Coffee, school, church, beer, library, George Saunders. Had a tough day at school. Very disheartening in deep and profound ways. Drove by my church to see if my friend was there. Decided against coffee, having had enough today. Decided against beer, it being a little too early for that. Ended up in the library. I wandered the stacks, looking at the names on the spines, recognizing kindred spirits and remembering old stories, and didn’t feel as alone. I felt very literally like I was looking for answers or sanity or something.
You should probably read George Saunders is what I said to myself, and what I say to you now. There is a fun interview with him and Colbert on The Late Show this week. There is also a great video documentary I just saw this morning that you can find online “George Saunders: On Story” that was just released. From that video:
I think a great story is one that says on many different levels ‘we are both human beings, we’re in this crazy situation called life, that we don’t really understand, can we put our heads together and confer about it a little bit at a very high nonbullshitty level?’ Then all kinds of magic can happen.
Saunders is well known for his fiction. I highly recommend his book of essays The Braindead Megaphone. It was published in 2007, and the first essay (also called “The Braindead Megaphone”) is very precise and sane commentary on our media landscape, power of stories, etc. Read it.
He starts the essay with the idea of a party. There are all kinds of people at this party. “They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction.” And then… A guy walks in with a megaphone. All the conversations end up shifting to the subject the guy with the megaphone is talking about, or responding to what he is saying.
About this guy:
The main characteristic is his dominance. He crowds the other voices out. His rhetoric becomes the central rhetoric because of its unavoidability.
Saunders says succinctly what the result of the megaphone guy is:
He has, in effect, put an intelligence ceiling on the party.
!!! Right? How many intelligence ceilings are we allowing to exist, do we help create? This phrase haunts me.
I had to stop writing about E.B. White the other day because I was basically just retyping his essay out because it was said so well. It’s tempting to do that here with Saunders. But still, check these out:
A voice arguing for our complete rightness and the complete wrongness of our enemies, a voice constantly broadening the definition of “enemy” relieves us of the burden of living with ambiguity.
In surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: ‘Tell us,’ we say in effect, ‘as much truth as you can, while still making money.’ This is not the same as asking: ‘Tell us the truth.’
The essay discusses a handful of topics with nuance and clarity. You could do worse, especially as an English teacher, to take his proposal for an antidote as something like a mission statement or life purpose:
What I propose as an antidote is simply: awareness of the Megaphonic tendency, and discussion of same. Every well thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote. Every request for the clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote.
There is a lot more that can be said in praise of this essay, and in praise of Saunders as well. It would be better, of course, if you read him yourself. In his essays and stories I feel the importance of story, and what it can accomplish, and how important it is to tell accurate and revised ones. Here’s Saunders on storytelling, and our friend the Megaphone guy:
Megaphone Guy is a storyteller, but his stories are not so good. Or rather, his stories are limited. His stories have not had time to gestate-they go out too fast and to too broad an audience. Storytelling is a language-rich enterprise, but Megaphone guy does not have time to generate powerful language. The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them – if the storytelling is good enough – we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, inconvertible.
I hope you have a good day of stories. Telling them, hearing them, revising them.
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