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Author George Saunders: “Holding Out A High Vision Of What Art Is Supposed To Do”

The author of Pastoralia and Tenth of December on American fame, the importance of living a curious life, and Arthur Miller’s Timebends.

Via Basso Cannarsa

A series of conversations with writers about a book they love. In this installment, I’m talking with George Saunders about Timebends by Arthur Miller.

George Saunders is the author of several books, including the story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. Jan. 7 marks the release of the paperback of his most recent book, Tenth of December, which was included on nearly every “Best Books of 2013 List,” including ours. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Foundation, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, in 2006. This year, he was included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

2. Timebends by Arthur Miller

Via Colin Winnette

Colin Winnette: What were the exact circumstances that led to your picking up Timebends for the first time?

George Saunders: I was flying home from Pittsburgh and had finished all the books I’d brought with me and came across it in the airport bookstore. I’ve always loved his plays — our family had a beautiful experience seeing Death of a Salesman last year in New York, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy — and I remembered a great little memoir piece Miller had in Harper’s years ago that had to do with his youth in New York and the idea that, when talking with a group of friends, you had to have what he called “a line to walk on.” That is, you had to say something funny enough before you left to shut everybody down. What I loved about that piece was that it offered an insight into what life was like in New York in the late 1940s that felt somehow new — I hadn’t seen that New York in any book or movie before. So I had a feeling the book would be worth my time. I think Miller is one of the great American artists of the last century and I was just really interested to see what the world looked like to him.

CW: Before we dig in, could you offer a few lines of encouragement for potential readers who aren’t very familiar with Miller, or aren’t artists/writers themselves?

GS: I think this book is a great mini-seminar in the 20th century — its politics and art and culture. It gives the reader a sort of one-person view of what, say, the Depression actually felt like and looked like on the ground; that is, the people living through the Depression didn’t know that’s what it was. Likewise the McCarthy period. And it is very entertaining — funny and novelistic and full of great portraits of famous people. And even a little gossipy at times. That is actually one of its subtexts — this idea that American art sinks or swims on how well it reaches out to a larger audience. Miller seems to see this as both a blessing and a form of tyranny — but for him, this egalitarian aspect of American art was the source of its vitality.

CW: What drew you into this book, initially? What kept you reading, and what inspired the recommendation today?

GS: At first I was just loving the descriptions of his childhood and being reminded of the fact that the only thing that will evoke the world as we actually experience it is great sentences — the difference between a boring, banal account of childhood and one that feels properly rich and mysterious (i.e., like one’s own actual childhood), is the phrase-by-phrase quality of the prose. Perceptions truthfully remembered make great sentences and great sentences provide the way for that truthful remembering to happen — something like that. I guess I’m just saying it was a pleasure to read such intelligent writing.

But also — lately I find myself interested in anything historical that can open up my mind afresh and get me really seeing the past, with the purpose of adding that data to my evolving moral-ethical view of the world. (We only live in one time but can read in many, etc., etc.) To have a witness as intelligent and articulate as Miler is almost (almost!) like having been there oneself. So here, wow, the stories and details — New York before the war, all his crazy relatives and their various ends; stories about Odets, Kazan, et al, Miller’s deep periods of artistic immersion, life with Monroe, trips to Russia, walking around with Frank Lloyd Wright (and finding him unlikable), the moral-spiritual breakdown of Untermeyer, the way Lee J. Cobb first “got” Willy Loman, and on and on — I just came away thinking, Jeez, what a life. Good for you, Arthur Miller. We should all live so fully.

I also found myself really excited by Miller’s basic assumptions about art: It’s important, it is supposed to change us, it’s not supposed to be trivial or merely clever, it’s one human being trying to urgently communicate with another. But it was also exciting to see his uncertainty around this stance — the way he couldn’t always execute, and sometimes doubted those ideas, and found himself fighting against the prevailing spirit of the time — like in the 1960s, when everything felt, to him, ironic and faux-cynical. I found myself inspired by the way he went through his life, always holding out a high vision of what art is supposed to do — he strikes me as having been a real fighter.

CW: Would you be willing to talk a little more about your experience at Death of a Salesman? I’d love to hear that story.

