Is George Saunders brilliant, or what?

“Love Letter,” by George Saunders, was published today in the print version of The New Yorker. I read it a few days ago, when it appeared online, and I’ve been pondering it since then. I keep asking my self, is George Saunders fucking brilliant, or so erudite that his intent misses the mark?

I ask myself this question, or some variation of it, whenever I talk about Saunders. That doesn’t  happen often, but I use his  “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” in my fiction writing workshop, so it happens often enough for the question to exist.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries”

This is a “futuristic” story that derives its title from the format of the story, a first-person accounting  of a middle-aged father’s comings and goings throughout most of the month of September. It’s in diary form, and kind of hard to read. It also takes its name from the Semplica-Girls: young women who have become lawn ornaments, strung together by a wire running from one girl’s head to the next.

The SGs are not very detailed, and student readers often completely miss what they are on first read, but the lessons of subservience and gratitude and privilege are all there. And our narrator is blind to it in such a way that makes him incredibly useful as a conversation piece. For instance, although he feels sorry for himself for not having money, and sees himself as benevolent, he can’t see the plight of the SGs. Upon finding his daughter Eva drawing pictures of an SG arrangement, he writes, “talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.”

There is so much to talk about with students as we work through this story. There’s all the sociopolitical stuff, race, class, gender. And there’s the writerly aspect of it. Why does Saunders set the story up as he does, in this format? What does it mean to us, as readers? Is he taking shortcuts or carefully, painstakingly crafting something incredible? Does a story have to make sense to be published?

I’m working with undergrads in this context, so it’s a fantastic story for fucking with them. It’s also great for making them work hard to analyze something from a writer’s perspective, a reader’s perspective and the one thing we all share– a human’s perspective.

So when I saw that Saunders had a new story out, I did a mental hand clap. Something else, perhaps, to add to that class?  I’ve read “Love Letter” a few times now, and I’m not sure.

“Love Letter”

In this piece we have another first-person narrative constructed this time through the trope of a letter, written to Robbie, from GPa, or Grandpa. Like the SG Diaries, it’s sort of hard to read.

Also like the SG Diaries, it’s set in the future, a tangible and specific future, according to Saunders in this interview that runs in the same issue.  The author explains how the story came about, and what it meant to him to capture this moment in time in a way that illustrates just how many of us are not actively doing something to enact change.

The letter is conversational in the way letters are, and Grandpa is of some esteemed, verbose class of gentlemanly businessmen. He admits he has some money set aside, and so he could perhaps help Robbie if things go south, but the tone and language implies that there’s perhaps more than just “some” money. Throughout the story, GPa is giving Robbie advice on a series of questions the grandson had posed in a previous letter.  We learn that Robbie is concerned about three people: G, M and J.

Something has happened to G and Robbie is advised to “let that go.” M, we learn, does not have the necessary paperwork for something. J is being held in a facility, state or federal, we do not know. Neither does Grandpa. We do not know the genders of G or M, but we learn J is female, and she is a citizen. Robbie is perhaps interested in her.

Saunders creates a wise, eloquent grandfather here, but in contrast to the way the SG Diaries’ narrator was oblivious and therefore the lens through which readers could gain some personal insights about their views on privilege, he’s perhaps too eloquent. Too all-knowing. He has privilege, and he knows it, and he’s trying to nudge his grandson to do the same, to see his privilege. In this bit of craft, I think Saunders is right on the money. Pun intended. But because it also seems as if Robbie is perhaps being gently encouraged to also bask in his privilege and not get tangled up in unpleasant circumstances, I think the story is too bougie. Even as Saunders intended to have Grandpa’s thoughts be a call to action, I think they instead only highlight more sharply inequality.

In the Q&A, Saunders says, ” And that’s why I wrote the story, to be honest. I felt as though I ought to be doing more than just kvetching at the TV. And the only thing I’ve ever done that had a whiff of power about it has been writing.”

I’m grateful for the explanation that helps me understand some of the craft and intent, but it’s just not enough for me to say that Saunders is brilliant in a way that matters to anyone other than a creative writing instructor. This story is just a haughtier form of kvetching.

So, from a craft perspective, I can see Saunders doing what he does best. Getting characters and their development out of the way so that ideas drive the story and force the reader to think until their ears steam.

