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
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