GS: Well, I remember the first 20 minutes or so, it seemed like the actors were sort of hustling through their lines — almost like a staged reading. And I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about. And then at one point, they just found it. You could feel it in the theater. It was as if they’d been waiting for the play to start talking to them, in a particular way, on that particular night, and, being a great play, it did. I also remember a very crazy moment — it’s when Biff is being hugged by Willy and starts to cry. It was as if the actor playing Biff shrunk and got younger, and, it seemed to me, he literally climbed into Willy’s lap. One of those strange optical-auditory miracles that are possible in the theater. And then, at the end, when the lights came up, you could see dozens of older guys just sitting there crying. If I’d ever thought theater wasn’t “valid” or alive, that night proved me completely wrong. It was so powerful. I remember standing in the street afterwards, in the crowd of people milling around waiting for the actors to come out, thinking, This night is living proof of the power of art. People were moved, softened — made briefly better, I’d argue. Hoffman was incredible. I came away with the feeling that, for any artist, immersion is the thing — to be so deep into whatever it is you’re doing that the separation between you and the object is gone. I also remember a woman in the crowd saying, as we left the theater, that she’d seen the original production with Lee Cobb, and that this was as good — and she also said something about the proof of a great play is that various great actors can make it sing in different ways… Something like that.

CW: I was interested in how masterfully he organizes and reorganizes his experiences/sense of himself, without allowing much slack. Everything fits into an evolving sense of the world, himself in the world, and his work in the world.

GS: The other cool thing about this book is the chronology. He will fully occupy one time and then fade into an earlier time very logically and seamlessly — I never had that feeling you sometimes get when things are out of chronology, of wanting to get back to the “main” story. He talks in the book about this idea (which he used to construct some of the plays) that a human being in any moment is actually existing in several different timeframes at once. Something happens to us, we contextualize it per some earlier experience, etc., etc. We tend to reduce this to “Oh, I am having a memory,” but Miller’s point, I think, is that we bring these past referents into the present moment so vividly that they are as real and effect-inducing as the present-time action. What has happened to us completely colors our current perceptions. Memory is character: what we remember and the tonality in which we remember it. And then he demonstrates that principle in the structure of the book. (I was reminded of the psychological truth of this idea by a recent re-reading of A Christmas Carol.)

CW: This book offers an amazing combination of accounts of Miller’s own pursuits in art and life, a powerful engagement with the present, both the cultural moment and often the personal physical/intellectual moment, and some of the most incredibly bizarre and powerful events Miller was simply, randomly there for and blessed us by recording. What I mean to say is, can we talk briefly about Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow on a divorce retreat together in Nevada? And Saul Bellow starting off some mornings by wandering out behind a mountain and screaming into a canyon?

GS: Yes — this book is, I think, a great historical-cliché disruptor. What I mean is this: As a certain historical epoch fades away, it tends to get represented more and more broadly in the cultural product — even in very high-quality cultural product. So, a young person today might get her idea of “the 1960s” from Mad Men or some other show like that, in which some dramatic foreshortening is necessary and is, in fact, the whole point of the fun. Also, in such representations, there’s a sense of overdetermination — what we now “know” of an era gets back-projected on to the depiction. Or she might think “Marilyn Monroe” and recall some iconic photo, or think “McCarthy witch-hunt” and think of some representation of that in some movie. This is all well and good. The danger lies, I think, in our forgetfulness re: details and our tendency to conceptualize earlier times as being simpler than, and somehow irrelevant to, our own. We look at some earlier culture wrestling with some issue and think, Oh, poor dears, too bad they were so dumb and black-and-white and moved so jerkily. To read a book like this is to be reminded that every generation is just as smart or dumb as the previous one; there’s no big fluctuations in human intelligence or intention from generation to generation, I don’t think. The value of this is to be able to say, for example, “OK, once upon a time, when the U.S. felt itself threatened by an outside and hostile force (communism), it responded excessively. Now when we feel ourselves threatened by an outside and hostile force (terrorism), might we be enacting some of the same behaviors?”

CW: Did you feel any tension between your own private sense of Miller and his work, and his take? Or, for that matter, your own private sense of Miller?

GS: Well, one thing that surprised me was how logically he talked about the construction of the plays. The little capsule summaries he gives make them sound kind of boring and “proof-like,” which they never are, in performance — at least not to me. Which in turn just reminded me that anyone who talks about art is doing some after-the-fact approximating. What a writer like Miller does — the reason he’s “Arthur Miller” — is make magic at the moment of the writing. That’s it. All of the talk, before and after, is just talk. Still, it was interesting to see that this intellectual/political talk he does must have served as a kind of scaffolding. He thought about it that way to get himself into the place where the magic could happen, I guess.

