Reading George Saunders Will Change Your Life

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‘ve heard good writing described a lot of ways. I’ve heard it should be lasting, permanent, that people should still be reading it hundreds of years from now. It should be timeless, with characters and a story arc just as resonant every time the spine is cracked as they were when it was penned. Someone told me once, a long time ago, that writing should be beautiful, full of metaphor and imagery, like painting a picture and hanging it on the air, and that it should be important, should talk about things that need discussing, things other people are too afraid or embarrassed or angry to talk about themselves.

So I read Virgil’s “Aeneid,” with its two thousand years between us. I have loved Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge and pitied his Miss Havisham. My copies of Fitzgerald’s novels are so worn and dog-eared I sometimes worry the prettiest lines will abandon the pages, seeking somewhere finer to rest. John Green talked about cancer with straightforwardness, sparing the reader nothing. It was all good writing, all lasting and timeless and beautiful and important, and I am the better for having read it.

George Saunders (Chloe Aftel/NPR)

But rarely, in the hundreds of stories whose words have spilled into my life and carried me along, have I been so deeply emotionally moved than when reading the work of short fiction writer George Saunders. Not that the other books I’ve read—and certainly those I mentioned above—haven’t elicited from me a certain depth of feeling, because they have. I laughed at “A Christmas Carol” and raged at “The Great Gatsby” and sobbed over “The Fault in Our Stars.” But I was not moved. 

george saunders

But every time I read Saunders, I am struck. Much of his writing is in a first-person, quasi-stream-of-consciousness-meets-diary-entry style. His sentences are either rambling or staccato. He does not use big words or big concepts (at least not always). Some of his work can be classified as science fiction, though that’s not to say it isn’t accessible to people who don’t read SF on a consistent basis (or even like the genre, for that matter). He has been called a tragicomic and been compared to Vonnegut. Mostly he just writes about normal people who live normal lives and sometimes have problems: Their credit cards are maxed out. Their child dies. They have to work some menial job just to pay their bills. Good things happen. Wonderful, lovely things happen. Bad things happen. Dark, bleak things happen. But as those things happen to Saunders’ characters, they are also happening to me. And so I am moved.

[column size=two_third position=first ]In a span of four-thousand of his words I have laughed and cried and felt pity and joy and love and anger and revulsion and despair and coldness and nervousness and elation. I have read and re-read and shared with friends and co-workers and said, “Read this, feel these things, share in these things with them and with me.”

He is an accomplished writer who has been penning short fiction for decades. He has won a World Fantasy Award and numerous fellowships, and has been nominated for the National Book Award and the Story Prize. He was one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2013. I first read Saunders in the October 4, 2012, issue of the New Yorker, which included his short story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” It remains my favorite. I finished it and read it again immediately, then found it online and printed it for three friends. It has been nearly two years and I am no less enamored now than I was when I finished that final page for the first time. I finished his most recent short-story collection, “Tenth of December,” in about four hours. I immediately read it again. I recently re-read through OpenCulture‘s list of 10 of Saunder’s various short stories. My to-read list on Goodreads is full of his other collections. I suspect I will read Saunders as long has his fingers type out words, and I think you should, too.

See Also
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