A study in em­pa­thy

> Ge­orge Saun­ders, win­ner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lin­coln in the Bardo, talks about what the ac­co­lade means to him

The Sun (Malaysia) - - THE RIGHT READ -

own way of get­ting there. It’s just a long learn­ing curve.”

And while this was not his first time writ­ing – he is tra­di­tion­ally known for his novel­las, jour­nal­is­tic writ­ings and es­says – this piece was one that just needed to be a ful­l­length novel.

“I think a story has a DNA, it wants to be a cer­tain length. And this one just kept open­ing out,” added Saun­ders.

Baroness Lola Young, 2017 chair of judges, re­ferred to his work as “ut­terly orig­i­nal” in its form and style and com­mented that, while rooted in his­tory, the book ex­plores “the mean­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence of em­pa­thy”.

Saun­ders him­self re­flects that in cre­ative writ­ing, such con­cerns need to be put aside in or­der to be im­mersed in the sto­ry­telling, but that af­ter, such themes cer­tainly be­come ap­par­ent.

He said: “I think it’s about com­mu­ni­ca­tion – when you walk away from your book and it con­tin­ues to com­mu­ni­cate, that’s when it’s re­ally lovely.”

Now more than ever, he sees the need for cul­ture to be a ve­hi­cle for al­low­ing peo­ple to be em­pa­thetic with one an­other, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of the im­me­di­ate, yet de­tached, medium of so­cial me­dia.

“I think peo­ple are start­ing to re­con­sider our over­in­volve­ment in the vir­tual world – it’s not the real world. It’s just not au­then­tic.”

The sec­ond US writer to win the ac­co­lade – af­ter a 2014 change in rules opened up the Man Booker to any na­tion­al­ity of au­thor writ­ing in English – there has been talk of Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of the prize.

Saun­ders’ re­sponse is that re­ally it isn’t his place to com­ment but that, equally for him, the beauty of lit­er­a­ture is that dif­fer­en­tials of your iden­tity can fall away.

“The es­sen­tial thing that hap­pens when you’re writ­ing is that ‘you’ fall away for just for a minute,” he says. “And then the reader hope­fully has the same ex­pe­ri­ence.

“That’s the whole premise of lit­er­a­ture – that you and I are dif­fer­ent but we can both work our­selves into the same state. That’s what al­lows us to write from an­other voice and other char­ac­ters from other times.”

So what does the prize mean to him?

On the one hand, it has been a boost to what he sees as not a nat­u­rally-high self-es­teem: “Hav­ing a panel of judges ap­prove of what you’re do­ing is re­ally em­pow­er­ing.”

In terms of where he sees his tra­jec­tory from now, his im­me­di­ate re­sponse is: “I would love to go and write a short story.”

But he also feels pas­sion­ately that the plat­form the prize could al­low him is some­thing he wants to use with care.

“As op­por­tu­ni­ties present them­selves to me be­cause of this, I don’t want to mis­use them in any way. I don’t want to squan­der it. I want to use it re­spon­si­bly and in­tel­li­gently.”

At 58, he sees the up­com­ing gen­er­a­tion, freed of the in­her­ited prej­u­dices that “came in the wa­ter sup­ply” for his own, as a source of hope.

For him, it is im­por­tant to have bal­ance in the way we see the world.

“I think op­ti­mism and pes­simism come out of im­pa­tience,” he says.

“I think the most com­plex at­ti­tude is to see that life is ev­ery­thing: it’s beau­ti­ful and it’s hor­ri­ble. The ideal is to be open to the re­al­ity in front of you.” – The In­de­pen­dent

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