Today I am reading in detail here an article recently published by American writer George Saunders (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Saunders). He specializes in short fiction, children’s fiction and the essay and is not, therefore, a novelist, the type of writers I most commonly read. I have only read one book by him, Pastoralia (2000), a collection said to be among his best work. He has won plenty of awards in the last twenty-odd years, among them the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story (2013). He is since 2014 a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. All in all, then, a sophisticated kind of literary writer.
The article is “George Saunders: What Writers Really Do When They Write” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write) and has a subtitle that names to “A series of instincts, thousands of tiny adjustments, hundreds of drafts…”, which is the gist indeed of the piece. The complete article runs to almost 4000 words and I certainly recommend that you read all of them.
Saunders narrates first how the seed for his latest book, Lincoln in the Bardo, which happens to be his first novel, was planted in his mind twenty years ago. Lesson number one: fiction very often arises from an image suggested by one particular experience in the author’s life, which, while personal (it does happen to him or her) need not be auto-biographical, in the sense of dealing with the author’s own life. Saunders visited the crypt where Lincoln’s son was buried and was told that the grief-stricken President often visited it: “An image spontaneously leapt into my mind –a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà”. In 2012 Saunders felt finally ready to tackle the topic and write his first novel. Second lesson: inspirational images may live on for many years in the fiction writer’s mind until they demand to be brought forth. Saunders denies as “some version of the intentional fallacy” that “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same”. As he warns us, “The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully”. He tries, nonetheless.
Saunders describes next his “method” to navigate the squalls of literary creation: “I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’).” Accordingly, he reads his work, “the way a first-time reader might”, paying attention to how the needle reacts and ruthlessly editing his text: “watch the needle, adjust the prose” ad nauseam. Of course, we have a problem here already: the process of distilling what your mind produces as you write happens before edition. This is common to all kinds of writers. As I write this post, I know vaguely where I am going with my argument but I am constantly surprised by the exact shape my sentences take. Why these words and no others? Actually, what I most enjoy in writing is that kind of surprise, which is why I make an effort to write a post every week: because otherwise my brain would be inactive. In the case of fiction writers, fabulation, as I call the process of imagining stories, happens, I insist, before edition. I believe that everyone can understand Saunders’ needle for we possess one, more or less rudimentary, but not his powers to fabulate. Not even he himself.
It is true, at any rate, that a great deal of the pleasure of writing lies in rewriting, in the polishing of the sentences. Saunders enjoys in particular the impression that “the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ –funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining”. If, as he says, the author/narrator is more interesting than the person, the writer, this means that writing is, like being in love, about presenting the best side of yourself. Saunders makes a very interesting claim by declaring that his method aims at “increasing the ambient intelligence of a piece of writing”, something which, “in turn, communicates a sense of respect for your reader.” I don’t know if this is mere politeness, for it seems that Saunders does believe that rewriting makes texts “less hyperbolic, sentimental, and misleading”. I find, rather, listening to many other authors, that the reader matters relatively little and that any writer works for his/herself. The highest quality writers are those with the most demanding inner reading, so to speak, and how external readers react is of relative importance to them.
Saunders does attach greater importance to the “pursuit of specificity”, to the honing down of the language so that it is both nuanced and more effective. Again, this is a rule of all good writing, in any genre, including academic prose. An artist, Saunders stresses, “tweaks that which she’s already done” and, I would add, if this is art, then artistic writing (=Literature) should encompass many more genres, including, sorry to be so tiresome, academic prose. A rule my PhD supervisor taught me is that each sentence must advance my argumentation and be fully justified. This is not really that different from Poe’s injunction to observe an “economy of style” in fiction writing, which is what Saunders also defends without naming it. His analysis of how he writes becomes, then, an analysis of how he edits his texts, which, while interesting (“But why did I make those changes? On what basis?”) is not really about the unfathomable mystery of how sentences travel originally from neuron to screen (or paper).
Saunders turns next to another mystery, “the empathetic function” which, according to him, “is accomplished via the writer’s relation both to his characters and to his readers”. Revision, he explains, “is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you” –I find this very funny because it is intended to place the reader centre-stage and be flattering but in the end it reveals only the writer’s (any writer’s) narcissism. The point, as you can see, is to raise the reader up to your level via your writing, which might be a lovely exercise in intellectual seduction but feels more self-serving than that. In this sense, I believe that popularisers (sorry, I can’t find an English equivalent of the serviceable ‘divulgador’) are the only writers who truly care about their audience, as they (we?) see writing as a form of pedagogy. I know that I sound very smug in correcting Saunders but I truly believe that literary creation would happen even without readers.
Next lesson: Saunders claims that writing a novel did not require a different method from writing short fiction, just a “slightly larger frame” and a sort of specific architecture: “it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts”. Again, this possibly reflects the experience of the specific case of a short fiction writer trying to write a novel for the first time, whereas habitual novelists would not describe a similar approach. In science fiction there is something quote curious, the fix-up, which is a novel made of short stories that may not have been necessarily written with a book in mind. The fix-up is, perhaps, closer than any other type of novel to the mansion made of many yurts. But, then, poor Saunders, I should not criticize him for describing what he honestly feels.
“Any work of art quickly reveals itself to be a linked system of problems”. Indeed! Again, I would say that this can be extended to any piece of writing. A PhD dissertation is, if you want to see it that way, the answer to the problem of ‘how am I supposed to write this particular thesis?’ Only when you’re done do you realize how it should have been done, which is, I know, vexing. If you wrote a second PhD dissertation, on a different topic, then leads to a different ‘system of problems’. Ergo, each piece of fiction is also the answer to the question of how it should be written, and how the problems should be faced and solved. As Saunders notes, a problem is solved when it is transformed into “an opportunity”.
Saunders’s final lesson is a that “a work of fiction can be understood as a three-beat movement: a juggler gathers bowling pins; throws them in the air; catches them.” The first phase would correspond to what I call fabulation, which Saunders describes only tangentially–which is why I feel frustrated by his text. It’s tantalizing. “Certain decisions I’d made early on forced certain actions to fulfilment”, he writes and I wish I could tell him that the vagueness of the word “certain” is exasperating –which decisions?, how did you make him?, to what degree are you aware of the process of choice? The second step, based on how “the rules of the universe created certain compulsions” is, I think, what most literary criticism explores (Hamlet sets in motion a whole chain of events by paying heed to what his dead father tells him). Yet, we know close to nothing about how the ‘bowling pins’ materialize. When his characters start behaving as if following their own decisions (a phenomenon which all writers report but on which there is no research at all), Saunders enjoys the “beautiful, mysterious experience”. The mystery is the reason why we worship fiction writers: because we don’t have access to it, it doesn’t happen to us.
Saunders ponders whether the creation of fiction is “a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” but ultimately chooses Romantic celebration: There is “something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned”. Now, unless we, literary critics, sit by the writer as s/he writes and monitors the process as each sentence is written, there is no way we can understand the wonder of it all. Saunders gets very close in this piece to the ‘making-of’ habitual in cinema and we need to be thankful to him for the effort. This is perhaps the way we should go: invite writers to delve into the experience of writing, popularize among readers the very idea of the literary ‘making-of’. Not to destroy the ‘mystery’ but to retrieve literary creation from the intellectual fog surrounding it, and, why not?, make literary criticism a more confident art.
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