Pressed to find a beacon of the arts in American culture, you could do a lot worse than George Saunders. Long before the South Chicago native's 2013 story collection The Tenth of December became an unprecedented pop/lit crossover hit, his collections In Persuasion Nation, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline had cemented him as America's foremost literary weirdo.
But Saunders is also a teacher, and has been for 20 years at Syracuse University, so DePaul scored a coup in landing him for next week's "24 Hour George Saunders," a marathon reading of his work that advocates for the arts in higher education. It's a cool event: Guests from Jeff Tweedy to Lindsay Hunter read from Saunders' canon nonstop from 8 p.m. Tuesday to 7 p.m. Wednesday, at which point Saunders himself arrives and gives a new lecture, “Why the Humanities, Why Art?” Without spoiling too much of that (the speech will be published by the New Yorker next month), I called up Saunders to talk arts education and leech some free life advice.
So. Your stories are going to be read for 24 hours straight.
That’s what I hear.
How does that feel?
Good! It’s great. Peter Steeves at DePaul thought it up and it was so generous of him. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Jeff Tweedy’s going to be reading a story. I read in an interview with your editor that you associate the “The Tenth of December,” the story, with Wilco's “One Sunday Morning." Is that true?
Yeah, I had that album and I was chain-listening to it for the whole period I was finishing that story. Whenever I listened to it, it put me into the mindset of the story right away. It’s a great song, but they’re also just a great band. I don’t listen to music when I write, but sometimes to get into the right zone, to hear something really soulful and powerful like that reminds you what artists are supposed to be doing in the first place. It’s like a shortcut.
From what I understand, the event next week is arguing for the humanities’ place in higher education. Where do you think they stand right now?
That’s a hard question. I think [studying the humanities] prepares people for the world better than anything else, because it really is a study of the world. There’s no preconceptions and no ceilings. Whatever the world is, the humanities looks at it pretty frankly. And I think, actually, it’s okay. We’re maybe coming out of a period where we thought that college was just job training and starting to realize that it’s training in being a human being. Any time you make somebody a more complete human being they’re going to be more ready for whatever happens. But I had an engineering degree, so I don’t know if I can talk.
Did you feel a divide between the sciences and arts in your own education, or did that come after your time?
Well, I wasn’t really planning to go to college at all. I don’t know why I was so stupid, but it didn’t even occur to me that one could choose [a course of study]. I had a geology teacher that I really admired, and I thought, well, that would be cool, to be a geologist. Then I went to engineering school and I was working really hard just to make the grades, and reading on the side. And I had this lightning-strike moment when I was in a class called Theory of Knowledge. It was a philosophy class, so we were reading these really hard books, and it was so easy for me. I was having so much fun with it, I was really interested in it, and it came more naturally to me than any of the engineering stuff did. A light bulb went about half-on at that point, and I said, I wonder if a person could study this for real? But by that time I was so committed to getting the engineering degree that I just put it aside. So, I always found that I came alive when I was doing anything humanities-related. but I was hell-bent on getting the degree that I’d started. Also, there was the idea in that time that you could get that degree and go work somewhere exotic, which I did—I got a geophysics degree and went to work in Asia. But I could always feel it, when I was doing something with writing or reading that I had a little more power in it than in engineering.
As somebody who did both right off the bat, do you think that schism between arts and sciences is stunting us?
Well maybe, only because there really isn’t any difference. I use my engineering training in my writing all the time. In terms of logical rigor and an experimental approach to a story, you come into it thinking you know what it’s going to do but being open to the possibility that it might do something else. [That] is a totally an applied-science approach. And now, as we’re finding out more about the way the mind and the body work, we see that they’re not really that distinct. It’s an artificial divide, and we’ve codified it by making the [college] majors. Some of the most brilliant readers and writers I knew were in engineering school—and this was the ‘70s, so they’d be studying calculus and thermodynamics and reading Carlos Castaneda. So I think, at the ultimate level, there’s no difference. It crossfires. I love to get into a story where there’s a lot of scientific terminology, ‘cause that can be a kind of poetry too. If you read some really technical document or talk to somebody who’s coding, they’re speaking a kind of poetic language. We don’t think of it that way, but by any reasonable definition of poetry, that’s what it is.
A lot of your stories deal with regular, working-class people facing harsh realities of capitalism. With that in mind, what do you say to the stigma that the humanities don’t pay?
It depends on what kind of currency you want to get paid in. When we were in engineering school, there were a lot of kids who, when you’d say ‘Why are you [studying] engineering?’ they’d say, 'you get a great job.’ Well, then the world changed. In the early ‘80s, the oil boom crashed, and some of those same people were out selling cars. So I think it would be very sad if a young person, in that first 17-, 18-, 19-year-old phase of life, was worried about not getting paid. Because there’s so many different ways to get paid. You can get paid by loving what you do. You can get paid by doing something that benefits other people. [Or] you can be an English major who goes out and starts a software company and makes a trillion dollars. The world is so complicated and changes so much that to say ‘I’m gonna do this major so I can get paid.' The world might change underneath you, and you might not get paid for doing the things you don’t like. If you do what you love to do, the money might follow, but if it doesn’t, you’re doing what you love to do.
