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by Nick Arvin
Many, many thanks to everyone who came out for our Inside the Writer’s Studio reading and interview yesterday with George Saunders. We had a full house and a wonderful time. I was asked if I would post the text of my introductory remarks; here it is…
In 1993 I was nineteen years old, studying engineering in college, and one day while I was home visiting my parents I picked up a copy of Harper’s magazine. My parents always had copies of the New Yorker and Harper’s lying around on the coffee table. I’d read some of the short stories in the New Yorker, and I’d come to the conclusion that New Yorker stories were all about divorce, and boring. But I liked some of the stories in Harper’s. In this particular issue, there was a story about a terrifically fat man who works for a pest removal company. If you had a problem raccoon, this company would come and capture it. As they put the raccoon into their pest removal van, they would assure you that they would promptly convey the raccoon to a forest paradise where the raccoon would romp free. Then they took the raccoon back to the office, beat it with a tire iron, and threw the body into a pit.
This was a little dark, but also hilarious and powered by an incredible manic energy and unlike anything I’d ever read before. I loved it.
A couple of years later, at the end of college, I finally worked up the courage to try seriously to write some fiction myself, and I found I was still thinking about that story with the fat guy and the raccoons. A lot. I wanted to figure out how to write like that, and I wanted to read the story again. But I didn’t remember the title of the story or the name of the author.
A sensible person would have gone to the library and looked through old issues of Harper’s. But engineers are not, actually, especially sensible people, and that idea didn’t cross my mind. I was spending a lot of time loitering at the bookstore anyway, and what I did was I began going through all the story collections on the shelves, one by one, looking for the fat guy story. The thing about the fat guy story was that the voice was so distinctive. I believed I would only need to read a line or two to recognize it. And sure enough, after a couple of months, I found it, in a book titled Civilwarland in Bad Decline. The story was “The 400 Pound CEO,” and the name of the author was George Saunders.
Ever since then I’ve kept an eye on that George Saunders guy.
Since then George Saunders has published three more books of short stories, a book of essays, a novella, and a children’s book. His work has appeared in the O’Henry series, “Best American Short Stories,” “Best Non-Required Reading,” “Best American Travel Writing,” and “Best Science Fiction.” He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Colbert Report. Entertainment Weekly named him one of the 100 top most creative people in entertainment. Also, I have to mention, he studied engineering down the road at the Colorado School of Mines. He teaches writing at Syracuse University.
I love George Saunders’s work. I love it because it’s funny, when so many literary writers want to be serious. I love it because it is often about service work and financial anxiety, topics that most literary writers also avoid. I love it because he writes short stories, a form that supposedly the general reader has abandoned. I love it because he captures the contemporary American vernacular better than anyone else.
Over the years I’ve tried to press George Saunders’s books on a number of people, and when I’m doing this attempted pressing, one of the things I tell people is that I’m convinced Saunders is one of a very few of contemporary writers that people will still be reading 100 years from now. I say it because I believe it is true, and I believe it is true not just because he is a terrific writer. There are many terrific writers in the world. Saunders has something that only very, very rare writers have, which is an utterly distinctive voice and vision of the world.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that great writers capture life in a way that we recognize as life, and yet in a way that no one else has shown it to us before. A great writer captures certain things that we have always seen, but never noticed. Then, having noticed, we see these things here and there all the time. And so we say that certain situations are Kafkaesque, or Faulknerian, or we might say that dude is straight out of Hemingway. And there are certain strange situations, certain turns of conversation, certain manic internal trains of thought, that we can now recognize as—Saundersesque.
If you’ve read his work, you know what I mean. Before you read Saunders, you didn’t know; those moments weren’t anything at all. They were just stuff that happened. But then you read Saunders, and then you know: they’re Saundersesque.
It is my great honor to present, George Saunders.