George Saunders

He’s a prose genius. Literally. In 2006, the short-story fiction writer received a MacArthur Fellowship, widely referred to as the “Genius Grant,” for his skill and dedication to his creative work. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, and a PEN/Hemingway Award finalist. He writes short stories for The New Yorker and travel pieces for GQ magazine. All explore the human experience — both the good and the not-so good. Saunders is a natural satirist, blending dark humor with deep emotion and, in turn, creating approachable fiction. His short stories grip readers and don’t let them leave until they feel a clearer, more powerful sense of reality.

“No one writes more powerfully than George Saunders about the lost, the unlucky, the disenfranchised, those Americans who struggle to pay the bills, make the rent, hold onto a job they might detest — folks who find their dreams slipping from their grasp as they frantically tread water, trying to keep from drowning,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in a New York Times review of Tenth of December. “What injects such schematic moral dramas with real vitality is the energy of Mr. Saunders’s kinetic prose and his ability to depict his characters from both the outside (with plenty of satirical snarl) and the inside (with some genuine feeling).”

Known for his generosity and kind spirit, Saunders is a proud Syracuse MFA graduate (studying under Tobias Wolff) and has taught as a Syracuse professor in the MFA program for the past 20 years. In 2013, he gave the graduating class’ convocation speech, urging those in attendance to be more kind — now!. “Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, OK, sure – for you, but not for me),” he said to the Dome-filled masses. “We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.” The speech became a bestselling book, Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. If you want to glean a little writing magic from Saunders, watch his video published on TheAtlantic.com, titled “George Saunders Explains How to Tell a Good Story.”

But first, enjoy this excerpt from the title story of his award-winning collection of short stories Tenth of December:

“Note to self: Try to extend positive feelings associated with Scratch-Off win into all areas of life. Be bigger presence at work. Race up ladder (joyfully, w/smile on face), get raise. Get in best shape of life, start dressing nicer. Learn guitar? Make point of noticing beauty of world? Why not educate self re. birds, flowers, trees, constellations, become true citizen of natural world, walk around neighborhood w/kids, patiently teaching kids names of birds, flowers, etc. etc.? Why not take kids to Europe? Kids have never been. Have never, in Alps, had hot chocolate in mountain café, served by kindly white-haired innkeeper, who finds them so sophisticated/friendly relative to usual snotty/rich American kids (who always ignore his pretty but crippled daughter w/braids) that he shows them secret hiking path to incredible glade, kids frolic in glade, sit with crippled pretty girl on grass, later say it was most beautiful day of their lives, keep in touch with crippled girl via email, we arrange surgery here for her, surgeon so touched he agrees to do surgery for free, she is on front page of our paper, we are on front page of their paper in Alps? Ha ha. Just happy.”

— Eliza Weinreb