Gchatting with George Saunders
December 23, 2013 | by Katherine Bernard
On Valentine’s Day, George Saunders agreed to Gchat with The Paris Review Daily to discuss his use of the modern vernacular in fiction; his new book, Tenth of December; as well as Nicki Minaj and what is, according to Saunders, one of the great undernarrrated pleasures of living.
George: Hi Katherine - ready on this end when you are
me: Hi George!
I am prepared
George: Well, I’m not sure I am. But I am willing. :)
me: we could just do the whole thing as emoticons
:/ :l :?
George: Man, you are a virtuosiii of emoticons.
me: A symptom of my generation...
George: I only know that one.
me: You only know happiness, then.
George: No - I only know the SYMBOL for happiness. Like, I can’t do ENNUI.
me: Well, in this space the symbol and emotion are one.
me: So I thought this would be a good format in which to discuss your use of modern vernacular in fiction
George: Sure. A perfect format for that, I’d say...
me: and also free and direct discourse - since gchat has that flow in real time
so if that sounds fun let's get into it?
Let’s do it, I meant to say. I was “g-stuttering” there...
me: Ain’t nuthin’ but a g thang...
My questions are written out formally which should be a nice contrast to my otherwise bad capitalization and punctuation
And quoting Snoop Dogg
George: And I shall answer them with aplomb, dear lady, forthwith.
me: So, you’re able to both relish and lampoon modern vernacular - the “so, likes” and “i doubt its’ that pop throughout your fiction. How did this balance of celebration and satire develop?
George: When I was starting out I had some basic tightassedness re literary diction - thought that “real” literature had to occur in a space slightly higher than you could actually enact in real-time. This had its origins in the fact that I didn’t know any writers etc etc. So it was a breakthrough (hardwon, late in coming) when I realized that there is really no difference between high and low speech - they both “indicate,” they both scan, they both give off energy when read. So that was a great thing, to suddenly be able to consider ALL language as possible candidates for what we might call “poetic elevation” - that process of compression/exclusion that takes a diction and kicks it up into (hopefully) a kind of super-expressive purity....
me: (omg so much aplomb!)
George: Suddenly you could literally “hear American singing” - just as it was. Whatever you heard was de facto a candidate for inclusion in fiction.
Yes, I have an excess of aplomb today.
me: In your new collection a lot of the vernacular you select feels so specific to “now” - how do you make these choices when speech patterns and memes are shifting so quickly? Is there a standard of durability?
George: Honestly - and this is where things get gauzy - so much of that process is intuitive. Just deciding minute-by-minute, over and over again, over the period during which you’re writing the story. Sort of like seasoning to taste or something like that. I think that’s one of the maybe under-discussed aspects of process - the difference between a good writing day and a bad one is the quality of the split-second decisions you made. And that is dependent upon - well, who knows? So, for example, you might put in some little nugget that seems/feels current - and then, four months later, re-reading it, it feels “too” current - then out it comes. But I can honestly say that whenever I feel myself formulating or invoking something that is conceptual/theoretical (ala “my policy on brand-names”) I veer away from that so fast. I just know from experience that my instincts are better than my cerebration.
Cerebrate good times, come on!
Sent at 11:08 AM on Thursday
[GEORGE GOES GRAY]
me: Are you gone or just invisible?
Oh, it seems you are invisible...
In that case: where do you pick up most of the argot you appropriate from pop culture?
George: Sorry - my battery died and I had to race frantically down the hall for the cord. Am back. And winded.
me: Always a joy to be so lucid online and then have to run down the hall and be reminded of one’s corporeality.
George: I think I just pick it up by osmosis, you know? Have always been a pretty happy TV watcher and so on. Plus it’s interesting to me. Maybe the way it works is that if a person is sort of a language-wonk, bits of language (overheard etc) “sticks” to that person a little more aggressively. Like - I’m not sure how obscene I am allowed to be on here, but I’ll assume totally...A few yrs ago I got a sort of anti-fan letter that said I was “cocksuckworthian.” That word has stayed with me. As...well, as I guess it would. And yes - corporeal for sure. And through it all, our two dogs were here in the room, sleeping through the crisis.
me: What are some of the most inspiring television shows to you?
and: hi dogs!
