George Saunders is one among few writers to achieve such recognition for a short fiction writer. And that’s not to put down short fiction. Half of my favorite reads span a mere ten to twenty pages and I’d eat the New Yorker fiction section for breakfast if someone told me it was part of a nutritious breakfast. Nonetheless, there’s a tradition of awarding longer fiction over shorter fiction, and mixing up quality with quantity.
That being said, Saunders has won two PEN awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Magazine’s Award for Fiction (just to name a few), all of which are prizes traditionally awarded to novelists. That kind of recognition puts Saunders among a tiny group of writers – Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, and a few others– to be recognized on such a scale for their short stories. He’s made quite a name for himself in the world of short fiction. Thus his announcement in April that his next book would be a novel was cause enough for a double take and a heavy slap of whiplash.
The new book, Lincoln in the Bardo, won’t debut until the projected date of Spring 2017, which is wonderful news for short story fiends like me. As if we needed an excuse to re-read the best of Saunders…
Here’s a few stories (and odd fragments) to engross yourself in anticipation of the book.
Does a commencement speech qualify as short fiction? For the sake of bringing you a lovely read, we’re going to say yes, a commencement speech most definitely qualifies as short fiction. The speech was given in 2013 to his alma mater, Syracuse University. In his speech Saunders, relays the importance of kindness, the obstacles kindness comes equipped with, and skinny dipping in a river filled with monkey poop.
There has to be a metaphor in that last one.
“My Flamboyant Grandson” (from In Persuasion Nation)
You should read all of Persuasion Nation, but if you’re cramped for time and only have, oh say, 13 minutes, I’d highly recommend “My Flamboyant Grandson”. It’s a peer right into the heart of Saunders’ style, riddled with the superfluous idiocy of the future that makes his work so entertaining – not to mention painfully resonant.
A Two Minute Note to the Future
Image courtesy of Chipotle
You should never have to chose between enjoying a tasty burrito and reading short fiction. Thankfully, Saunders, in tandem with Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought project, understands the gravity of such sacrifice. In 2014 for a limited time, all Chipotle bags came to purchasers not only with salsa and napkins on the side, but a Saunders excerpt on the bag. You may not be able to get the bag anymore, but you can still see the letter online, and read Saunders’ thoughts on the future, cloned flowers, and synthetic wombs.
“Tenth of December” (from Tenth of December)
It’s one of his longer stories, but also one of his most popular – and for good reason too. What begins as a playful story about a little boy wrapped up in adventure and imagination, suddenly turns deeper and more pressing as we’re dropped into the life of an old melancholy man on the verge of death. The two very different narratives run smack into each other in an incredibly moving way.
“Sticks” (from Tenth of December)
If you have 3 minutes to spare you can read this super short short. Never underestimate the power of a few paragraphs.
An oddball read indeed. This short novella chronicles life in the tiny nation of Horner, so tiny in fact, it can only hold one civilian at a time. I don’t want to give too much away, but you can expect an awkwardly funny and warped look at community, power and genocide.
The short piece was apparently intended to be a children’s book…you know, before it became a book about genocide.
George Saunders on Writing
Grant yourself a moment to peel off from the tedium of 1,000 page novels and character counts you need family trees to understand. Enjoy the simplicity (or deceivingly simple) alternative of a short story. Let Saunder’s lullaby lessons on words, character, and life grace your ears. And for any aspiring short fiction writers, take note on his mastery and control over what he writers.
Such a worthy literary crush…
Featured Image courtesy of YouTube.