George Saunders: Fiction Makes You Less Happily Self-Absorbed

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Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images

If looking for a break from the relentless assault of Trump news, one could do worse than George Saunders and his new novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. With the book’s release, the acclaimed writer of weird, short fiction is also doing the requisite press rounds, dispensing insights just about on par with his life-affirming commencement address from a few years back.

In an interview for The Atlantic’s By Heart series — where authors enthuse about their favorite passages — Saunders riffs on a monologue from Anton Chekhov’s “Gooseberries.” The protagonist, Ivan, makes what to Saunders is “this beautiful, passionate case for why happiness is a confusing, undesirable emotion.”

Here’s Ivan:

At the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him—illness, poverty, loss—and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of his life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen—and everything is fine.

This, to Saunders, is a “beautiful piece of rhetoric,” and one that articulates something the good author himself believes. It’s why, he says, he doesn’t mind writing dark fiction, where immigrant women stand like lawn ornaments with surgical cable running through their heads.

He brings up Ivan’s exhortation on book tour: “One role of literature, I’ll tell them, is to be the guy with the hammer, saying, ‘Look, we’re all pretty happy right now, but let’s just not forget the fact our happiness doesn’t eradicate the suffering of others,’” he explains. That’s the “lazy nature of happiness”: If you’re breezing along feeling good, you won’t bother yourself with thinking about all those that have it bad.

Saunders’s contention here is (partially) validated by psychology research. A contentious field has grown up around the idea that reading lots of fiction improves your theory of mind, or ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. A 2013 study made a big splash with that finding, though research from last year found that it failed to replicate, with the caveat that reading more over your lifetime was linked to having greater empathetic chops. If that’s true, then having authors regularly take a little hammer to your door will, over the years, train you to better see the challenges in the lives surrounding yours.

George Saunders: Fiction Makes You Less Self-Absorbed