George Saunders Tells Us How Reading Can Save Us

For his opening address for the Sydney Writers Festival, George Saunders told a story. He was on a United Airlines jet, geese had flown into its exhaust, the aircraft rocked and its lights began to smoke. George began a tormented internal monologue: ‘no, no, no, no, no, no.’ He thought he was going to die.

It wasn’t until he noticed a child, crying, and a mother, distressed, that he realized he wasn’t alone. They held hands, he was snapped out of his fear, and realized that to be interconnected is to be human. That plane trip, he reflected in his address, solidified a few truths about life: it isn’t permanent and it isn’t all about him.

“When we read, we eradicate the illusion of our separateness,” he said. Saunders is in Sydney after a ‘non-stop narcissism’ tour of the US, to promote his novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. But he told The Cusp that when he was asked by festival director Michaela Maguire to speak on the theme of refuge, he couldn’t feel it was more appropriate.

“Right now in the US, everybody is just floundering around with this political situation, and one of the things I’ve realized is that I really turn to art as a refuge. Not in the sense of it takes me away from everything, but it reminds me of how important specificity is, you know, empathy, ambiguity, trying to foster complexity of thought. The current [political] movement is all opposite to that, it is surface and snark.”

Michaela Maguire agrees. She says the theme of refuge “jumped out fairly immediately” when putting the festival program together. She wanted a political topic that would allow for serious conversations, but that wouldn’t make for too grim a festival. “I think something all readers can relate to is the idea of taking refuge in a book,” she says. And when Roxanne Gay delivered a speech at the Winter Institute about how book stores and books have been a solace her entire life, “I felt like I did the right thing,” Maguire says.

Reading in the Trump era

In her opening message, Maguire wrote: ‘Reading can be a mixed blessing’, referring to recent headlines of rising temperatures, the displacement of peoples and the outcome of the US presidential election. “In times like these, we have a choice. We can give into the rising zeitgeist of insular thought and intellectual suspicion or we can look for ways to fight it.”

She later told The Cusp that her appointment as artistic director was announced the day Trump won the US election. “Those two things were intrinsically linked from the start,” she says. And when Saunders speaks of refuge, he does so against the backdrop of the Trump era. (In an interview with Auckland’s The Spinoff, he joked, “everything we do occurs in the Trump era, washing your hands occurs in the Trump era”).

In his 2016 New Yorker pieceWho Are All These Trump Supporters, Saunders described America as “intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse.” It is the influx of reality TV and a culture of creating exclusions, he believes, that has “trickled down through the whole culture, saying it’s okay to be a little stupid, it’s okay to not know certain fundamental values.”

“What the Trump movement is doing is destabilising a bunch of conversational values that for so long, we have taken for granted,” he says. “You know, we’re trying not to be harsh with other people, we’re trying to be caring, the basic idea that we are created equal and try to behave in that way.”

Finding connection through characters

But reading – and writing – can be a way out of that. While Saunders has watched many American artists consider abandoning their craft to become activists, he believes the best activism he can do is art. “It reminds us of how we get into these kinds of situations because we neglect the artistic mindset, you know. So what came to mind, in particular [in terms of activism], is how does one self-train in specificity, complexity with ideas, comfort with ambiguity through the writing of fiction?”

Saunders forges connections with readers – the kind of connection he shared with that mother and her son on the plan – through characters. He explains: “So you and I are both concentrating now on this character and this guy I’ve made up, Brian, and his troubles in the world. One way to sort of improve is I concentrate on Brian and try to understand him and you, while you’re reading, feel that care and connection. But there’s another thing that happens – we’re in connection too. You’re looking at Brian, and you’re like, wow, that’s really interesting, you really thought that out, and that’s bringing the two of us together.”

“Revision is kind of like empathy training wheels,” Saunders says. “In real life, time is going quickly, you’re saying things you wish you hadn’t said and missing opportunities for tenderness. In fiction, you can slow the machine down and day after day, look at a certain character.” And while Saunders revises the text, “making it smarter”, readers connect with it more: “So there’s a kind of troika going on.”

Saunders’ readers would agree on that connection in his writing. In her review of his most recent book of short stories, headlined: ‘A book to make you love people again’, The Guardian’s Sian Cain wrote: “Saunders stories are always about humanity and the meaning we find in small moments, objects and gestures.” His touching 2013 speech to graduates (now hard-cover published, Congratulations, By The Way) struck a chord and went viral. And the LA Review of Books dubbed Lincoln in the Bardo “a revelation”.

“When you read a good book,” Saunders says, “you’re different. You’re enlivened, you’re more alert, fonder of things.” And that’s just what reading provides – a porthole into the fact there is more to humanity than a sound-bite, reduced version.

“Right now, so much of the rhetoric that finds its way into your head is very shallow and responsive, totally ephemeral. That makes a person think less, he says. “But if I’m reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, I think, ‘Oh my God, we’re capable of so much more’, we can communicate such nuanced concepts to one another in a way that encourages… The lowest version of ourselves is not the only version”

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is published by Bloombury, $29.99, out now. George is appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival tomorrow (26 May) and this weekend (Saturday 27 May).