Humanity and Humor: PEN/Faulkner Recognizes George Saunders’ Greatness

George Saunders

“Revision is love,” said George Saunders from the pulpit at the Church of the Reformation, across the street from the Library of Congress, after receiving the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the art of the short story. “It’s a means to open up our writing to the world.” 

            The reading and award ceremony on December 6th had been planned for the Folger Shakespeare Library, but was, thanks to a larger than expected audience, relocated across the street into the vaulted sanctuary of the Church.  This move seemed apt: Saunders, both the man and the writer, carries himself more as a humble mouthpiece for humanity than one of the most successful short story authors of our era.   Of Bernard Malamud, he said to the late writer’s family in attendance: “I remember as a student back before I believed in humor—I liked it in real life, but not in literature—and reading [Malamud’s] work.  It was a good wake up call to see that humanity and humor really are one and the same.”

            Along with a few other MFA students from American, I was privileged to join our professor and Vice President of the PEN/Faulkner Board of Directors, Dr. Richard McCann, in the second row of pews for the event.  Saunders read the first two-thirds of the title story of his latest collection, 10th of December (Saunders said he would only read the beginning in order to “do what Reading Rainbow calls ‘leave you hanging.’”), and followed the reading with a lengthy question and answer session.  Before and after the reading Dr. McCann was as generous as ever, introducing us to other board members and DC intelligentsia, but I was staggered when midway through the Q & A he turned to me with a wide smile and said, as if such an event were not typical: “I hope you’re getting all this down.”

            Indeed, while the reading was tremendous (Saunders records his own audio books, and his verbal dexterity and use of slight tonal shifts is enviable), the Q & A was staggering.  Generous and full of quotable material, Saunders gave the audience twenty straight minutes of funny, honest, and beautiful wisdom on writing.  He provided an impersonation of what Earnest Hemingway might write like today: “Nick walked into the Walmart.  It was pleasant.”  He quoted Flannery O’Connor: “A writer can pick what he writes but he can’t choose what he makes live.” He provided insight to the point of view he’s been working with in his stories: 3rd person ventriloquist—“like a third typical third person, but you get into a person’s head a little quicker and more frankly than normal, taking on their diction and their flawed thinking.”  He discussed the pros and cons of the MFA model of teaching writing: “There’s a lot of B.S. about MFAs, starting with the idea that you have to get an MFA to be a writer, and that if you get an MFA you’ll be a writer.”  He discussed the pitfalls of pursing the degree too young: “The MFA is the golden ticket, because after you get it, you’re out alone in your own wilderness.”  He offered some stark thoughts on the necessary danger of writing fiction: “Fiction forces you to put your bullshit on the table, and the prose will say I’m sorry, this is boring.

            But without question, I was most intrigued by this idea that “revision is love.”  It seemed a good way to remind myself of why I’m writing, and that the process itself should be one of compassion and dedication.  This work is obvious in Saunders’ writing.  Not only is it precise and tremendously crafted, it is full of humanity and soul.  It is somehow full of humor but without the snark of irony.  It’s the kind of writing that feels good and natural spoken from a pulpit. 

            After the reading, I joined the long line of equally impressed audience members to get our copies of his books signed.  I stood and waited with my classmates, each of whom had a question to ask or something to talk about.  Devin Symons (MFA Candidate ’15) had sketched Saunders’ portrait during the reading, and was planning on giving it as a gift.  Even as perhaps 150 people were in front of us, when I asked Saunders if he could sign my book with “Revision is love,” he stopped me.  “It’s not just love.  It’s also selfishness. It’s—this is me.  This is exactly what I believe in.  Exactly what I want to say.  Nothing more, nothing less.”

            After I happily took my book and its reminder of this advice, I turned to see Mr. Saunders stand and heartily thank Devin for the ink portrait.  As if to encapsulate all his generosity, all his humor, and all his humanity, Saunders ended with, “Thanks.  You gave me nice hair.”

Will Byrne (American University MFA Candidate ’14) is a staff writer for Café Americain.

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