George Saunders wows audience with wit, candidness

The short-story author and SU professor appeared to talk and sign books at a local bookstore

A clear consensus emerged among the fans of prolific author George Saunders after his April 26 book signing and lecture at the Eerie Blvd. Barnes & Noble: he is an incredibly funny man. When he read out-loud a selection from "Victory Lap" –- the first short stories from the critically acclaimed collection Tenth of December (2013) –- his exaggerated mimicry and comical voice inflections amused audience members. The cherry-topper of the evening came when Saunders fielded questions from the crowd, sharing hilarious anecdotes on writing and life. 

Saunders has written six fiction story collections.

“He’s fantastic, he’s hilarious, he’s the f*king man,” said Dave Snyder, a Math and Creative Writing senior who came all the way from Hamilton College, “He writes like he talks. It’s energetic and beautiful.”

Saunders fills his books with wit and satire carefully calculated within quirky scenarios and moral euphemisms, and though he dished out humor in abundance, wisdom wasn't far behind. Saunders, a Creative Writing professor at Syracuse University and a winner of the 2013 PEN/Malamud award for short-story writing, had a lot to offer. He attributes his favorite quote to Albert Einstein: “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception."

This idea applies to both his writing process and his relationship with his readers.

“If I already know what I want to convey to you, or if I have some proper idea or some philosophical or political point,” he said during the impromptu Q-and-A, “Then I’ve already entered into a condescending relationship with you as a reader.”

He stressed, instead, building an inviting relationship with readers.

“Assume the reader is really, really smart,” he said, “He or she is smarter than you, more experienced than you, and better read than you.”

Saunders loves minimalism in writing and said that he piques his readers’ interest by leaving just the slightest sense of inflection or quirk in the story –- a funny image or a phrase –- without the reader realizing it. If anything is obvious or can be assumed, he explained, distill it to its shortest essence: “If there’s no actual value in the adjectives, and they’re just add-ons, cut it.”

Saunders advised fellow writers to let their stories evolve down different paths and give themselves time when a piece refuses to move forward completely.

“The point is to start with anything. And it just creeps on its own,” he said, “So if you have a little paragraph, just mess it with. Try to make it sound a little faster, funnier, or more efficient. And weirdly enough, plots sprout.”

All of his personal problems, according to Saunders, work themselves out through the arduous process of biding by a story and he often poses ethical conundrums in his fiction. Tales like "Puppy" and "The Semplica Girls" both create dysfunctional families that are victims and perpetrators of a cyclical class struggle. In a Saunders world, solutions to these dilemmas are often not part of the fictive equation, but hope is.

Sarah Harwell, fellow colleague and associate director of the Creative Writing program at SU, finds that her students respond well to his moral stance.

“He’s concerned with the morality of life. In this writing, there’s a certain kind of acceptance of foibles and flaws even though he is seeing people clearly,” she said, “ I think he’s probably one of the most moral writers writing today.”

The subtle thread of morality in Saunders fiction runs with his well-known critique of capitalism and class conflicts. But the ideology of class had never occurred to Saunders, until he began writing his first book (“about people trout fishing in Spain”).

“Because I was an American, I was subtly trained to pretend that class didn’t exist,” he said jokingly.

Working tirelessly at a menial job and constantly facing financial difficulties made Saunders’ realize his own predicament. Discovering this struggle helped Saunders find his inspiration and the rest is history. To his students and aspiring writers, Saunders suggests embracing the realities of their situation, even if it's not ideal: “It’s really important to have a strong opinion about what you’re doing."

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