George Saunders Demystifies the Art of Storytelling in a Short Animated Documentary

An inter­est­ing thing hap­pens when you read cer­tain of George Saun­ders’ sto­ries. At first, you see the satirist at work, skew­er­ing Amer­i­can mean­ness and banal­i­ty with the same unspar­ing knife’s edge as ear­li­er post­mod­ernists like John Barth or Don­ald Barthelme. Then you begin to notice some­thing else tak­ing shape… some­thing per­haps unex­pect­ed: com­pas­sion. Rather than serv­ing as paper tar­gets of Saun­ders’ dark humor, his mis­guid­ed char­ac­ters come to seem like real peo­ple, peo­ple he cares about; and the real tar­get of his satire becomes a cul­ture that alien­ates and deval­ues those peo­ple.

Take the oft-anthol­o­gized “Sea Oak,” a far­ci­cal melo­dra­ma about a dead aunt who returns rean­i­mat­ed to annoy and depress her down­ward­ly mobile fam­i­ly mem­bers. The stage is set for a series of buf­foon­ish episodes that, in the hands of a less mature writer, might play out to empha­size just how ridicu­lous these char­ac­ters’ lives are, and how jus­ti­fi­ably we—author and reader—might mock them from our perch­es. Saun­ders does not do this at all. Rather than dis­tanc­ing, he draws us clos­er, so that the char­ac­ters in the sto­ry become more sym­pa­thet­ic and three-dimen­sion­al even as events become increas­ing­ly out­landish.

All of this human­iz­ing is by design, or rather, we might say that empa­thy is baked into Saun­ders’ ethos—one he has artic­u­lat­ed many times in essays, inter­views, and a mov­ing 2013 Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty com­mence­ment speech. Now we can see him in a can­did filmed appear­ance above, in a doc­u­men­tary titled “George Saun­ders: On Sto­ry” by Red­g­lass Pic­tures (exec­u­tive pro­duced by Ken Burns). Cre­at­ed from a two-hour inter­view with Saun­ders, the short video at the top offers “a direct look at the process by which he is able to take a sin­gle mun­dane sen­tence and infuse it with the dis­tinct blend of depth, com­pas­sion, and out­right mag­ic that are the trade­marks of his most pow­er­ful work.”

In Saun­ders’ own words, “a good sto­ry is one that says, at many dif­fer­ent lev­els, ‘we’re both human beings, we’re in this crazy sit­u­a­tion called life, that we don’t real­ly under­stand. Can we put our heads togeth­er and con­fer about it a lit­tle bit at a very high, non-bull­shit­ty lev­el?’ Then, all kinds of mag­ic can hap­pen.” The rest of Saun­ders’ fas­ci­nat­ing mono­logue on sto­ry gets an ani­mat­ed treat­ment that illus­trates the mag­ic he describes. If you haven’t read Saun­ders, this is almost as good an intro­duc­tion to him as, say, “Sea Oak.” His thoughts on the role fic­tion plays in our lives and the ways good sto­ries work are always lucid, his exam­ples vivid­ly inven­tive. The effect of lis­ten­ing to him mir­rors that of sit­ting in a sem­i­nar with one of the best teach­ers of cre­ative writ­ing, which Saun­ders hap­pens to be as well.

I would love to take a class with him, but bar­ring that, I’m very hap­py for the chance to hear him dis­cuss writ­ing tech­niques and phi­los­o­phy in the short film at the top and in the inter­view extras below it: “On the rela­tion­ship between read­er and writer,” “On the tricks of the writ­ing process,” and “In defense of dark­ness.” Praised by no less a post­mod­ernist lumi­nary than Thomas Pyn­chon, Saun­ders’ sto­ry col­lec­tions like Civil­WAr­Land in Bad Decline, Pas­toralia, and In Per­sua­sion Nation get at much of what ails us in these Unit­ed States, but they do so always with an under­ly­ing hope­ful­ness and a “non-bull­shit­ty” con­vic­tion of shared human­i­ty.

You can read 10 of Saun­ders’ sto­ries free—including “Sea Oak” and the excel­lent “The Red Bow”—here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Impor­tance of Kind­ness: An Ani­ma­tion of George Saun­ders’ Touch­ing Grad­u­a­tion Speech

10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders, Author of Tenth of Decem­ber, “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • mlg says:

    this is some­thing beau­ti­ful…

  • William says:

    how inter­est­ing. I would so enjoy more of these. are they excerpts of a larg­er series, josh?

    the arti­cle men­tions a doc­u­men­tary, then goes on to say these few clips were culled from a 2 hour inter­view with the author. I’m not try­ing to be obtuse, I’m con­fused.

    I loved lis­ten­ing to him, though! what a treat.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Hi William, I think the label­ing is a lit­tle mis­lead­ing. The “doc­u­men­tary” is the short video at the top, and the oth­er videos are basi­cal­ly out­takes. I don’t think they’ve released any more clips from the longer inter­view, so as far as I know, this is it.

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