But then this got me thinking about the way that this scaffolding can also become a sort of cage. If, in his youth, a person has (as Miller did) an intense engagement with the political and intellectual world of his time, it can be a kind of double-edged sword. Because this engagement is made of concepts and these expire. They get dated. The fight that formed the man becomes a fight that no one is having anymore, and that no one even remembers ever having had. That is, to have been so strongly imprinted with the fight against fascism and early pro-Soviet feelings and the Depression and so on makes for powerful plays and a strong sense of the world — but also might make, in later life, for a feeling that the world of one’s youth is no longer to be found — that particular dialectic is no longer operative. In other words, the truths and debates and systems, mastery of which makes one “an intellectual,” also can become limiting. It’s a little like being really into the music of one’s youth — you tend to judge all subsequent music against it, and by the ground rules that music set up — the assumptions and rhetoric and oppositions of that time get mistaken for the assumptions and rhetoric and oppositions of every time.

But on the other hand, what is an artist supposed to do? Resist his own time? I’ve sometimes felt, because of my background, a little under-informed about and under-engaged with contemporary political and intellectual issues. When I was young I didn’t live anywhere that had any real artistic life going on, and I’ve always regretted that, sort of — like, “I was never part of a movement.” And I think great works of art often come out of the sort of pressure-cooker environment that Miller describes NYC as being in the 1930s and 1940s. That’s where a person gets the deep immersion in certain ideas and artistic assumptions and then — if he’s lucky — he pushes those ideas and approaches forward, just a bit closer to the goal line. That’s called artistic progress. I’ve often felt a little vacant vis-à-vis the artistic movements of my time, and like the ideas that underlie my work are primarily emotional — they come out of my direct experience, but maybe not informed enough by bigger theoretical and political and critical ideas.

(Also, a chance pleasure of reading this book when I did: I was just finishing up the magnificent A People’s Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, a 900-plus-page detailing of the excesses of the Russian Revolution. So it was oddly satisfying to read Miller’s convincing and articulate explanation of his generation’s admiration — and whitewashing — of the Revolution, even as I was learning, from Figes, how messed up and horrific it was on the ground. And then satisfying to see Miller trying to come to grips with the new information about the Soviet Union, even as our country was crucifying people for ever having held those early/romantic views of communism. All in all, it reminded me of post-9/11 America — the mood in the air at that time, and of how quickly we might again degenerate into a witch-hunt mentality.)

Via Chloe Aftel

CW: Yes, exactly. I think the “we” is crucial in that last sentence. The fear is not just of what those in power are capable of, but also of what we — you, me, our friends and family — might, unknowingly or knowingly, partake in out of fear or ignorance or laziness, or even a strong moral position that’s warped by the pressures/circumstances of the time.

GS: Right. The Kazan story was particularly moving. His argument was (or Miller’s argument for him was): Here is this great, once-in-a-lifetime talent, who lives for his art, and this committee is about to deny him, forever, the right to work in his art form. And what they were asking him to do, on one level, was tell the truth — about his youthful dalliance in communism, and his friends engaged in the same. So, in Miller’s generous re-telling, you could see that it must have been a hard decision, especially at speed, with one’s artistic future in the balance, and without knowing that this was, you know, “the McCarthy era.” I guess I’m just saying that this section made me feel, Stay alert. The big moral crossroads in your life may not come labeled as such.

The McCarthy sections were really rich and timely, I thought. It seems to me like the highest vision of the world is one in which you understand many seemingly contradictory things to be true at once. So: McCarthy was an insecure asshole trying to grab some power by playing on people’s fears. True. J. Edgar Hoover was a paranoid and aggressive little dictator. True. But also: Soviet communism really sucked. Here’s Hoover, in his testimony to the HRUAAC: “The communists desire to destroy our cherished liberties and establish a dictatorship.” (True, per Figes). “If the communists take control, our entire civilization will be destroyed and mankind will be rolled back to barbarism.” (Well, pretty much true — post-Revolutionary Russian had cannibalism, show trials, widespread starvation, roaming bands of child prostitutes, etc., etc.). Where McCarthy et al went wrong was to one, overestimate the actual danger; and two, go after completely innocent people as if they were Stalin himself; and three, enact an idiotic and circular logic and syntax that said something like, “OK, since we have an enemy, and that enemy intends us ill, anything we do to fight that enemy is de facto good. And anyone who does not agree with us on this point — and anyone we can even nominally link to what we consider ‘communist’ behavior — must be opposed, and the methods we will use will be determined by us, and will assume that any objections to our methods are motivated by pro-communist sentiments, etc., etc.” As always, the devil is in the details. (I think of our current NSA issues.) Now that 9/11 is fading in our memory, we can look back at some of the excesses of that period with a sad shake of the head — but to me it seems that those emotions have just faded below the surface — and could easily resurface in the light of another catastrophe. So the Miller book was valuable to me in that it reminded me that we make a mistake when we are inattentive to the lessons of history and that these lessons are perhaps most vividly taught via excellent first-person narrative.

