I believe this is the first time (control freak that I am) that I've had a guest essay here at the EWN Blog. Thing is, while I own all of the man's (George Saunders) books, I've only dipped into them briefly. Well, there's also the fact that I don't know him personally. Top it off with me forgetting to watch him on Letterman, and well, it just made sense to go this route.
The guest essayist is Jeff Parker, the man behind the recent titles - The Back of the Line, and Ovenman. Why Jeff? As you'll read soon enough, Jeff knows George. While that's reason enough, I can also say I was thrilled when the idea came up between the two of us as I think I'd read anything Jeff wrote. Seriously - The History of Kleenex? I'm there. A romantic/tragic/erotic thriller about manic depressive dragons? Send it my way. The man can write. Enjoy his insider look (from afar) at Saunders on Letterman and then consider peeking at his own recent publications.
My Old Teacher Was Just on David Fucking Letterman! by Jeff Parker
I strolled into my first creative writing workshop at Syracuse with George Saunders in 1996, and all I knew of him then was that he’d spent some time in a rock n’ roll band, worked as a deknuckler in a meat-packing plant, and wrote a badass book of stories called CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. I didn’t know what I was expecting from George, but what I definitely was not expecting was that he would be nice.
The only other creative writing workshops I’d had were with Padgett Powell (a notorious workshop assassin and brilliant teacher) and Harry Crews (who showed up about fifty percent of the time and spent much of each class he showed up for telling us stories about hanging with Sean Penn and Bukowski and Madonna and fist-fighting native Americans in truck-stop diners and about how he was sorry he missed last week but his eyes had rolled around backwards in their sockets).
George’s niceness really threw me for a loop. I was twenty-one then and incapable of writing anything good, and all my models for writers were of the psychotic/bad-boy persuasion. That’s why I wanted to be a writer, I think: to shoot lions and hang out in dive bars all day drinking with slutty Meryl Streep-like women.
Then all of a sudden here was this guy who, despite having held some cool and shitty jobs, spent most of his recent past as a technical writer in Rochester supporting his family. On top of that he had written one of the most amazing collections I’d ever read—like one part Vonnegut, one part Barthelme, and all the rest pure, old school Chekhov.
One imagines there must be somewhere in the world, someone who doesn’t like him. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that person existing.
It put me into a real state in terms of role model emulation, kind of confused me. He was not the type of guy to go drinking with you, but he would make time wherever he could. He’d read whatever you could give him, and it would come back thoroughly marked up and he’d have fully thought it through. I don’t know how he did it. And man was he nice. That’s not to say he didn’t get down on a given piece, because he did, but the way he did it, you could not imagine that someone could be that nice and kind and generous and respective of your—in that case my—immature, underdeveloped, notions about writing. He was kind to people who you imagined he disliked.
I should say that George was not alone there. Two other teachers in the Syracuse MFA program at the time, Mary Caponegro and Arthur Flowers, also had this relentless generosity…no bullshit, just three immensely dedicated teachers, all of them brilliant writers in very different modes. I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I’m confident that the Syracuse MFA program at that moment was the best MFA program in the history of writing programs.
Sorry, this post was supposed to be about George’s appearance on David Letterman last night, but I am getting around to that, I promise, taking the long way. Maybe I’ll just get around to it directly:
So, what I lacked going into the MFA program there, before meeting George, was any kind of morality to the writing. I don’t mean a moral to the story, but rather I didn’t have any reason why I was writing other than for the aforementioned slutty, Meryl Streep-type women, and with that at the heart of your work it only goes so far—though some folks do very well with that distance. At best I had a journalistic view of fiction, and this is something I still believe in. But well, I didn’t understand that, like, Bukowski wrote about his life sure, but while in real life he’d be written off as scum, the work was not journalistic in its intent. Rather, it humanized him. One could read it and understand that he was a beast just like the rest of us.
I picked up there a kind of morality that applied to Me As Writer and it transferred over to Me As Person.
