Why George Saunders (or anyone else) can write whatever they damn well please

Why George Saunders (or anyone else) can write whatever they damn well please

The backlash had to begin sometime. George Saunders’ fourth short-story collection, Tenth Of December, landed on the New York Times Bestseller list in its first week after garnering significant praise, and even a lengthy, glowing New York Times Magazine profile. Saunders is unusual among anointed writers because his major works are all story collections. He’s never published a novel. Which opened up the doors for Adrian Chen at Gawker to waltz in and kick him with the assertion “George Saunders Needs To Write A Goddamn Novel Already,” a demand heady with ignorance about Saunders’ career and what makes him notable in the first place.

The premise of the Gawker piece is that any writer should want to write a novel. But plenty of great living writers (or “literate humans,” as Chen’s opening sentence calls them) haven’t. Sopranos creator David Chase doesn’t write novels. Neither does Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, or Friday Night Lights and Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims, or Hugo screenwriter John Logan, or Zero Dark Thirty writer Mark Boal. Aaron Sorkin, Community and Modern Family writer Megan Ganz, and Angels In America playwright Tony Kushner have never written novels either. It doesn’t make sense that only a writer focused on short stories must want to write a novel, or end up stuck in the minor leagues.

This isn’t so hard to believe. “The novel” is no longer the sole measuring stick of a writer’s quality in our time—not when books compete with film and television writers. Chen severely over-romanticizes the importance of a novel in the writer’s landscape today. For a specific subset of fiction writers, it’s the most important form, but by no means the only way to tell a story, or to prove they can produce.

The Pulitzer Prize is the highest award for an American fiction author. The category recognizes all works of fiction, not just novels. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter Of Maladies have all been awarded the Pulitzer since 2000. All three are short-story collections. (Arguably, the first two are linked story collections, novels-in-stories, or story cycles, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but Lahiri’s book is without a doubt a traditional short-story collection.) And that’s just counting the winners, rather than the anthologies that have been nominated.

It is possible to achieve the highest honors in the field without writing a novel. It’s that simple. This argument isn’t made within the filmmaking or dramatic-writing community. Filmmakers and playwrights may begin with short films or write short plays, but they generally hope to eventually write a feature or a full-length drama. And the highest honors in those fields bear that out—Oscars, WGA Awards, and Tonys for scripts go to the writers of full-length works. (The short-film Oscars go to the directors, though they are sometimes the writers.)

Chen’s shakiest point in his column is his claim, “the novel is the Super Bowl of fiction writing, and any fiction writer who hasn’t written one is going to be relegated to runner-up in the annals of literary history.” If Saunders doesn’t write a novel, Chen says, he’ll only be popular “to MFA students and connoisseurs of literature, a John Cheever or Raymond Carver or an Alice Munro, but without a novel there’s no chance a fiction writer can reach the sort of Pop, era-defining status [New York Times Magazine profiler Joel] Lovell imagines for Saunders: Prophet, public intellectual, and person we force every grade school student to read.”

The first problem with this is that John Cheever wrote four novels, including one that won a National Book Award—but it was his short-fiction collection The Stories of John Cheever that won a Pulitzer in 1979. The second problem is that Alice Munro has written 14 collections of short stories, and published countless stories in magazines and literary journals in the run-up to a collection—she’s acclaimed and highly successful working only in that mode. For those who really want to quibble with the distinction between story collections and a novel-in-stories, her 1971 book Lives Of Girls And Women has been called both, making it her longest linked work. Raymond Carver’s work has been adapted into several films, most notably Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, so his appeal reaches outside the MFA bubble as well.

Aside from those inaccuracies, it’s incorrect to characterize Saunders as someone who hasn’t ever ventured outside short fiction. He published a standalone allegorical novella, the stylistically adventurous “The Brief And Frightening Reign Of Phil”—which would make a wonderful one-two punch with Animal Farm. The Very Persistent Gappers Of Frip is an illustrated children’s book with illustrations by Caldecott Medal-winner Lane Smith. And most importantly, he took his MacArthur Genius Grant to go off and finish The Braindead Megaphone, a collection of essays culled from various magazine pieces published over the course of his career. He’s even dabbled in screenwriting, adapting the title story of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline for development by Ben Stiller, though the film option lapsed several years ago.

