George Saunders is nominated for the Fiction Award for Tenth of December. Saunders told me he had never attended the ceremony before and that he has a 17% chance of winning. Since he is a very optimistic guy, I asked him about the future of books. I also presented Saunders with this inquiry: Given how Joyce could construct Dublin from the bricks set down in Ulysses, what city could be constructed from the works of George Saunders?
Condition of Mr. Segundo: Feeling a little dead down there.
Author: George Saunders
Subjects Discussed: Writing fragmentary travelogue pieces, trying not to pre-process experiences, observational criteria, Dubai, responding to Ben Ehrenreich’s claim of “pulled punches,” journalistic integrity, on taking people to task, writing comprehensive journalistic accounts vs. one-week accounts, Saunders’s “limited talent,” on “liking to be liked,” the difference between fiction and nonfiction, Minutemen on the US/Mexico border, on taking on a persona, Bob Dylan, the response that came from “‘Borat’: The Memo,” on being called a “tool” and a “young fogey,” cheap edits, mean satire, political labels and satire, generalizations about everything between Los Angeles and New York, not going beyond the first impression, Donald Barthelme, Freitag’s triangle and rising action, why Saunders is savage in fiction, and writing rules vs. writing voice.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Saunders: Each one of the GQ trips was an eight to ten day thing. So really, in a certain way, the form would follow the experience. You know, you go to a place and you’re taking notes like crazy for eight days. And you don’t really know what’s good or what’s interesting and then you come home and start writing them up. And as certain things — you know how it is when you’re writing — sometimes, a certain thing would just lurch forward and it’s writable in some way you didn’t anticipate when you were there. So in a way, it was kind of like taking X number of those things, the ones that would sort of step forward and allow themselves to be polished, and then kind of trust that that was happening for a reason.
Correspondent: But if you like to be liked, doesn’t this kind of get in the way of actually having to necessarily take conventions to task sometimes? I mean, you know…
Correspondent: The other thing too is that, going back to Ben’s observation, I mean, I could actually possibly agree with him. Like you commented upon the big-screen TV with the Web access, but you didn’t, I guess, focus in on the fact that the Web is heavily censored in Dubai. Or, for example, you know, the ecosystem — the problems of that caused by the manmade islands.
Saunders: But see, but see, I think that the problem is if you — to my way of thinking, there are people who do that a hundred times better than me. If you want a comprehensive story about Dubai, Ben would do it better. You know. Kind of the journalistic version: go there and tell me everything I need to know. But these pieces never, you know, in my view, if you’re going for a week, you’re really saying, “Here’s one slice through the data.” So to me, it’s not . You know, I have a very, very limited talent, right. For me to go and try to be a true investigative journalist is — I would fuck it up. I don’t know if I can say that word on your…
Correspondent: You can say whatever you want.
Saunders: I would fuck it up. Because I don’t really — I’m not trained in that, it doesn’t interest me. So what I’m doing in these pieces is just saying, “Here is one subjective observer going in and seeing some stuff.”
The whole of this provocative interview, which also involves George Saunders challenging Our Young, Roving Correspondent on the merits of Borat, will appear next week on The Bat Segundo Show.
In the meantime, you can listen to this clip.
George Saunders: “In conclusion, I love Britain. In fact, I would like to suggest the reconciliation of Britain and the United States into one nation, to be called the United Anti-Terror States Of Britain. The combination of British clarity, smartness, kindness, hospitality, humour, education and literacy, and American loudness/arrogance, is sure to establish the United Anti-Terror States Of Britain as a great and enduring superpower.”
Q: Your new collection of short stories, “In Persuasion Nation,” presents America as a commerce-saturated but happy place where children go to live with market-research firms and giant Twinkies run through fields of flowers. Is it fair to call you an ecstatic appreciator of trash culture?
Excuse me. Can we require readers to read my books before they continue with this interview?
If you enjoyed George Saunder’s The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil as much as I did, let it be known that Mr. Saunders has provided several “outtakes” for public perusal. Thirteen of them, in fact.