Can Goodness Win? George Saunders on Writing, the Artist’s Task, and the Importance of Living with Opposing Truths
“See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true… That’s a great place to try to be.”
By Maria Popova
“The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” Dani Shapiro wrote in her beautiful meditation on the pleasures and perils of the creative life. How to inhabit that pleasurable, perilous place of uncertainty is what George Saunders explores throughout his conversation with Deborah Eisenberg, found in Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore (public library) — that marvelous record of public encounters between literary titans at the Rare Book Room of New York’s iconic Strand bookstore, which gave us Junot Díaz on our limiting mythos of success and which features such celebrated writers as Alison Bechdel, A.M. Homes, Renata Adler, Wendy Lesser, and Mark Strand (who is not related to the famed bookstore but is, via paternity, to the volume’s editor, Jessica Strand).
Two generations after William Faulkner asserted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that the role of the writer is “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” Saunders shares a reflection wonderfully countercultural amid our era of marketable tragedy and rampant cynicism:
When I was younger, I was for some stupid reason really taken aback by the realization that capitalism could be harsh. It had never occurred to me before. So my work tended to be a little preoccupied with that notion, maybe. My wife and I fell head over heels, and had our daughters pretty quickly. Now we’ve been married for twenty-six years and our daughters are grown up and wonderful. So lately my feeling is there ought to be a place for some fictional corollary of the fact that sometimes things actually work… An artist can sometimes represent the idea that things can be wonderful.
Responding to the observation that a line from a short story of his — “Can goodness win?” — encapsulates an undergirding concern across all of his work, Saunders adds:
Why not? Yes, it can win. But it can also lose — can get humiliated. It can also cause other people problems, by morphing into self-righteousness. I think what a fiction writer does is represent different viewpoints vividly. And without necessarily seeming to prefer one over the other. “Can goodness win?” “Yes, it does all the time.” “No, it cannot: it loses all the time.” Both true.
See how long you can stay in that space, where both things are true. You, little mind, actually don’t have to decide. That’s a great place to try to be. And for a fiction writer, that’s the best place to be: you’ve put two apparently opposing truths in the air and you’re just letting them hang there, knowing that the real truth is … that opposition.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Denise Levertov’s notion of the midwifery of creative work, Saunders suggests that even if one were to inhabit that opposition, one can’t forcibly wrest out of it the sort of aliveness that makes art. Rather than trying to will it, one ought to be willing to let it come into a life of its own. He reflects on having this pivotal realization when he was starting out as a writer and finding his own voice:
I found out that the same minute I had an idea about what I wanted to write, life would go out of it. I’m a Bear of Little Brain, as Winnie the Pooh would say. My challenge is to try to keep the themes out of what I’m writing as long as possible… Einstein said it better: “No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception.” … It’s got more integrity if it comes in of its own accord.
At the end of the event, in answering a reader’s question, Saunders returns to the inherent duality of life and the notion that although we’re animated by conflicting impulses and irrepressible moral imperfection, we can still live rich and beautiful lives. Echoing Parker Palmer’s ennobling assertion that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” Saunders observes:
At any given moment you’re failing to see the way things actually are. The manifestation is that you’re failing to be kind. You’re anxious. You’re neurotic. I don’t think it’s so much about external things. I think you could be a very happy, high-functioning person and still note the moment-to-moment failures.
Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Upstairs at the Strand — a trove of unscripted wisdom on literature and life from some of the greatest writers of our time — with George Saunders’s moving commencement address about the power of kindness, then revisit this evolving library of notable wisdom on writing, including Hemingway’s advice to young writers, Virginia Woolf on writing and self-doubt, Ann Patchett on the importance of self-forgiveness, Neil Gaiman’s eight rules of writing, and Grace Paley on the value of not understanding everything.
Published May 25, 2016