“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” announced a New York Times headline for an article that was published all of three days into 2013. The book, Tenth of December, Saunders’ latest collection of short stories, does, in fact, warrant the zealotry it inspired: Saunders’ stories are vigorous, inventive, simultaneously dark and redemptive. They are deeply human and they are whole, reflective of the type of line-by-line scrutiny with which he approaches his work.
Although, stylistically, Tenth of December is signature Saunders, he notes a difference between the collection and his earlier works. “I think it feels a little more loving and hopeful,” he says. “A younger me would have had something really dark happen and just sort of said, ‘Okay, that's it.’ ” But in a few discreet places in the collection, he says he realized that he had already made the dark turn he was about to write and wanted to make something positive happen instead. “It took me a lot longer to figure out how to make that positive thing happen. So I think the author of that book feels a little more in favor of humanity.”
Saunders has been referred to as a literary superhero, the writer of our time. Tenth of December remained on best-seller lists through a considerable part of 2013, despite being published early in the year. Author Mary Karr has said about Saunders, “I think he’s the best short-story writer in English alive.” In terms of accolades, what else is there?
“Darkly handsome?” he jokes. But Saunders is cautious when it comes to his success. “It feels good, but it also always feels like they shrunk the world in order for you to succeed. And I really love literature and I know it pretty well and I know how far I will have to go to be as good as I want to be.”
Saunders takes a not exactly perverse pleasure in hearing from people who don’t like Tenth of December. He is, however, human. “My first impulse is to be crushed if someone doesn’t like it.” His second is to defend his work. He received a letter from a woman living in Vermont; she returned the book to him. “I can’t have this in my house,” she wrote him. “I was going to give it away to a friend, but I wouldn’t do that to my friend.” Saunders says the letter hurt his feelings, so, he replied to her in a five-page letter. In it, Saunders explained the function of literature. He defended his use of expletives, and what she viewed as the cruelty of the stories. “So then she sent me a little postcard back just saying hey, ‘Well, I appreciate your response, I'll write you later, but I've got to go out and garden now.’ I haven’t heard from her since.”
Saunders laughs when he tells the story but also admits to a particular sensitivity when it comes to the darker aspects of his work. “That lady probably exists, in part, inside me too,” he acknowledges. “It’s the part that goes to a nice dinner before a reading, and everybody is so nice, and they say such nice things about your work, and they quote those nice quotes and then you get up there and you have to read something like ‘Victory Lap,’ the first story in the collection, which is so harrowing and bawdy and you kind of feel like, ‘God, don’t you have a story about a puppy?’ ” Saunders does have a story about a puppy. It’s called “Puppy,” and the puppy is not long for this world. “I’m totally vulnerable on that count,” he admits. “But I think most people who like literary fiction get that you have to make a dark offset for any kind of light to get through.”
Tobin Levy is a writer living in Austin, Texas.