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George Saunders Conducts a Cheery Class on Fiction’s Possibilities

I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. Saunders lives in the synapses — he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read — that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions.

The book might provoke comparisons to Nabokov’s classic lectures on Russian literature, first delivered at Cornell. But where Nabokov is all high-plumed prose and remove, presiding at his lectern, Saunders is at your elbow, ladling praise — “my good-hearted trooper,” he addresses us.

I don’t think I’ve ever been called a trooper before. I’m not sure I like it.

Here’s where I must admit that I can find myself in an occasional bardo of sorts about Saunders, torn between admiration and wariness. The breadth of his belief in fiction is inspiring — and suspiciously flattering to the reader. “There’s a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world,” he writes. “A web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people.”

Now, I’m as self-interested a champion of fiction as anyone, but such overstatement does the form no favors — at best it feels naïve, at worst, deeply solipsistic. Is the invasion of Iraq best understood as a “literary failure,” as Saunders has written? Can racism be described as an “antiliterary impulse”?

I suspect Saunders is too spiritually advanced to read his reviews. If he did, however, I imagine he might be beaming. “Good little trooper,” he might say.

There’s no charge I’ve made here that Saunders hasn’t made himself. “I’m kind of a knee-jerk Pollyanna-ish person,” he has said. “I like to find hope, sometimes irritatingly: ‘Oh, there’s a nail in my head. It’s great, I’ll hang a coat on it, that’ll be good.’”

And it’s this very sort of ambiguity in thinking that he reifies, and that fiction, he tells us, makes possible.

In the section on Chekhov’s “The Darling,” Saunders writes that the story seems to ask us to sit in judgment of the character, to ask, “Is this trait of hers good or bad?” Chekhov, he tells us, answers: “Yes.”

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