The Writer For Our Time?

A couple weeks ago, there was a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about novelist George Saunders. Highly recommended for anyone interested in fiction, writing, or books generally. Some excerpts below.

Is he the writer for our time? An amazing paragraph:

It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

On the value of trying to express yourself in writing:

Saunders defended the time spent in an M.F.A. program by saying, “The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”

Some life wisdom:

That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

A most elegant way to compliment someone, from Tobias Wolff on Saunders:

“He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

12 Responses to The Writer For Our Time?

  1. I love the “dignified” quote. I feel the same way about almost anything that breaks someone out of their shell of normalcy. Obviously, it is especially elegant when applied here, but I still think it applies to any genuine effort of self-expression.

  2. Jenny Bhatt says:

    Ben – did you watch the Charlie Rose interview with Saunders as well? If you liked the NYT article, you’ll enjoy this too. link to charlierose.com

    I enjoyed his thoughts on DFW – both have been described as “a writer’s writer”.

    I will have to get this latest work of his.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts here too.

  3. That was a terrific article about an interesting writer. Thank you so much for sharing it. Also, thanks to Jenny Bhatt for the link to the Charile Rose interview – also very good.

    However, I don’t believe fiction is the best way to get at truth… I believe it’s story.

  4. Thanks for the pointer to Joel Lovell’s article in the NYT Magazine, Ben, it’s very good.

    For a long while I’ve thought most writers of critically-praised, award-winning fiction, if they really wanted to contribute something to humanity, would spend their time better by writing Wikipedia articles.

    I agree with B.R. Myers in his Reader’s Manifesto that much of what is praised as good writing is in fact the epitome of bad writing, and that a reader should trust his own reason and intelligence to judge writing, without necessarily being swayed by the author’s reputation.

    So while ‘literary critics lavish praise upon bad writing either for political reasons, or because they don’t understand it and therefore assume it has great artistic merit’, let us celebrate an authentic sensibility and decry manufactured sentiments, and raise three cheers for dirty realism.

    Lovell’s article is well-written and made me want to read Saunders.

    The clincher came when I read the man’s own words in God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut, his essay on Slaughterhouse Five.

    He had me at:

    “Reading Vonnegut, a sudden understanding of what ‘genius’ might actually mean, in our time, swept over me.”

    His summing-up was full of grace:

    “Vonnegut is, in my view, the great, urgent, passionate American writer of our century, who offers us, in the intensity of his gaze, the kindness of his vision, and the width of the possibilties he considers, a model of the kind of compassionate thinking that might yet save us from ourselves.”

    Spoken like a true Buddhist.

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