George: Well, we live out in the country now, so we don’t have “real” TV or cable. So what we watch is on DVD But I pretty much (when on the road, say) just whatever happens to come on. Like the other day I watched that show re Nicki Minaj’s tour. Whatever. It’s all input.
And every- and anything can tell you something essential about the species. Even if it’s only by observing the falseness of the frame, if you will - the internalized distortions the particular program has taken on etc etc.
me: Speaking of distortions, Nicki is a judge on American Idol at the moment
and she frequently takes on this british accent and becomes a different character - I think psychologically to make crushing people’s dreams easier on her psyche.
She’ll be like: “I’m so sorry dahling but we just cahn’t do it today”
George: I do that myself, all the time. Like at the grocery store: “Dear lad, this pepperoni rather bloody appears to be past its expiration date. And that lady appears to be going into labour.”
me: “Sir, if you could just not put the blasted eggs at the bottoum of the bag...”
George: I find it exciting to think that whatever language the culture produces can be grist for the literary mill - well, and that it would HAVE to be, you know? And that goes for extra-linguistic things too - whatever thought patterns are manifesting out there, have to be interesting to us as writers. Part of “growing” ourselves as writers (there...there’s a mod usage there) is to keep expanding our vision of “what is art” outward to accommodate whatever is...out there, in reality.
me: Do you have a phrase you really like in this moment?
Something you heard recently and felt YES?
George: Nothing’s coming to mind. I’m still feeling the pain of “cocksuckworthian.”
Funny thing - I think g-chat is a little...Catholic. It always says “katherinebernard is busy. You may be interrupting.” It’s like it has an auto-nun feature.
me: I’m soooo busyyyyyy
get in linnnne George!
Since it’s Valentine’s day may I tell you a love-and-Saunders story?
are you ok on time?
George: Sure - and it’s ok with me if we go a bit past the time allotted, btw.
me: A friend of mine once expressed doubts about a potential suitor because he was unable to grasp Saunders Capitalization in e-mails.
It turned out to be a red flag for cultural miscommunication.
George: Eeek, though. I’d be careful with that. It can become An Obnoxious Thing. As was once pointed out to me in a Stinging Review. After which I stopped Doing It.
me: I will let her know.
I am still a Fan.
George: I mean -
I mean - you
You’d hate to exclude a Worthy Suitor.
Nice typing there. That’s what I get for trying to g-chat while making an omelet and changing my piston rings and writing a short memoir.
me: Turns out in the end he was Unworthy in Every Way
George: So many are. These dudes today. And always.
Such as me, circa 1986.
me: What about circa 2013?
George: My wife and I have been married 25 years so we are just going out to lunch, very happily - I’ve been out of town for awhile and it’s just nice being together.
George: One of the great under-narrrated pleasures of living: long-term fidelity & love.
me: That’s so lovely!
Happy valentines day to her!
George: And happy valentie
Happy valentine’s to you too.
Someone rigged this computer up with a secret “send-before-done” button.
me: That was me actually
I wanted to get the whole truth you know...
George: Good luck with that. A worthy ambition for life, however.
me: Do I still have time for one more question?
me: Um, so, many office workers spend a lot of their days streaming here on gchat, producing these casual literary documents.
What effect do you think the Everyman’s growing comfort with articulating his thoughts and feelings in a written format, and absorbing the thoughts and feelings of others from written language, might have on literary culture over the next decade?
George: I’m not sure. The one sort of obvious thing is that there’s a big gulf between all of those thousands of in-the-moment typing bursts and what I would consider “the literary” - and that is revision. For me, that process of taking a first draft and working with it over a period of months is EVERYTHING. That’s where a person finds out what he really means and (you could argue) who he really IS. So I suppose one danger is that we might get the idea that, you know, “to blurt, is to be.” The idea that whatever comes out is good and is us. Whereas someone who has really worked with text realizes - well, that neither one is “really” you, but that the considered version might represent a “higher” you - brighter, less willing to coast or condescend, funnier, and (mysteriously) also, I think, kinder.
George: Not to say, btw, that some spontaneous text isn’t brilliant - but in my experience, you can also do the sort of revision where you are trying to sort through and link up a series of good spontaneous moments.
me: (The commenters on this post can keep in mind that kinder part.)
George: As should we all.
me: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to type to me
George: I’ve really enjoyed it, Katherine - thanks so much.
me: This has been awesome and amazing.
George: My pleasure - hope we meet in person someday.