So I would think things like, if I go to the bar and get totally trashed and, like, get in a fight or fall into a snow bank, then I can write about it and ruminate on the hopelessness and cultural depravity that led me to this state. But after I met George, I started to think, well hey, that kind of thing usually just results in a bad hangover anyway and then two days of cloudy head, rendering you incapable of writing. So maybe I’ll just go have some coffee and spend the evening writing and get up tomorrow and try to be a decent person.
A recent example: The other day I received a scolding letter from my editor regarding something that happened at a party last week in Portland, where I was promoting my novel (ie. drinking). It appears that in the course of the night, wine was poured in our host’s Brita pitcher and eggs were cracked into his yogurt. I felt bad for the guy but calm under the accusation, because I’m sure that I could not have done that, mostly because I had a workshop with George Saunders (and I wasn’t drinking that much).
Now would I lunge across the poker table at a drunk friend jokingly during the course of a Texas Hold ‘Em match? Yes. There is a line somewhere…We’re talking moral degrees. Does what I do hurt someone? And yes, I have hurt people and probably will continue to in acts of stupidity, but much like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, I try real hard not to.
As my friend Tony Mochama likes to say, “A teacher’s job is show his student beauty, and let him be.” (He also likes to say, “What men do: Write books, destroy buildings, be laid back” and while that has not much relation to the matter at hand here it’s a worthy quote for trotting out.)
I realize only now that I didn’t go directly into the crux of this post and have now lost the train of thought entirely, but I did approach the crux obliquely. Here is where the critique of George’s appearance on David Letterman comes in, seriously:
So Jessica Alba is there, and she is smoking hot. But, let’s face it, she is a moron. In the scripted dialogue between her and Dave, her only role is to drop cute, suggestive phrases and bat her eyelashes. These are the majority of television show guests.
But then George comes out and sits in the chair which is no doubt still warm from Jessica Alba’s ass, and he is wearing a black sport coat, black tie, white shirt, jeans and, I think, biker boots. He looks a little bit nervous, a little bit hesitant, and a little bit like a funeral parlor director. But still, for a normal person, he looks pretty good there. He does the normal person thing which is to stroke the beard signifying nervousness, the thing you always see people do in real life but you never see people who appear on TV regularly do on TV because they know how it comes off, and it’s very probable that someone coached George not to do this very thing but he found that when he sat down he couldn’t not do it, or something. I’m guessing on this latter point.
The little bit of nervousness disappeared immediately as soon as George launched into his story, one of his old stand-bys, which any student of his has surely heard, about the time his uncle took him to a Chicago Bears game but only had one ticket for the two of them so that they had to go through the ticket booth with George on his uncle’s shoulders. His uncle’s theory being that the ticket takers don’t look up.
Here is the moment where I kind of tuned out and realized the gravity of what was happening: Here was a writer, an honest-to-god writer, an anointed genius, on national popular television in the United States, telling a story.
And it’s a great story. Even the PC version he told on Letterman, which left out his uncle telling him before they went through that if the ticket-taker looked up George should act retarded, was a better story than any other I’ve ever heard on Letterman. If you compare Larry David’s anecdote from the previous night, in which he talks about quitting Saturday Night Live on a Friday only to return on a Monday morning pretending like it never happened, you see that they share similar characteristics in terms of character, surprise, conflict. But David’s story is simple, it lacks the depth of George’s little anecdote which in the five minutes or so it took to tell, probes issues of class and morality and coming-of-age and capitalism.
What I was worried about when I heard George was going to be on Letterman was that he would come off as not quite the thing he was to me when I was at Syracuse: one of the few truly honest and good people I’d ever met. And then there was the worst possible eventuality: that finally, after all this, after fighting the good fight for so long, that the MacArthur Genius Award, the making movies with Ben Stiller, traveling around Africa with Bill Clinton, etc. would finally have changed him and he would appear there on national television.
I can report he did not. The crowd laughed. Dave laughed. And for a moment, a writer, a good writer, a real good writer, was a celebrity in 21st Century America.
Then today, Jessica Alba’s Cosmo Quiz is the “Big Show Highlight” clip on Dave’s website. A sneak peek for those who missed it: She is fine with sex on the first date.