A million people packed Town Hall last night to see George Saunders. Eight hundred, to be exact. It was sold out before doors opened. "It was so amazing to have that big of a crowd, and George said it was his largest event," Town Hall's Stesha Brandon said later. It's hard to think of the last time a short-story writer drew a crowd like that. It was like 1964 in there or something. It was like Flannery O'Connor was giving a reading. And in fact Saunders read a story that, in broad outline, was not unlike an O'Connor story. And he quoted O'Connor too, when a young fiction writer was asking for advice about writing. Saunders quoting O'Connor: "A writer can choose what he writes, but he can't choose what he makes live."
George Saunders on his early, bad writing: "I had a medical condition for about seven years called the Hemingway boner."
The story Saunders read—"Victory Lap," first published in The New Yorker four years ago—was not the easiest to follow along with if you weren't already familiar. He did his best to set it up, noting that it was a comic story that takes a dark turn, that all of the voices in the story are in fact competing voices within a few characters' heads, and that it would take him a half hour to read aloud. Or, he said, there was an alternate "six-hour" piece he could read, The Brief History of the Legume. Our choice.
"Victory Lap" begins in the mind of a 14-year-old girl, and then it jumps into the mind of a 14-year-old boy next door, and then it ends (trying not to give the pivotal moment away here, so not telling you how we get from here to there) with a rapist in a meter-maid outfit getting his head smashed in with a geode. It's amazing. Go buy Tenth of December right now and see for yourself. (Or access it in The New Yorker's digital archive.)
Then came questions, peppered with references to how much attention the book is getting in the press (and lots of very charming self-effacement from Saunders about same). The New York Times Magazine may be the single biggest factor in all those people turning out at Town Hall last night, because the magazine put Saunders on the cover a couple weeks ago. Dear Hugo Lindgren, can you please put a fiction writer on the cover a lot more often? Please!? Every three months? Every six months, at least? Or a poet? Just to balance out all the nonfiction you do? Literature could use the support. Even deserving literature you might think everyone is already aware of. Especially deserving literature you might think everyone is already aware of. It's surprising to learn how many people had never heard of George Saunders until the New York Times Magazine put him on the cover—including this know-nothing who reviews books for NPR!! (In her defense, she's a mystery writer... )
Saunders wore jeans and a tie. He fielded many questions from a young writers and lamented his own false starts as a writer. He said, "I had a medical condition for about seven years called the Hemingway boner." He would write stories that started out like, "Nick walked into a Walmart." Pause. "It was not pleasant." Then "something snapped," he said, and he realized that his main tool as a kid, in getting people to do things, in piquing their interest, in everything, was getting them to crack up. The only three things he was good at as a child were "humor, humor, and being funny." He said a writer has to ask himself (or herself): "What are my natural charms?" And use those charms to his (or her) advantage. He also said young writers always forget: "It really is about entertainment." And he mentioned the Malcolm Gladwell statistic about a person needing to log 10,000 hours of practice before they get technically good at something.
He also said (lots of advice for fiction writers last night): "In your first writing, it's easy to make a baby fall off a cliff. But to have the baby pause a moment, and then have a guy to come along and move the baby a few feet away from the cliff, is actually technically harder."
The only question he couldn't answer satisfactorily last night was a question about his Buddhist practice. He's "such a beginner I sneakily discuss it," he said, and then went on to sneak around the question, giving up nothing concrete or personal except that he used to be a Catholic, that Catholicism had a deep and early impact on him, and that, "According to all reports, we aren't going to live forever." And then he added, "I'm kind of dodging your question at length," and moved on.