George Saunders and Michael Johnston

Apr 22, 2021

The Novel is like a Stack of Yurts

George Saunders talks with Michael Johnston

New Books Network 2021

Novel Dialogue sits down with Michael Johnston of Purdue University and George Saunders, master of the short story form and author of the Booker-prize winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo. This conversation was defiant of novelist and chemist C.P. Snow’s lament that the sciences and humanities have become siloed from one another. George shows us how works of fiction are laboratories for all sorts of experiments. He also explains how his background in the sciences and engineering has shaped his approach to writing fiction. (Hint: it has a lot to do with the search for truth and a faith in iteration.)

Michael, George, and Aarthi get into the nitty gritty of truth-seeking and how good literature moves us away from the simplified “Cruella DeVil model of morality.” Indeed, some of the most interesting moments in fiction reveal the patterns of self-deception by which good people justify bad actions. George explains how achieving moral seriousness in literary composition demands playing bouncer to direct moral concerns. Instead, he engages in a process of “micro-choosing” that allows morality to emerge from revisions and decisions that might not be entirely conscious.

We move from the writing process toward its result: an intelligent but “shaggy” efficiency. Shagginess is what keeps literary form – whether the short story or the novel – moving dialectically between fun and function. George has taught creative writing for almost as long as he has been a professional writer (and his recent A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a brilliant foray into his course on the Russian short story). In the final part of the show, he discusses the value of literature for the individual reader and for anyone struggling to balance material survival with a sense of purpose.

Mentioned in the Episode

  • James Joyce, Dubliners
  • Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
  • Ayn Rand
  • Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.
  • Stuart Cornfeld
  • George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “The Humanities in American Life”

Aarthi Vadde is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. Email: aarthi.vadde@duke.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu.

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Aarthi Vadde and John Plotz

Aarthi Vadde is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. Email: aarthi.vadde@duke.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu.


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