On Tuesday, George Saunders was awarded the coveted 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Following in the footsteps of Paul Beatty who won the honour last year, Saunders in now the second American author to be awarded the prize since it was opened up to writers from countries outside the Commonwealth states in 2013.
On a recent appearance (above) on the legendary radio show A Prairie Home Companion, Saunders, along with host Chris Thile and eight other narrators, read out a section from his Man Booker-winning novel, the soundtrack only adding to the captivating prose.
While Lincoln in the Bardo is his first full-length novel, Saunders has been celebrated in the United States and beyond for his short stories for decades, winning multiple awards for his brilliant amalgamation of satire and empathy. In his winning novel, Saunders tells the moving story of the death of former US President Abraham Lincoln’s young son William Lincoln. Told by multiple narrators, fantasy meets reality to produce an exhilarating work that defies any attempt to classify it into a genre.
In real life, Saunders has much to say about the current US President Donald Trump. He immersed himself into – and wrote about – the world of Trump supporters shortly after completing his novel and has been critical of the “haughty, thin-skinned” leader. In his acceptance speech for the Man Booker prize, he said “We live in a strange time...In the US now we’re hearing a lot about the need to protect culture. Well, this tonight is culture.”
Saunders’s writing, particularly his short stories and essays, is marked by an acute empathy and sensitivity which is not entirely accidental. The beloved author has often referred to the power of literature and fiction in making us more empathetic humans. Saunders, who has taught creative writing at the University of Syracuse since 1997, describes his meticulous writing process as consisting of hundreds of drafts and ruthless editing. “The result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining. And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.”
With his first novel demonstrating that his skill is not limited to short stories, all eyes are on Saunders to see what he writes next. In the meantime though, the videos below demonstrate why he shines as a bright light in the world of contemporary fiction, American or otherwise.
In this interview (above) with the New Yorker in 2013, Saunders spoke about, among other things, the power of re-imagining characters without their obvious flaws, not looking down on them and letting the flaws re-surface at a later stage of writing. “I’m not really an acute thinker...but I can intuit things pretty well, I have strong feelings.” he says.
Failures of kindness
In a commencement speech at Syracuse University in 2013, the ever-sensitive writer spoke passionately about “failures of kindness”. In the video above, an animated adaptation of his words, Saunders narrates a childhood memory of being unfair to an awkward young girl who moved briefly to his neighbourhood, teased or ignored for her anxiety and shyness. “Kindness, it turns out, is hard. It starts off all rainbows and puppy dogs and expands to include, well everything.”
The liberal project
Saunders makes no secret of his disagreement with the policies of US President Donald Trump. In this video (above), he describes how the “liberal project” needs to be similar to a work of fiction by re-imagining the groups of people who are suffering in the current political climate – Muslims, migrants, women – as three-dimensional human beings.
A bedtime story
Late night show host Stephen Colbert loves inviting authors to read him bedtime stories. After past appearances from John Irving and Jonathan Franzen on the show, George Saunders read out a moving story about a young father trying to tell his children how this year’s Christmas would have to be frugal due to family finances.