A Visit from George Saunders

BU has offered many excellent opportunities to hear from guest speakers, but none them really interested me until it was announced that the Ha Jin Visiting Lecturer would be George Saunders. George Saunders is an extremely talented writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, and has also been published in books of short stories. For a lover of literature, Saunders is an icon.

So, on a humid night in October, myself and my friend Belle (also an English student), walked up the steps to the Tsai Performance center to hear George Saunders give his talk. It was this time last year that Belle and I had sat in an English class, reading the work of Saunders and marveling at his distinctly American writings in the theme of Hemingway.

As an English student, it’s relatively rare that the authors we read are still alive. But George Saunders is very much alive, teaching in the MFA program at Syracuse, a fact he was proud to announce when he was standing at the podium.

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Belle and I were shocked by Saunder’s charisma and enthusiastic personality as he gave a reading from another author. His voice changed to represent the different characters and Saunders was sure to leave room for the audience’s laughter, which he had already anticipated, remarking, “Boston’s a laughing town, isn’t it?”

Saunders spoke on his struggles with writing and with finding the right balance between mimicking the style of another writer and creating his own. It’s well known that Saunders’ work is most commonly compared to that of Ernest Hemingway’s and Saunders discussed how he often felt the need to “climb the Hemingway mountain.” But once Saunders reached the summit of this fictitious mountain range, he had found “Hemingway standing at the top on a soapbox.” Saunders realized that no matter how much he tried to write like Hemingway he would never really be like him. Hemingway’s work is impossible to mimic exactly, and Saunders would never be Hemingway. Credit 

Saunders then described how after coming to that realization, he still tried to climb the mountains of other great writers before finally seeing that he needed to make a mountain of his own. Although Saunders humbly described his mountain as “being more of a hill” compared to other great writers, it was clear by the audience and the applause, that this was a view that only Saunders shared.

Saunders has created a name for himself in the same way that Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck created names for themselves. His work is studied by many and loved by even more. He’s an inspiration to young writers everywhere, and we were truly lucky to have heard him speak and to host him at BU. Hopefully, there will be more great authors to come!

 

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