As with the example above, Saunders does this through the questions GPa poses, and the responses he gives:

We were spoiled, I think I am trying to say. As were those on the other side: willing to tear it all down because they had been so thoroughly nourished by the vacuous plenty in which we all lived, a bountiful condition that allowed people to thrive and opine and swagger around like kings and queens while remaining ignorant of their own history.

Just tell me what it all means

So why is this story stuck in my craw?  It’s intelligent. It could work in a classroom setting to push students to talk about the very same things we talk about with “Semplica-Girl Diaries” — privilege, race, writing and personal style.It is ripe with opportunities to discuss craft. But Grandpa is just a little too…too much. And  herein lies the problem for me, as a reader, a writer, an instructor, a human. This story is brilliant and subtle, but requires more of its readers than those who need to read it have (Damn; that, it kind of doubles down on its brilliance).

I argue that the people who are putting kids in cages or supporting ICE raids (some of the things that come to mind as I read “Love Letter”) aren’t reading The New Yorker, so the story and its lessons are  lost on them. And those of us who read The New Yorker, well, there we are, “swaggering around” or reading things like this drivel of a blog post while kids live in cages or stand alone before juries while their parents are deported.

So.  Is George Saunders fucking brilliant? Yes. But is he speaking too much to people like me who have time to diddle our brains over such matters, and not telling a simple enough story that it could actually force some change? Yes, again.

Saunders says about the piece that the only bit of power he’s ever had as been as a writer, and although in the end I think he’s  brilliant, I’d like to see this story put to use to work that power a little more.

 

 

 

Moving online a bigger shock than COVID-19

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I’m a bit ashamed say it, but as an online educator, I’ve been feeling a little smug this week.

I’m not scrambling to convert classes or learn new software, and I’m not worried about the future of higher education as I know it–well, at least not because of  coronavirus pandemic shifts. I’m not faced with high attrition rates because my students don’t know how to use new software, or don’t have data or space in which to use it.

I’m smug because although people I know are still poo-pooing online education as a “real” means of education, these same people are being forced to give it a shot. Ideally, they’d have a much smoother, more welcoming introduction to teaching online, like I did, eight years ago. It would certainly make them bigger proponents of the method. There will a lot of cracks for them and their students to fall through with this instant setup.

But all that aside, instead of basking too much in my “ease” of academic life, I’ve been trying to learn from this disruption. My newsfeeds are full of articles, tips sheets and suggestions.

This article, from Inside Higher Ed offers “practical advice” for temporarily teaching online. There are good points in it, by my favorite, as a seasoned online instructor, are:

Create a class communication plan so students know where to go and what to expect; address questions like:

  • Where to send questions
  • How quickly will you respond to emails; how quickly will you respond to discussion posts
  • How to reach you with any urgent needs or questions
  • What sort of regular communications you will send out to the class (e.g. weekly reviews and/or updates)

I like these points because students need some stability amid this shift, and telling them what they can expect from their instructor is ALWAYS a good policy. It’s even more important online, where they don’t get to connect physically.

Another piece, this one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that

Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal — they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations. American higher education has already endured several slow-moving disasters over the past 40 years: the radical defunding of public institutions, the casualization of academic labor, the militarization of campus security, and the erosion of faculty governance. As a result, the very instructors now tasked with the herculean transition are already working in extreme conditions: Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of college and university teaching is performed by non-tenure-track faculty members or by graduate students, many of whom conduct heavy course loads without health insurance and with suppressed wages, housing insecurity, and stifling debt.

In essence, the problem is that instructors are being asked to turn their classes into virtual classes in a split second (compared to how long it takes to truly prep a class), and they are already overburdened. When asked to do this, and then doing it becomes acceptable, what else will universities ask of these folks?

The answer, in part, lies in this third piece, from Rebecca Barrett-Fox. As a writing coach, teacher and researcher, Barrett-Fox seems to have a lot of irons in the fire. We all do, I get it. I just appreciate that she’s not just in academe.

Her points 2, 3 and 14 are the best balancing act I’ve seen thus far:

2. Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything. REFUSE to do any synchronous work.

