English Department brings George Saunders to campus
New York Times bestselling author George Saunders will give a reading in Smith Warehouse Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Winner of the National Magazine Award for fiction four times, Saunders is a renowned author of short stories, essays, novellas and children's books. In 2013, Saunders won the PEN/Malumud Award, which honors excellence in the art of the short story, and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Most recently, he released a collection titled “Tenth of December,” which Joel Lovell of the New York Times referred to as the “best book you’ll read this year.” Similarly, fellow author Zadie Smith, who visited Duke for the Archive’s Blackburn Literary Festival Thursday, claimed George Saunders has one of her most beloved American contemporary writers.
The event was organized by the English Department’s Creative Writing Committee, which uses the Blackburn fund to bring a prominent writer to campus each year. Fiction writer Joe Ashby Porter, professor of English and theater studies, was on the committee that made the decision.
“We fiction writers knew who George Saunders was for a long time, but only now is he getting his due claim,” Porter said. “This acclaim he has received is not just good for him, but also for American literary culture; it manifests the fact that this culture is open to valuable and new ways of creating art.”
In bringing Saunders to campus, Porter noted that the committee was hopeful that they could attract both familiar and uninitiated readers.
“George Saunders is, as many say, an observant social critic and satirist,” said James B. Duke professor of philosophy Owen Flanagan. “His stories are often dark, but unlike Flannery O’Conner, who is also really compelling on the dark side, there are stories where goodness, especially compassion, basic human kindness, reveals itself.”
In a commencement address to Syracuse University in 2013, Saunders not only jokingly related his experiences of skinny dipping in a feces-infested river or working as a knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse, but also advocated for the graduates to “err in the direction of kindness.” Those familiar with George Saunders affirm that such an address speaks not only to the fiction he produces, but also to the life he lives.
“Although Saunders has a difficult personal history, he has a generous optimism,” Porter said. “His optimism is not at all sentimental and recognizes that there is much to be deplored in the human race, yet he still has an inspiring sunniness. He seems to have sunshine streaming out of his face.”
Such subtle optimism is infused into his stories, whether it’s a nonfiction exposé of a boy in Nepal suspected to be the next Buddha or a science-fiction narrative about the chemical basis of emotion.
“The compassion in his stories never saves the day, exorcises all evil, redeems us: but it shows itself. And sometimes that is enough,” Flanagan said. “So this powerful streak of humaneness, not real optimism, but tempered realism about the loving, heroic side of ourselves is something I admire.”
As an author, Saunders manages to earnestly and hopefully portray the human condition while leaving room for darker themes and satire. It is this tempered realism that lends an affect of earnestness and hope to his stories.
“Sometimes there are cultural pundits who choose to claim that all life has gone out of Western culture,” Porter said. “I have fearful moments where I wonder if those naysayers and prophets of doom could be right, but Saunders is a good example of how wrong they are. He is good medicine.”
Author George Saunders will give a reading Tues., February 4 at 7 p.m. in the Franklin Humanities Institute Garage in Smith Warehouse. The event is free and open to the public. Reception and book sales will follow.