George Saunders takes a second look
The acclaimed writer on empathy, judgment, and editing.
The Harrisburg Book Festival began last night with a double feature. They had me speak about Differ We Must at the Midtown Scholar, a bookstore downtown that is a Pennsylvania institution. (I met a couple who drive two hours from Baltimore just to shop there). Then, at a theater a short distance away, George Saunders was in conversation with New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino.
The Midtown Scholar.
Saunders’ books include the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, so this was a fantastic coincidence. Or maybe not so surprising, since there are so many books about Lincoln. At which book festival would I not encounter the author of another Lincoln book? In any case his book is one that many people have mentioned to me as I have talked about Differ We Must.
Once I had finished my event (Scott LaMar of public radio station WITF interviewed me on stage before a crowd who filled all the chairs, and stood in the back, and crowded a balcony, and even sat on the stairs), I went down to the other event. In a packed theater, Tolentino and Saunders were discussing Liberation Day, Saunders’ book of short stories—and I was astonished when they raised themes that, I felt, related to Differ We Must.
Tolentino and Saunders on stage.
I won’t try to quote much of their free-flowing conversation, though I took a few notes in the dark. This is my understanding of one exchange. Tolentino talked of how hard it is to suspend one’s moral judgment—to avoid instantly focusing on how wrong or distasteful another person is.
This prompted Saunders to talk about empathy and understanding. He described a magazine story for which he spent “a couple weeks” living in a tent city of homeless people in Fresno, California.
The inhabitants told him excruciating tales that didn’t always make sense to him, and his job was to empathize with them as human beings.
Later in the same exchange, he spoke of a Chekhov story about a man who was inconsiderate and unpleasant but had one valuable idea. How hard would it be to set aside the unpleasantness and take advantage of the idea?
He said he struggles to avoid judging people, and has to work hard to enter a “judgment free zone” for even “twelve seconds,” but in those seconds he may have an insight about why people are as they are.
He has strong political opinions but feels he must pretend otherwise in order to write well. When his stories grow too directly political they aren’t good.
Here is the connection with Lincoln: the sixteenth president tried to understand the person he was facing. He tended not to pass judgment on other people as human beings, even when he knew they were wrong about something. And he tried to get some value out of people he believed to be wrong. Lincoln applied this to politics rather than literature, but the attitude resonates. (And he is one of the very few politicians who best speeches are regarded as literature.)
Saunders spoke of trying to understand how he feels about a news event like this month’s war in the Middle East. His first reaction may not be true. He said he needs to “let my mind go quiet and hear my response.”
One proper response to the war is “to go in a room a cry for a fucking week.” But most of us can’t do that. So it may be useful to keep ourselves in the “uncomfortable” place of not knowing exactly what we think, of not knowing the answer to everything. “You’re not the only smart person in the world,” he said.
“Nothing is permanent,” he added. “My opinion fluctuates.” We imagine that everyone’s opinion is set in stone, but some people may be in a different place five years from now.
Saunders had good advice about writing, too—that the insight comes in the editing, as you spend extra time with a story and realize that you are serving the story rather than the other way around. He might spend years on a story.
We are constantly prompted for an instant response, an instant judgment, an instant opinion, to say we know what just happened or even that we know what will happen. Insight comes from waiting. From a second look. A second thought.
I didn’t do a good job following Saunders’ advice with this post, written quickly the morning after, before events wash it away. But then I waited a little while before posting it - went away from the text while driving home, listening to the audio book of Lincoln in the Bardo. The post changed when I returned to it.
Thanks for reading Differ We Must—a companion of my book of the same name, which tells Lincoln’s life story through sixteen meetings he had with people who differed with him. It’s been really gratifying to get out in the world and engage with people about it.
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