3. Do not record lectures unless you need to. (This is fundamentally different from designing an online course, where recorded information is, I think, really important.) They will be a low priority for students, and they take up a lot of resources on your end and on theirs. You have already built a rapport with them, and they don’t need to hear your voice to remember that.

14. Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

Barrett-Fox offer practical advice that is geared toward sanely navigating this moment/semester as an instructor, but she’s put some thought into how that will spill over and help students, too.

After all, anyone who teaches, who puts in the hours, the research and the organization–virtually or in-person–does so because it’s something they enjoy, and they want their students to get something out of it too. This is a key thing to remember as universities fret over what this might mean for their bottom lines. Now is not the time to worry about that. Students, staff and faculty should come first.

I’m continuing to learn from my peers as they/we muddle through what it means to teach in 2020, but right now, I’m also feeling extremely lucky that my creative writing students and I can just hang out and do our thing. This week they’re working on scene and setting, and they’ve read “High in Hell,” which does such a great job of bringing the African country Djibouti to life though scene and setting. I’d like to say everyone should read this piece of literary journalism to understand just how lucky we here in the US are, lucky to have tech disruptions and tech and any resources at all.

The decline of critical thinking

If I say “composition,” what do you think of?

If you’re an artist or photographer, perhaps you think of the way a piece comes together– its composition. That’s a pretty nice association to have with that word. But for many people, I think the word brings up the dreaded high school or college composition class. In my line of work, as a college writing instructor, that’s what I’m talking about, nine times out of ten.

And believe me, that word is just about as cringe-worthy for me as it is for many of my students.

If course, the class is not a struggle for me in the way it is for them; I’ve already figured out what a thesis statement is and I can * mostly * write in an organized manner. What is a challenge for me, however, is grading the papers that my students labor to churn out.

Because I teach online and have truncated semesters (8 weeks for one school, 10 for the other), I have grading deadlines, respectively, of one week and three days. It’s tough to turn around student papers in such a short amount of time and give them adequate feedback, but it is where I spend most of my hours. Pointing out their errors and explaining why they are errors is the only way for them to learn how to do something correctly. That’s kind of a “duh,” statement, I know. But one of the greatest values of a comp class is the way it models and molds critical thought, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.

Not only am I teaching my students how to discover, outline, write and support an argument through research, I’m teaching them the importance of thinking critically about the world around them. And especially with persuasive writing, they’re learning the importance of using facts and data to back up a claim, not just stating an opinion and calling it good.

Again, more “duh” statements, I know. But I was just reading a paper about the benefits of getting a technical degree over a four-year liberal arts degree, and I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I completely agree with my student: not all people should pursue a liberal arts degree and the debt that comes with it. (Diving into that issue is a whole ‘nother post.) But on the other hand, this student, who works in a trade industry currently, had written a whole paper full of opinion statements. There weren’t any facts, there was no data to back up claims, and the general assumptions peppering the document could easily be shot down by someone in the know.

And there’s the problem. I’m seeing so many students come into class totally ignorant of how to back up a claim with fact. Yes, yes, they are students and I can’t expect them to know everything, or else what good would I be? I agree. But I’m seeing this more and more in those who’ve grown up on social media, or, in the case of this student, those who don’t come from a background that encourages education. I don’t want this to be a political post, but as I see our government champion more cuts to education while also issuing statements that are not backed in fact, at a time when soundbites reign supreme, I worry about the collective intellect and our society’s ability to spot, source and understand the truth.

We already know high school doesn’t prepare kids for adult life. Now, it seems like they’re not even prepared to navigate the mistruths of our world because they don’t know how to think critically about it.

I went back to my student’s paper halfway through writing this post, and I felt a renewed sense of importance regarding the work. I still don’t like grading virtual stacks of papers, but I’m not one for marching in the streets, either. It seems like grading papers and stressing the importance of critical thinking to my students could become, for me, a form of activism. It’s sort of a nice thought; I’d like to hang on to it when the grading load is heavy and the deadlines are tight.

The push to publish

Taking a look at old poems.

I don’t work for an institution that requires me to publish work as part of my role there, but as a student of such places, I believe it is important to actively work toward publication. Publication offers a sense of accomplishment and pride in one’s work, and it also shows others that one knows a thing or two about writing. As a writer in general, I feel like I do enough publishing with my freelance work to feel “validated” as a professional writer. However, getting my creative work out to a wider audience has value in other ways. For one, it gives my students a chance to see the kind of work I do. It also might inspire random readers.

