a tradition of parables that goes back through Borges and Kafka. Of all contemporary writers whose work I feel I need to study more closely, Davis is near the top, largely because her virtues are so different from mine.) Appropriately enough, her contribution isn’t much longer than most of the stories that inspired it, but it’s been rattling around in my head ever since:

I read a story through again and again, whether it’s a long story or a short one (or a very very short one). If anything bothers me, even very subtly, I reread it many times, consider alternatives, put the story away for a while, read it again. I don’t consider a story finished until nothing bothers me anymore—though there are a few stories that never completely satisfied me but that I felt were good enough to go out in the world as they were. I simply couldn’t think what more I could do to them.

Lydia Davis

And the line that really gets me is “until nothing bothers me anymore.” On some level, that’s the only standard to which writers ought to hold themselves, as John Gardner notes in The Art of Fiction: “When the amateur writer lets a bad sentence stand in his final draft, though he knows it’s bad, the sin is frigidity.” The trouble, of course, is that revising a story is like trying to catch a trout with your bare hands. Whenever you think you’ve got a grip on it, it slips through, and one change can set off a series of little crises elsewhere in the draft. To switch to another metaphor, it’s like the horseshoe nail that lost the kingdom: revising a word in a sentence can change the rhythm, which throws off the paragraph, and suddenly the entire chapter—or the whole novel—needs to be rethought. And I’m only slightly exaggerating. At the moment, I’m nearing the end of a significant rewrite of my current novel, with a long list of changes big and small, and although most live on the level of the sentence or paragraph, I won’t know how they really play until I sit down tonight and read the whole thing straight through. That read, in turn, will suggest additional changes, meaning that the novel has to be read yet again, and so on and so forth until I collide with my deadline on Friday.

Ideally, each round of changes will be less extensive than the one before, gradually converging, like a function approaching its limit, at the story’s ideal form, or at least something close enough. This seems to be what Davis is describing, and it’s clear that her stories demand nothing less: they’re so condensed and intense, like poetry, that a single wrong word would tear them apart. The problem is that even as the story nears its perfect shape, if it even exists, the author is changing in the meantime: the standards you had when you started may not be the ones you have now, after you’ve been shaped by the work itself. Much of writing consists of managing that threefold relationship between the story, your original intentions, and whatever you’re feeling today. When the process doesn’t go perfectly, which is to say most of the time, you end up with the ghost-phrases that Saunders describes, a mismatch between the story in your head and its published form. Davis seems determined to exorcise those ghosts, and by her own account, she usually succeeds. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t. And if the rest of us are still haunted by our ghost-phrases, well, we can take heart in the words of Jez Butterworth, who notes that a matter of milliseconds can make the difference between nearly and really—even if the process can start to feel a little like Butterworth’s own script for Edge of Tomorrow. You try, fail, and repeat.

Weaving a big enough basket

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George Saunders

By now, if you read the New York Times, you’ve probably seen Joel Lovell’s wonderful piece on the author George Saunders, which for the last few days has deservedly been one of the paper’s most emailed stories. The entire profile is worth reading—the account of Saunders’s early career as a geophysical engineer and oil prospector is particularly fascinating—but I was especially taken with the passage that I quoted here over the weekend. Saunders says that out of ten given readers, two might not be interested in his work under any circumstances, while he may have three or four of them already. If there’s something he can do to appeal to readers five, six, and seven, while remaining true to his own voice, he’ll do his best to figure out what this is. “I can’t change who I am and what I do,” he concludes, “but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.”

This is, by any measure, the sanest statement I’ve ever seen from a major writer. It’s realistic, humble, and above all confident: it could only have been made by an author who trusted that his integrity as an artist could survive the effort to reach a wider readership. Such a combination of assurance and humility is extraordinarily rare. Many writers, both good and bad, seem to believe that any attempt to broaden their potential audience can only come at a lowering of their artistic standards, when really the opposite is true: inaccessibility is more often the result of a failure of craft. Whenever an author seems convinced that his work, by definition, can be understood by only a tiny sliver of receptive readers, I want to ask: “Can you conceive of a version of this story that, while remaining true to your vision and intentions, can be enjoyed by a wider audience than it can now?” And if the answer is yes, it strikes me as a greater test of an author’s abilities to express his ideas using the tools that might attract a larger readership, rather than to settle in advance for the closed, hermetic circle of readers that initially seemed possible.

Portrait of Jorge Luis Borges by Ferdinando Scianna

The fact is that most good authors should be able to reach a wide audience, if they’re willing to extend themselves in ways that might not at first seem obvious. The opposite is also true: very few authors are legitimately original and difficult enough to justify the refusal to seek as diverse a readership as possible. Acknowledging this can be hard: it means knowing the difference between honest artistic exploration and the timidity, or frigidity, that can lead a writer to shy away from giving up his dearest affectations. It requires certain sacrifices, but only of the kind that every writer is forced to make sooner or later—the sacrifice of ego, pretension, and self-indulgence. Plenty of these qualities will remain on their own, no matter how objective a writer tries to be. But the author who can’t kill them wherever possible while still retaining his principles and ambitions can only be one of two things. Either he’s a genius of the kind that comes along a handful of times in a generation, in which case all bets are off. Or, more likely, he’s afraid of finding out what remains when all those comforting affectations are stripped away.

That said, it’s often best for an author to start by writing for a particular circle of readers, and then gradually expand himself outward: if you begin by trying to please everyone, you’re likely to please no one, or at least never to inspire the kind of passionate identification that comes when an author seems to be writing for you alone. An author’s voice and identity emerge from a prolonged engagement with his own set of individual, idiosyncratic ideas of utter specificity, things that it often seems nobody else could possibly care about. It’s the effort of taking the highly personal and drawing as many readers as possible into this shared obsession that marks the very best novelists, both literary and mainstream. The basket can always be a little bigger. And for any writers who doubt that their personality can survive the process, I can only repeat, once more, what Borges is supposed to have said, through his editor, to the translator who claimed that it was impossible to render one of his poems properly in rhyme: “Borges thinks you should try a little harder.”

Written by nevalalee

January 7, 2013 at 9:50 am

“If there are ten readers out there…”

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George Saunders

I want to be more expansive. If there are ten readers out there, let’s assume I’m never going to reach two of them. They’ll never be interested. And let’s say I’ve already got three of them, maybe four. If there’s something in my work that’s making numbers five, six and seven turn off to it, I’d like to figure out what that is. I can’t change who I am and what I do, but maybe there’s a way to reach those good and dedicated readers that the first few books might not have appealed to. I’d like to make a basket big enough that it included them.

George Saunders, to The New York Times

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2013 at 9:50 am

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