George Saunders was a passenger on a commercial United Airlines jet that flew into a flock of geese outside of Chicago and almost fell to earth.
Smoke filled the cabin. The horizon rushed up. “There was complete silence except for the screaming of the girl’s softball team in the front rows,” said the acclaimed short story writer and author of Lincoln in the Bardo.
In that moment, Saunders was forcefully reminded that his “personal resources were not up to the business of living”. “I was going around all my life with these ideas: I’m permanent, God loves me so much that he wouldn’t take me before I was ready, wishing can make it so, and I felt all those falsehoods in my chest. Time is going forward and I’m in this plane going down.”
Saunders recalled the experience in his opening address at the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival in support of his argument that truth is the ultimate refuge of the writer and reader from the tumult of international and domestic upheaval.
The festival runs until Sunday hosting 482 writers and facilitators across 400 events at Walsh Bay Pier 2/3 and 4/5, the city, and suburban and regional locations.
In a festival first, Saunders shared the podium with Irish novelist Anne Enright and US essayist, Brit Bennet.
It was the neglect of the artistic impulse, Saunders told Fairfax Media, that had permitted the trivial to dominate political discourse.
“The most reliable refuge is to be in a healthy relationship with the truth of whatever the moment is without fear,” he said before the opening address.
“Likewise in the political moment: let’s not panic, let’s look at it, let’s trust our ability to come to some kind of truth and respond reasonably and art is part of that. If I want to know the truth of a situation I always write.”
???In his lifetime, Saunders, who is Buddhist, laments the world has become more materialistic and less spiritual. An auxiliary effect of treating art “as something kind of fluffy or superfluous” was the rising popularity of reality TV.
“You are watching an idiotic show that is false and manipulative or its edited together to be unrealistic and trivial and provocative,” he told Fairfax Media. “There’s that moment you consent to watch anything – ‘Oh, I know it’s not real but oh, its funny’ – that’s the energy when Trump started running. Our neglect of art has made us susceptible to that entertainment.
“As a culture becomes smarter, and wiser, more comfortable with ambiguity it’s less prone to bullshit.”
Bennett, debut author of The Mothers, said books like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s TheGreat Gatsby had been co-opted into representing a rosy view of the past.
“It was futile for Gatsby to be living in the past, that’s what you were suppose to take away from the book but people glamorise it, they throw Gatsby parties,” she said ahead of her address.
“Same with Gone With the Wind, essentially there’s a battle in the book between romantics and the pragmatists and the pragmatists win, those are the people who survive – Scarlett O’Hara is a pragmatist, Rhett Butler is a pragmatist. The romantics are left adrift in this world because they can’t adapt but for whatever reason that’s the legacy we have from the book, a romantic view.”
Driving the nostalgia was a fear of technological change and “new types of evil”, as witnessed in Manchester overnight, Bennet said.
“The idea you could go to a concert with a bunch of children or Sandy Hook, that someone is going to bring a gun into elementary school and slaughter children,” Bennet said, that’s scary and new for a lot of people and we have access to that [information] all of the time.”
Saunders hopes American art will take a “turn for the deeper” in the aftermath of the Trump presidency. “In many ways we’ve seen there is almost a karmic cost to triviality. I’m just pledging, that’s what I’m going to do with the rest of my life is try to expand the bounds of what fiction can do.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.