The World According to George Saunders 

MacArthur genius talks writing, pragmatism and a 'radical defense of tenderness'

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, Black Lives Matter, the ongoing race for the United States presidency and discussions of sexual assaults on college campuses: For MacArthur Fellowship recipient and National Book Award finalist George Saunders, tensions in the U.S are as high as they've ever been. Calling from San Francisco, Saunders said one source of agitation is that American public rhetoric is angry.

"But in addition to being angry, it's kind of definitive," Saunders said. "It deals with Person A knowing the right answer, and everyone else being wrong," he said.

Saunders, who will be in Boise as part of The Cabin's Readings and Conversations series Wednesday, March 2, is the author of numerous novels and essays as well as Tenth of December (Random House, 2014), a short story collection, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Like many writers, Saunders is drawn to moral, aesthetic and ethical concerns and from his vantage point, public discourse is driven by the rational and tally-able at the expense of our humanity—and that's a problem.

"Let's not believe so abjectly in pragmatism and the quantifiable that we actually negate a lot of what makes us human beings, this tenderness which is love," he said.

That quantifiability in the absence of empathy corrodes morality has been Saunders' critique from the outset. He opened his first collection of stories, 1992's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, with a novella of the same name about a man so worried about putting food on the table, he is blind to the fact that the Civil War theme park he runs is a bankrupt hell-hole ruining his family. In a more recent short essay, "A Two-Minute Note to the Future," Saunders outlined his hope that humanity transcends the material world so it can "just sit around feeling love for one another."

Fortunately for the grist of argument, Saunders' insight has more immediate implications than a love-in. During a December 2015 guest appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Saunders described his children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, as a "radical defense of tenderness." In it, the heroine overcomes the story's antagonists and then helps them achieve their own goals in a non-confrontational way. It's a parable about living in the world with other people—a reminder that the people with whom we disagree don't have to be our enemies, and community building is more productive than besting opponents. Personal improvement can have positive political consequences.

"My working assumption should be that since we're countrymen, we should find some common ground. I think the way that the public rhetoric is going, it's important to keep our minds on a feeling of tenderness for someone," Saunders said.

Chalk it up to Saunders' religious and philosophical upbringing. The Christian argument for treating others charitably gets its start in the Gospels and philosophical support in Augustine of Hippo's Confessions. An influence Saunders cites is Martin Buber, who posited the isolation and dehumanization that come with modern life stem from seeing the world through concepts rather than concrete interactions. When people see each other as avatars of ideas rather than as people, Saunders said, their isolation from each other intensifies. After listening to a political back-and-forth, he recalled feeling he wasn't sharing the same reality as the people on stage.

"[I]t sounded like a bunch of aliens. It was so angry, and they're talking about a country that I don't actually recognize, that I have some big issues with but is basically workable and is kind of nice," he said.

Another source of Saunders' inspiration is the editing process. He described his first take on characters as "mockingly looking down at this poor schmuck," but as he edits and revises the story, that same character rises in Saunders' estimation as he fleshes out his or her humanity. The more he considers his characters, the more Saunders empathizes with them.

"This second look at somebody is where the tenderness comes in. Your first reaction might be harsh or whatever, but if you can continue to abide with that person and look at him, there's a kind of hopefulness in that," he said.

Saunders' current project is a novel set during the Civil War. At that time, propaganda on both sides of the conflict centered on the ideological threats posed by each other and the inhumanity of the soldiers hailing from the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. Saunders didn't tease plot points of the novel, but he noted writing the novel has helped him focus on how people in a divided country see each other. What's troubling, he said, is how little national discourse has changed, with people on different sides of political debate seeing each other as opponents "to be overcome or convinced," regarded with suspicion and possibly fear.

The solution, Saunders said, could be as simple as imagination.

"What I'm espousing is kind of this old-fashioned idea that when someone appears to be opposed to you, you could imagine him as being mostly like you with some small points of difference and that imagining someone that way makes things go better," he said.

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