George Saunders is a fiction writer and essayist noted for his acute sense of satire, outrageous humor, and keenly perceptive observations on contemporary life. The Nation called him “the funniest writer in America,” before going on to say that “Saunders’s laughs are a cover, a diversion, beneath which reside some profoundly serious intentions regarding the morality of how we live and the power of love and immanent death to transform us into vastly better creatures.” The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Saunders’s works include the 2006 short story collection In Persuasion Nation and the 2007 essay collection The Braindead Megaphone.
In this talk, recorded at the 2012 seminar, Saunders recounts his coming of age as a writer, proposing that the art of fiction (the ‘honorable old task’ of the title) offers its readers an opportunity for personal redemption. With humorous reference to the “Hemingway Boner” that characterized his early, failed attempts, Saunders reveals how he learned to stop aping the style of his literary idols and begin incorporating his own life and times. In doing so, Saunders learned to see the sublimity and beauty in such American experiences as slaughterhouse employment and strip-mall funerals, and also the horror in mundane activities encouraged by a “me-first” capitalist philosophy. “Fiction exists,” remarks Saunders toward the conclusion of this talk, “to inspire tenderness. Fiction can remind us that what we see—the immediate, logical, conceptual reality—is just a veil. And for those brief, wonderful moments when we’re reading a book the veil gets pulled away and we’re the people we were meant to be.”
From KWLS 2012: Yet Another World