Perhaps the rarest breed in literature is that writer who can deliver incisive commentary, while managing to be so funny that you actually snort and hiccup with laughter as you read. George Saunders is one such writer. His characters are always superbly pathetic and dunderheaded. They work shit jobs. They rely on the psychobabble of self-help programs to navigate their feelings. But there's always something so convincingly redemptive about them that the reading is as much about feeling compassion for human frailty as it is laughing at it.
Last year, Saunders published his third book of short stories, In Persuasion Nation. Like his two previous collections, it's saturated with the ephemera of pop culture, but, here, a satirical eye is focused on the three-headed monster of advertising, marketing, and public relations—and the dangerous desires they fabricate. Because the stories often hinge on date-stamped cultural references, they seldom fulfill expectations of how literature should read. Not that occasionally writing about talking Doritos has been a hindrance: In 2006, Saunders was the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as "The Genius Grant."
On Thursday, Portland Arts & Lectures presents a conversation on the place of literature in American culture between Saunders and the writer Mary Gaitskill, both creative-writing professors at Syracuse University. "It's a little high-wire because we're not reading stories; we're not scripted at all," Saunders told me by phone last week. "We've been colleagues, but, in that work way, we've never really sat down and talked about the serious stuff."
MERCURY: What draws you to the phenomenon of pop culture?
SAUNDERS: I guess you might say it's the most readily available [source material]. I trust that if I use it, something deeper will happen in the process. I find it pretty weird and sickening, but, at other times, I find it kind of beautiful.
It's funny that you describe it as "readily available," when, really, it's inescapable.
For me, culture and pop culture are exactly the same. It might just be that our reaction to seeing pop culture in literature is a remnant of our antiquated attitude about literature. We expect to see certain tropes in there, even though our real lives have long moved away from those tropes. Nobody balks at seeing hunting in short stories. Although most people I know don't hunt. In fiction, it's always implied that nobody ever goes to work. They're at home, thinking about their love lives or whatever. But that's totally artificial. If you actually monitor yourself during a given day, it's amazing how much you're thinking about things that are coming to you from far away, from sources you haven't met that have subtle agendas. Today, I found myself walking around, doing dishes and thinking about Anna Nicole Smith. It's not good or bad, but it's odd in a certain way.
In terms of our expectations of literature, the language you use—from soulless corporate jargon to seductive ad copy—often seems jarringly out of place.
Right. Which is funny because if you think about what poetry is or what literary language is, it's really just rarified normal language. It's like a focusing lens on actual speech. I have this idea that any language can be poetic if you sort of super-charge it. But often the emotion we're trying to convey and the language with which we're supplied to convey it are mismatched. You get this weird effect of an inarticulate speaker trying to say this profound thing.
Has being a parent made you more aware of how media infiltrates and influences the way we think?
I think that's really where it started for me. There was a time in my late 20s when all these moral constructs just seemed sort of musty. But then as soon as we had our kids, everything snapped into relief. [I thought,] "Oh my God, if I can love these guys so much that means that, theoretically, everybody in the world was at some point loved that deeply. Therefore, that means everything matters." That's when I think that you first become aware that there's a lot of slop being slung around in the culture. Our generation has this funny blind spot when it comes to the influence of mass culture. I think we underestimate what it does to us. Maybe the fish isn't cognizant of the water, but I don't think we can handle those kinds of big false narratives coming at us all the time.