George Saunders Curtseys to Isaac Babel
I just returned from seeing the writer George Saunders, who said he turned 47 a few days ago, give a reading on the University of San Francisco campus. This fine event was sponsored by the Swig Judaic Studies Program at the school, even though it was acknowledged that George Saunders is not Jewish, nor does he write about Jewish subjects, per se. Nonetheless, he was invited because the head of the department, a rather quick-talking professor named Andy who introduced the author, feels that George Saunders "will be read 100 years from now" and, he gushed, "is the most important American writer since, er, ah, EVER!" I would have said "since Mark Twain" if I were him, just to keep it in some context however fantastic the claim, but he made his point. Anyhow, apparently the way this whole event was justified involved some nod to the great Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel that Saunders promised to make while he was up at the podium. That nod turned out to be pretty brief, but still quite poignant. The main thing Saunders did was read lots of his own recent writing, from three different well-known publications including The New Yorker ("Bohemians")*, Harper's ("In Persuasion Nation"), and GQ (a story about the city of Dubai). According to Saunders, "In Persuasion Nation" is the title story for his upcoming third short story collection scheduled for release in April, 2006.
As for Isaac Babel, Saunders said he felt that Babel combined two of his favorite writers into one--Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac. Somehow that wasn't what I expected him to say, although he makes an arguable point. He said Babel showed him that you could combine Hemingway's tight, laconic sentences with Kerouac's more lyrical tendencies. I think it also had something to do with the voice of true experience. Saunders quoted Babel as having said often that, as a writer, "You must know everything." He added that his own story "Isabelle" (from his amazingly hilarious first book "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline") was inspired by Babel's Odessa childhood stories.
Saunders went on to answer a number of audience questions about craft, but most of what he said can be found in previously published interviews online. His main point about writing is always to be yourself, defects and all, and to "go towards the heat." And I'll leave you with perhaps his best line of the evening--"A pathetic person being degraded is (always) interesting to me." As you laugh at that, just remember Gogol's famous story "The Overcoat" and tell me it isn't true. (Suddenly I sound like James Lipton from the Actor's Studio on Bravo, don't I?) Lecture over.
*Title above is linked to "Bohemians" from The New Yorker site. Link