I teach at the MFA program at Syracuse, and I think for a young person to go through the process of trying to be an artist and trying to bring out of themselves some real beauty, that prepares you for just about anything. I read in an article recently [that] all these people who are in film school, they don’t all go out and make films, but because they’ve tried to, they’re ready for anything. They know how to do everything on a movie set, which means that you know how to do so many things in life. So I just don’t think you get anywhere by calculating it that closely. But I also went broke in my twenties, so who knows?
Is that how you advised your [college-aged] daughters?
Yeah, for sure. And they didn’t even need advice, they just did what they wanted. They’re both writing and making a living at it. In my twenties, I did everything so illogically. I had this really nice engineering job that I quit. And why did I quit? So I could be more like Kerouac and kind of bum around the United States. I’m not exactly the best role model, but on the other hand, I never thought about money that much. I just I really wanted to be a good writer. That was, in a way, stupid, but it was also a beautiful simplicity in my life. Everything was evaluated on, ‘Will this help me be a better writer or not?’ And it worked out. So, yeah, so far so good. I could always go back to law school.
Law school is popular with some of my friends right now.
Well, I’ve heard it’s not as great a career as we [thought]. We had a guest recently who said that they’re finding out that a lot of people who get into law school either hate it or end up only practicing law for three or four years afterward. I’m guessing you’re in your twenties, right?
Yeah, [so] I think your generation especially—because our daughters are 24 and 27—your generation had an interesting signal given to it, which was that anything is possible and there’s no limits. [That's] a lot of pressure on you guys, moreso than when I was a kid. I don’t even remember talking about going to college until senior year, and there wasn’t this sense that you had to go out and do anything, really. In retrospect, I’m really happy about the amount of freedom I had. When I quit my engineering job, my dad was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, do what you want.’ You could make mistakes and go out and do something just because you wanted to. [It's] that whole hippie cliché that getting off the path is part of the journey.
Is that idea that anything’s possible holding up?
Well, it can’t hold up, because there’s always limits. I think it’s a good thing to think early on: ‘I’m gonna go what I want and I’m gonna shoot high.' But it ends up a little bit [like] that fear-of-missing-out thing. If somebody says to you, ‘You should be doing a safari in Africa,’ and you’re 24, you’re like, ‘Well, I can’t.’ It’s just like art. The thing that makes art so much fun is that there’s always constraints. You can’t just do whatever you want. You have to do what the piece wants you to do. You have to make choices. In life, it’s the same. You can think, ‘I should be able to do whatever I want,’ but at some point, it’s like Springsteen said: You’re trading your wings for some wheels. It's like, since I’m a finite person in a finite world, I have to do something first. I can’t do everything. For me, that’s when life really gets beautiful: when you see that you don’t have 360 degrees of choice, you have maybe 15 degrees of choice, and you buckle down to that. When we had our kids, and when there wasn’t any choice and we had to make money and we only had one job offer and we were only in one town, it got really, really interesting.
Your advice to students leaving college has been widely circulated–that Syracuse speech went viral. What's your advice to kids entering college?
This is kind of pedestrian, but go to office hours. It sounds petty, but that’s where so much of the magic of college happens, is if you get out of the 200-person lecture hall and go sit with the [professor]. When I was teaching undergrads, I noticed that fewer and fewer kids were doing that, and I thought that was a shame, ‘cause you’re sitting there in your office waiting, sort of saying, who’s interested? And when somebody comes in, you’re like, OK, I see you now, and you give a little extra. As much as students pay for college—even if you don’t have anything to say—make it a point to go in and sit with the professor. That person is probably gonna be pretty interesting, and if you get in a room with her one-on-one, she will give you some of that interest.
That would be the small advice. The bigger one, I guess, is to not be timid about your own education. You’ve given a school four years of your life and a hell of a lot of money, so be your own tour guide. When I was a student, I was afraid that I would make a bad impression or I would say something stupid or I was just trying to get through the requirements, but looking back, I wish I’d been more fearless about looking energetically at things that interested me. And, again, seeking out the people there who know a lot. The odds are they’re waiting to hear from somebody. So just ask them.
Unrelated, but what’s on your summer reading list and why?
I just got a galley of Ethan Canin’s new novel, and I love Ethan Canin, so I’ll read that. And I’ve been doing a lot of research about the 19th century, so I’m doing not that much fiction but a lot of diaries and stuff from the 1800s. And then I’ve got a stack of books that I’m teaching in the fall [in] a class on the short novel, so I’ve got some books by Toni Morrison and Kerouac and Tolstoy.
Go: 24 Hour George Saunders runs from 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 2 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 3 in room 120 of the DePaul Student Center (2250 N. Sheffield). The event is free and open to the public. See a full list of guest readers and times here.