Shouts & murmurs of an American psyche


Tom Bonnick chews the fat over culture, politics, and stupid news anchors with George Saunders, the funniest smart-guy — or maybe the smartest funny-guy — in the room

George Saunders is one of America’s leading contemporary satirists. The author of several books, both fiction and non-fiction, his work has earned comparisons to that of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut for its brilliant wit and incisive cultural commentary. As well as teaching on the creative writing course at Syracuse University, he regularly contributes to publications which include Harper’s, GQ and Esquire, and he has a weekly column in The Guardian.

Saunder’s first anthology of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was a finalist for the 1996 PEN/Hemingway Award. In 2000, he was named one of the 20 best writers under 40 by the New Yorker, and he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship — otherwise known as the ‘genius grant’ — in 2006. His latest book, The Braindead Megaphone, is a collection of travel, literary and politcal essays.

You’ve spoken about Fox News and it’s ilk lowering the “intelligence ceiling” of America. Do you think these news organisations are themselves as stupid as the method and manner of their discourse — or is it just cynicism on their behalf?

I don’t think they’re stupid — they are made up of very intelligent, competent people.  I would guess that it’s not exactly cynicism either — some of them believe what they’re saying.  But mostly I think it’s a form of careerism — which is, come to think of it, pretty cynical. In effect, they’re really more like entertainers than thinkers, which is all well and good except that America treats them like thinkers.  Joke’s on us!

If “stupid discourse” is a disease, do you think that you are the cure? Or, at the very least, one of those slightly weird alternative remedies?

Well, I do, actually.  Or rather I see literature as being the remedy.  I am kind of a bad example, being infected with the same disease of inexactness of expression, by virtue of my only so-so primary school education and then my college education as an engineer.   But I think a person can exploit his own weaknesses — I am, for example, kind of decent at affecting a blurry, corporatese in my dialogue.  Part of the reason I can do this is because I actually think this way.  But I know it’s odd and bad, and so, even as I’m doing it, I can exaggerate and thus parody it — and the effect, I hope, is to sort of praise perfection (i.e. clear, articulate speech) by manifesting its opposite.  Kind of like a very bad dancer, who knows he’s awkward, ramping it up a bit, and becoming a comedian.  He is, in effect, praising the beauty of dance, by messing it up so completely (I read this somewhere: Comedy is the indirect praise of perfection).

And of course, when I was doing PR for the book, I noticed that the more appearances I did, going around espousing precision, the thinner my rhetorical ice got — I too started doing sound-bytish schtick, not replying thoughtfully, getting less and less precise with every interview, etc. My guess is, a lot of this cultural stupidity is a function of pace.  I know I need a lot of time — revision time, reflection time — to even begin to make sense.  So when everyone is going so fast, the bar is going to get lowered.  And with these 24-hour news channels, there has to be a lot of talk; much more talk than is merited by the state of our knowledge.  And it tends to be talk about such inane, even cruel, things — brutal murders, innuendo, discussion of the ramifications of a rumor not yet proven true, should it prove to be true.

For that matter (physician, heal thyself) look at this interview.  I’m typing my responses directly into an email, doing a little spot revising, but nothing like what I’d do if I were writing this for publication.  And yet, I am writing it for publication.  And I think, these days, that’s considered OK.  It’s understood that you will understand.  But there can be no arguing that you are not getting me at my best here — what ideas I have will be, I know, far better and deeper when I’ve revised them for several months.

How do you feel about Stephen Colbert’s characterisation of yourself as an “NPR, pipe smoking, let’s-all-hug-each-other liberal”?

Well, I don’t smoke a pipe.  Other than that, he’s correct.  Of course, behind the scenes, that is also a good description of him.

Pauline Kael famously said “When we championed trash culture we had no idea that it would become the only culture”. Has this happened?

I’m afraid I do think so.  There is this strange lack of irony in, for example, our reality TV. It’s like snarky teenagers at a very mean-spirited party. Although, back when there was high culture, it could be pretty full of crap. Remember when Mailer got that guy Jack Abbot out of jail, and then, that very night, the guy stabbed a waiter to death?  Hail, art!  Remember all of that high modernist nastiness masquerading as sophistication?  Is it an accident that, when high art was at its highest, we had the Russian Revolution, two World Wars, a Holocaust?

In a sense, we make the art we need, from the level at which we actually exist and think and communicate. And so the New Crudity might just be a good reflection that we live in a decadent time. Or it might even, at some level, be serving a good purpose — making us less sure of our beliefs, because we have fewer of them, or maybe the ones we have are more common sense and intuitive and less huge and destructive. Or it might also be that we are becoming such complete materialists that, as long as we’re fed, and adding a JetSki a month to our garage, our violent tendencies are dormant. It also could be that I have entered into a Generalisation Spiral the likes of which I have not entered since I was in high school…

Still, what I think has been lost in our culture is a sense that there might be something valid that exists beyond one’s first impressions.  We seem to be losing the idea that art takes a long time to make, and has, or should have, subtlety and multiple levels.  So much of literary criticism is either just plot summary or takes a reductive stance — talking about real-life corollaries (“Today we’re reading Hamlet — has anyone in your family ever really hurt your feelings, and yet you found yourself having trouble standing up for yourself?”) as if art’s only function was to create a moral view.   Beauty, mystery, be damned — this is about problem solving.  If I could generalise — and just by looking at what I’ve written above, I see I very clearly can — I’d say that America has, in my lifespan, become much more literal, much less curious about art and respectful of artists.  Our attitude can be summed up by the old “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” idea. Iraq was a sobering, embittering reminder that if we eschew ideas and intelligence, they will eschew us, and we will suffer.

A lot of your writing addresses a kind of cultural malaise that permeates society. Is it optimistic to think that the election could do anything to change that? Or are the problems ingrained at a deeper level?

I think both things are true; that is, yes, they are ingrained at a deeper level and also, this election could help change that.  It’s really a pretty exciting moment here — a lot hangs in the balance.  Although what complicates it is that McCain is a pretty good guy — not a Bush, not by a long shot.  But we haven’t seen anyone like Obama in a long time, and many of us are so hungry to get our country back.

Do you worry that satire such as your own credits the general population with a greater intelligence than that which it possesses?

Not really — I mean, a lot of people just don’t get it, but that’s OK.  Writing works in a cool way — if a few, very intense people read something and are moved by it, there’s a lot of potential energy in that.  A thousand people reading Vonnegut trumps a hundred thousand watching “America’s Ugliest and Most Talented Babies.”  Also, I’m hopeful that even a person who doesn’t agree with me might be moved by a story I’ve written.  Or, putting it another way — that there’s not that much difference between me and the people who disagree with me.  I know this for a fact, from my own life — I’ve lived in a lot of situations, met a lot of people from all walks of life — and I really believe that the divisions between us are mostly illusory, and that literature is one way of breaking them down, if only for a few moments —– so I’m basically not too worried about a small audience.  I’d rather make my work as interesting and edgy as possible and hope that my readers will find it.

You’ve been awarded the MacArthur Grant. How does it feel to be accredited as a bona fide genius? Have you considered getting business cards printed?

Yes, but I can’t figure out how to do it.

If you could put one thing into modern society, and take one thing out, what would they be?

I would put in horses, and take out the automobile.  Or, no — actually I’d put horses on top of the automobiles.  And I’d also put in those flying cars.  It would be funny to see how the horses, on top of the non-flying cars, reacted to the flying cars.  And then put sheep on top of the horses.  OK, sure, you may say I’m a dreamer.  But guess what – I’m not the only one.

The Braindead Megaphone is out now in paperback.