In a recent interview published in the New York Times Magazine, editor Joel Lovell made a trip to Syracuse, New York to meet with the much acclaimed novelist and short story writer George Saunders. The article’s title, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You Will Read This Year” sums up the basic tenor of the piece: a reverent ode to Saunders’ talent and success.
Saunders’ work is a bizarre mix of nerdy science fiction à la Kurt Vonnegut and trendy post-modernism in the style of Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.
The article is peppered with conversations about death, capitalism and the negative effects of western society. To end, however, Lovell writes, “The last time we met, Saunders waited in the cold with me until the bus for New York came along. We were talking about the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities.”
Suddenly any conversation over the evils of free market economy is erased. The ending refocuses Saunders at the very base of his craft and reveals that, beneath whatever the trend of the day is, fiction has, and continues to, concern itself with the basic question of empathy.
It is an odd equation to liken a reader’s willingness to accept the fictions of a story to their willingness to accept other people. The two seem to exist on totally separate planes. After all fiction is, well, unreal, while the problems of knowing and dealing with the people around us are decidedly nonfictional concerns. However, the principle and the mental action are the same. The practice of allowing one’s self to accept the absurdities of a story, to take interest in a flawed protagonist, or accept the multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory elements of the characters, prepares readers for the even more complex world outside the novel.
At the heart of any novel, beneath the ever-loquacious Dickens, the action-filled Dumas, or the neurotic Phillip Roth, there lies a basic exercise in acceptance. Will you, the reader, accept these characters? Will you take the time to listen to their dialogue and finish their story? Will you connect with them despite their differences and their flaws?
Ultimately, these are the very questions we should be asking in every interaction, fictional or real. Mindfully cultivating our fictional relationships teaches us the patience and the acceptance to, as Saunders puts it, “open yourselves up to their possibilities.”