George Saunders on writing and politics

booksthumbicon From an interview with Nina Siegal, here’s what George Saunders has to say about the relationship between politics and art:

I am pretty far left but trying to cultivate a healthy disgust for hypocrites and liars of both political stripes. I think our country is better than our government would make people believe. I think the role of art is to continually complicate our views and move them along the continuum from conceptual knowledge toward specificity. Our current problems, seem to me, have all to do with people in power who believe in their own ideas too much, ideas that were too much formed in the lab and not enough on the street. So we took those naive, bookish, messianic ideas and mistook them for truth, and now are reaping the harvest. I don’t like the demonizing of Bush et al—it’s too easy and won’t help us not repeat all of this. The only thing that will help is going deep (in kindness and true curiosity) and trying to really understand how the world looks to them—people like Rumsfeld etc wake up in the morning feeling very energized at the good they’re going to do during the day. So this is where art comes in: It’s the one way we can become Other long enough to understand that Other doesn’t really exist—we have it all inside us, and can therefore understand, and can therefore transform.

I think this attitude is exactly what makes Saunders such a potent satirist. For all the barbed, bitter humor and comic exaggerations in his stories, Saunders at the same time operates from a position of fundamental empathy for his characters. He doesn’t assume that some of his characters will be good and others will be evil; instead, he understands that most people believe themselves to be acting ethically most of the time, and attempts to understand why people often make unethical choices anyway, and how they justify their behavior in their own minds. (For a fresh example of this, turn to his recent story in the New Yorker, “Al Roosten”, in which the title character’s behavior is often less than laudable, even if he doesn’t see it that way.)

Many artists feel there’s no room for politics in art, but I think the real problem is that many people who make art on political subjects come in without the ability to separate the clarity of their political convictions from the fundamental murkiness of minds and hearts of human beings. It’s fine to imbue a work of art with a particular political point of view. What you can’t do, however, is reduce the full complexity of a person into the one-dimensional simplicity of a political idea.

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Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

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Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

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Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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