Serves me right for reading a puff piece on a writer whose work I actually enjoy and admire, but I can’t help feeling uneasy about the New York Times Magazine cover story on George Saunders.
It’s a magazine profile, so of course it’s cozy and flattering. The author, Joel Lovell, has lunch with Saunders and talks openly about the death of a dear friend. Lovell calls Saunders “the writer for our time,” quotes someone else as calling Saunders “a saint,” and says that Saunders’ writing “makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people.” Fine. But who decided to give this journalistic facelift the title “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” as if it’s a reliable assessment of Saunders’ new book?
Or how about this. The article brings up David Foster Wallace on three separate occasions. He was friends with Saunders, so it’s not entirely out of the blue. But it’s certainly true—as Mike shows in his epic Year of David Foster Wallace—that everyone wants a piece of Wallace these days. Dropping his name has become an easy (and not always justified) way to confer literary bona fides on someone by association. Saunders and Wallace were friends—fine. But then Lovell tells us that Saunders and his wife “devote a significant part of their lives to the practice of Nyingma Buddhism.” And he never says anything more about it! So Saunders, the so-called “saint” of American letters, is actually Buddhist—a potentially fascinating topic for any magazine profile. But Lovell only mentions it in order to explain why there’s a koi pond in the driveway. He’d rather get back to talking about Wallace.
If you can get past this nonsense, the profile is worth a read. When Saunders comes through in his own words, he’s always worth listening to.
“Suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”
– Brian Hurley