Chen’s patronizing tone makes it seem as though Saunders is wasting his time without working on The Big One. “Short story writers tinker away at the box, and unless they’re George Saunders, they do it pretty much in obscurity.” But Saunders is George Saunders—specifically a short-story author who has carved out his own niche writing almost exclusively in that genre, which is kind of the point. He’s one of a ridiculously small group of writers who’ve made it by doing this.

And as far as toiling in obscurity goes—Saunders did that just to get his fiction career started. When Saunders gave a master class at Northwestern while I was a student in the writing program, he described an arduous path to developing his voice in a way that could make it out to the world. When he was young, he worked in a slaughterhouse. He got his undergraduate degree in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. He initially worked on an oil platform in Sumatra, stocking up on books for his isolated four-week shifts and collecting more during the next two weeks off, a voracious pace that led him to explore writing.

He recalled his time in the MFA program at Syracuse, feeling pressure to restrict his natural gifts and unique voice, discarding it in favor of “slavishly realist fiction,” and emerging from graduate school without a publishable thesis manuscript. He struggled through years of failed projects, giving his work to his wife only to see in her face that his writing was unreadable. He wrote the stories that became his first book while working as a technical writer at an engineering company—that influence is readily apparent in his workplace stories. In interviews, he frequently quotes Terry Eagleton with regard to this particular fascination in his work: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” Saunders put in the work to get where he is today, and yet that doesn’t satisfy Chen’s idea of what makes a seminal author.

This all seems like a demand for a well-worn authorial narrative: “Prominent author toils for years to publish significant novel.” That forces George Saunders, an author notable for his wild imagination when satirizing mass-media culture and consumerism, into a box for easy consumption by the reading public. Saunders doesn’t need to follow this trajectory. The market doesn’t demand it, since his work sells enough to merit more collections. Critics and fellowship committees have recognized him for the quality of his writing. He has a teaching position at an MFA program. There is no impetus to kowtow to demand for a novel unless he reaches that conclusion on his own.

Within his short-story collections, Saunders has published stories that could be considered novellas: “Bounty” from CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, the title story from Pastoralia, and “The Semplica Girl Diaries” from the recent Tenth Of December. There is nothing wrong with concision in fiction. Take “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a story Saunders worked on as early as 1998, and that at one point grew to around 200 pages. An epistolary story from the perspective of an office-worker father struggling to make ends meet for his wife and two children, it’s Saunders’ most personal fictional work to date—but with his trademark saddening, surreal twist that turns the story into a criticism of American consumer culture and the importance of appearing wealthy.

The story ends after a dramatic fall—a purchase made with lottery winnings goes missing, leaving a family with crippling debt—and the story ends in a compelling place, leaving many things unresolved. But knowing where to end a story is a skill as valuable as knowing where to start one, and Saunders penchant for cutting things off in medias res adheres to that old adage, “Always leave them wanting more.” Many affecting stories that spin out without ever getting slow or boring is more valuable than a novel that loses momentum.

But the most compelling reason why Saunders doesn’t need to bother with a novel comes not from literature, but from standup comedy. Call it the Mitch Hedberg argument: “I’m a standup comedian. I got into comedy to do comedy, which is weird, I know. But when you’re in Hollywood and you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to do other things besides comedy. They say, ‘All right, you’re a standup comedian. Can you act? Can you write? Write us a script.’ They want me to do things that’s related to comedy, but not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though if I was a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook, and they said, ‘All right, you’re a cook—can you farm?”

Hedberg gets two things spot-on in that bit. First, specialization, or at least favoring one genre over others, leads to expertise. And second, it’s disrespectful to the effort someone put into developing one skill to suppose it can easily translate into another discipline with the same success.

Saunders could, at some point, hit upon a story that expands in his normal writing process, then contracts and stays at novel length. But he has earned the right to make up his mind for himself. He’s proven that he knows what’s best for his own writing. Avoiding the beaten path of typical literary significance is precisely what makes him so beloved.

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