The great American writer and avuncular genius offers some wide-ranging advice on how to channel your ambitions, manage your anxieties, decide who to marry, be your best self, and find hope in strange times.
At 63, George Saunders, a one-time geophysical engineer who emerged, in middle age, as perhaps America’s most celebrated fiction writer, finds himself navigating questions about who he really is. “There’s so many different selves bouncing around and they come to the microphone at different times,” he said recently, over the phone from his house in California. “At this point in my life, I look back and go, okay, what was the self that I most liked? And how did I encourage that self to come forward? And when am I at my worst? And why does that person show up? That idea that our moral presence in the world has to do with urging these better selves forward.”
This question of evolving selves is one of the threads holding together the stories in Saunders’s newest collection, Liberation Day. As in his past collections—including CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award—his characters often find themselves inhabiting absurd fantasy worlds (this time around those include an underground amusement park, a dystopian human entertainment system, and a dark political protest organization) while navigating an all-too-real question: Why do we so often fail to be our best selves?
When George Saunders went out to his writing shed to start a Substack newsletter last fall, for the first time in a long time, the Booker Prize-winning novelist, famous for such works as Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December, didn’t know what he was doing.
“I’ll just write 80 posts and then take a vacation,” he thought to himself.
But upon hitting publish, something surprised him: the comments section exploded, with thousands of readers chiming in on his inaugural post (that still-growing comment count currently sits at 3091).
Everywhere from Scotland to India to Australia, devoted followers and aspiring writers wrote in with passionate messages, eager to connect with one of their literary heroes.
Suddenly “don’t read the comments,” that old digital age chestnut, felt like the worst advice in the world. There was nowhere else Saunders would rather be than here, chopping it up with commenters young and old, near and far, longtime fans and first-time callers.
A national newsmagazine not very long ago in its weekly cover story limned Thornton Wilder as an amiable, eccentric itinerant schoolmaster who wrote occasional novels and plays, which won prizes and enjoyed enormous but somewhat unaccountable success.
Wilder himself has said, “I’m almost sixty and look it. I’m the kind of man whom timid old ladies stop on the street to ask about the nearest subway station: newsvendors in university towns call me ‘professor,’ and hotel clerks, ‘doctor’.”
Many of those who have viewed him in the classroom, on the speaker’s rostrum, on shipboard, or at gatherings, have been reminded of Theodore Roosevelt who was at the top of his form when Wilder was an adolescent, and whom Wilder resembles in his driving energy, his enthusiasms, and his unbounded gregariousness.
Recreating the world of the Lost Generation in interwar Paris
Gertrude Stein. James Joyce. Ernest Hemingway. Aimé Césaire. Simone de Beauvoir. Jacques Lacan. Walter Benjamin.
All these writers were members of the Shakespeare and Company lending library.
In 1919, an American named Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookshop and lending library in Paris.
Almost immediately, it became the home away from home for a community of expatriate writers and artists now known as the Lost Generation. In 1922, she published James Joyce’s Ulysses under the Shakespeare and Company imprint, a feat that made her—and her bookshop and lending library—famous around the world. In the 1930s, she catered increasingly to French intellectuals, supplying English-language books and magazines from the recently rediscovered Moby-Dick to the latest issues of The New Yorker.
In 1941, she preemptively closed Shakespeare and Company after refusing to sell her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer.
In April 2019, thousands of Hollywood writers fired their agents en masse. The move convulsed the entertainment industry. It looked like an impossible David and Goliath scenario: The Writers Guild of America had declared war on the immensely powerful talent agencies, several of which had mutated into full-blown media conglomerates over the years, backed by private-equity money.
The WGA argued that these agencies—in producing their own projects and creating package deals that combined writers, actors, and directors—no longer had the best interests of their clients as their first priority. The packages, they believed, were riddled with conflicts of interest and weren’t necessarily the best deal for writers.
“This has the potential to be a really, really big bang,” one veteran TV writer told me in March that year.
Nearly two years later, the bitter struggle concluded with a plot twist: The writers have triumphed. One by one, the agencies signed on to WGA’s terms, agreeing to phase out the widespread practice of packaging. William Morris Endeavor (WME), the last agency holdout, finally came to an agreement earlier this month.
Editor’s Note: Sometimes, it’s true.. the pen is mightier than the sword!