But finding time to write and then shop my creative work around is difficult. And it can be frustrating to receive three rejections in a row. But last year I was at a writing conference, and one of the presenters told participants that she aims to get 100 rejections a year. Out of that number, she said, surely there will be a few acceptance letters!

I appreciated her insight, but I didn’t do anything with that push until the end of the year. I just didn’t have time. Really, what I mean is I didn’t have the energy. But over Christmas break, I sent work out to five places. I’ve heard back from two with rejections. I’ve reached out to one with a friendly, “hey, have you looked at my work, it’s been four months), and I’ve had two pieces placed in an anthology (more on that later!).

These small successes have pushed me to keep up with publishing efforts this year, and I’ve been working on new pieces, tweaking old pieces and writing cover letters. It’s only Monday as I write this, and I’ve already submitted work to a journal and have cover letters ready to go for two others.

Sometimes inspiration strikes, and the writer jams out 1000 words. Most of the time though, writing is a deliberate, slow act. I find that as long as I think of the publishing process in the same way, as a slow, deliberate act, it somehow feels less daunting.

Here’s to 100 rejections in 2019!

Revising, returning

Before I started teaching, back in 2010, my friend Joey told me he thought the experience would be good for me. Not just as part of my new career path, but for my work as a writer.

  You’ll learn new things and work on craft, he said. Teaching will help you develop your own work, too.

I knew he was probably right, but I couldn’t imagine that my students themselves would have a lot to teach me about the writing process. I remembered what it was like to be a student and whip out a paper at the last minute. My own process had changed,  a bit — I didn’t procrastinate as much then as I had in my  days as a student — but it was nowhere near as refined as I knew it needed to be. And let’s be honest. My process is still crap.  I put off my writing, tackling all manner of other things before turning to my desk or notebook or laptop; I still hate revising and editing; I don’t like to slow down enough to really give even my rough drafts the development they need. I guess all that leads to why I love blogging — it is all a brain dump, no editing needed, for me.  And yet… even in that thought it’s clear my process is crap. I don’t write here, regularly anymore. I write here almost never. And now that I’m not working in a corporate communications job, let’s face it. My writing is pretty much reduced to the notes I leave on student papers.

There’s merit to those notes, of course.  It’s been nearly seven years since Joey pointed out that teaching would enlighten me, and he was, of course, correct.  And when I write out suggestions, praise, admonishment for plagiarism, I’m still learning new things.  And as I near that seven-year mark, I am pretty stoked that the teaching work I took up back then has turned into a lifestyle and career.

And so. I am back at the keyboard. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting the author who inspired my work as a grad student and represents the nexus of writing and a  simple life and a literary life: Scott Russell Sanders.

scott

I could say there is something amazing about meeting your literary heroes, and it would be an accurate statement. When I met Tom Wolfe in 2004 I cheesed out HARD, especially when he asked questions about my writing, my work (I was an intern at NBC news in Washington, D.C.) and my writing goals. But I met the writer Barbara Hurd in 2011, and she let me down when she told me anyone’s idea is fair game for a writer.  If I had a good one while in workshop with her, she’d capitalize on it.

So as I waited to talk face-to-face with Sanders after his craft lecture and his reading, I wasn’t sure that I’d have any great literary epiphany. I had been wanting one, sure. But I didn’t expect one.

And in the end, I didn’t have one.  I gave him some tomatoes from the farm and we talked about heirloom plants. I told him his work had inspired my during grad school, and we talked about the MFA program at Chatham University.  I had wanted to ask him about his writing process, how he works with his ideas, how an essay comes to him.

But I didn’t.  Because it doesn’t matter.

As I drove home, I was grateful to have met him. He didn’t say anything that inspired me to work on my writing again, but as I listened to his and other instructors’ thoughts on the writing process, and as I thought about why we write, I knew that I just had to do it. I just had to make time for writing in my life. And no matter how my students write or what they teach me or how they keep me *too busy to write* I need to just make it happen.  No one’s process matters but my own.