Yes, I did recently write in Thirty-Two Magazine that readings were disappointing and diluted the book experience with negative impressions of road-weary writers and their intrusive egos. Nevertheless, I had a rare opportunity to see one of my favorite writers recently. Below is a report.
It was packed to the gills at Greenlight Books, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. My friend and I had both bought the new collection Tenth of December online, which got you a pass for the signing line. We arrived about 7:00 and stood waiting with all the rest. Though not the most diverse bunch, it was a pretty happy one. Not much brooding in the air or poserism either. I think that reflects Saunders’ work: he’s funny and genuine.
There was the sense, however, that this was a pretty big moment. The profile in the Sunday Times was unsparingly laudatory of Saunders, with a cover announcing his book would be the best you’d read in 2013. Saunders is heir to Vonnegut and Wallace but his own man. He hasn’t been as well known as, say, Franzen or a Pynchon, but four of the stories in this book have been in The New Yorker and (not that this magazine is the only conferer of crowns) he’s now officially a heavyweight.
He came out and read for ten minutes from the story “Escape from Spiderhead,” which describes chemically-induced coitus under scientific observation—in a product testing lab, I believe. There was applause. Then:
Saunders: Anyone? No questions? Really?
Saunders: Just remember that whoever asks the first question is the person with the most sexual energy in the room.
[laughter, nervous tittering, more tense silence]
Ben: Are you going to write a novel, George?
Saunders: Am I going to write a novel? I’ve written four novels…
[etc., answering question]
Saunders, looking at me: By the way, congratulations.
[Ben, smiles and gives him a thumbs up.]
So that’s been established.
Getting my book signed, I told him that I’ve taught two of the stories in Tenth in writing classes. I said I’ve started classes with “Al Roosten” because it’s a great ice-breaker, getting everyone laughing and thinking. He said it took him three years to write that story.
My friend had bought her book online a day later than me, so I was in Group 2 in the signing order, and she was in Group 4. She waited outside, and was just over George’s shoulder out front. Signing hers, George said, “Where’s she?” I said she’s right behind you, actually. He turned around a gave her a wave and a thumbs-up.
The cult of celebrity can be a poisonous distraction, but it is heartening to encounter someone whose work has inspired you, and to receive genuine attention, even it is brief. The night was worth the $26 and the standing and waiting. My friend and I were out by 8:30 and to a favorite bar shortly after, toasting our success and, vicariously, George’s.