CW: I do wonder sometimes about this idea of a “movement” and the pros and cons of being part of one, even tangentially. Part of me feels like it’s an aging way of identifying as an artist, a concern left over from a different time, before we were drown in a sea of perspective. The other part of me, though, sympathizes with the gang boys Miller spent time with in New York, who celebrated their police reports and mug shots as they appeared in the newspaper — because it was public recognition/validation of their lifestyle, which they had committed to and which was reinforced by an army of boys who had chosen to live as they did and had their back.

GS: I think the value of being part of “a movement” (whether that movement has a physical corollary or not) is that there is a focused concentration of energy — like a wave everyone is riding. I was just watching this documentary called Song of the South, about Duane Allman, and you could see that it was the competition and intensity of the bar scene — playing every night, with and in front of your competitors — that drove him into the place of his own originality. To rely on oneself only is a slow way of growing. But having said that — I look back at my twenties and am really fond of that time — I was bumbling around, in Denver, and Amarillo, and Los Angeles, and Syracuse, trying to find artistic friends, and did find a lot of good ones, although I think we were too disparate a group, in our interests and experience, to form “a movement.” The strangeness of that trajectory was very valuable — arguably (for me at least) more valuable than a neater experience would have been. The actual experiences I was having were very intense and the view of America that was evolving was complicated, and I hadn’t seen it represented anywhere before — all of the capitalist cruelty and pratfalls and working-class aspiration and so on, enacted in very unglamorous circumstances. In a sense, the very absence of “a movement” or “zeitgeist” or whatever was telling, and became important to the work I did later.

Via Random House

CW: Miller is largely occupied with the purpose of the artist, the nature of the work, and the evolving pressures of a fairly heavy sense of social obligation. Is this a book you would recommend to younger writers, as a kind of guide or example?

GS: I think the book is a great model of the way an artist thinks and cares and misfires and flounders around and then (in Miller’s case) hits the occasional timeless home run. I love Miller’s intensity, and his belief that art has to be intense and useful — this idea that writing and reading are part of a process of expanding oneself. The book is also a beautiful reminder of how short it all is — how brief a time we have to do something with our lives. I was also really moved by his description of his involvement with PEN, and with his very admirable view of what an organization like PEN does. It made me renew my commitment to using whatever success and visibility I have to do some good in the world. A particularly scary part of the book was his description of the McCarthy years — it made me think of how easy it would be to make a mistake in that situation; of how “cowardice” might feel like something else, as one was manifesting it.

I also loved what he had to say about entertainment in America — the idea that entertainment is becoming the new American religion. Oh, if only he had lived to see Honey Boo Boo. And he makes it clear how dangerous and reactionary and materialist this mind-set is. This emphasis on being entertained becomes a form of narcissism, I think — there is a tendency to think individually rather than as a community.

CW: I was struck by Miller’s ongoing conflict of how to continue to produce relevant, truthful work after his success began to isolate him from the America he was writing about — for example, his attempt at factory work after the success of All My Sons — and, later, whether or not to produce work at all in an America that seemed to have no use for his kind of thinking and making. There’s an interesting tension between the struggle to connect and communicate ideas, and the increasing isolation produced by a) the lifestyle of a committed writer, b) his incredible success — which is ironically a success of communication and connection, and c) his growing dissatisfaction with America’s cult of entertainment. As one of America’s greatest living writers (I’m certainly not alone in this opinion), do Miller’s concerns, professionally or personally, resonate with you? You’re exceptionally friendly, and your work reflects a genuine desire to connect with people — to make us laugh and affect us on an emotional level. And yet your work complicates comfort, and often implicates the reader as much as it touches or entertains us.

GS: Well, I think it’s essential to keep going back to the question of how things actually are. With someone as famous as Miller, I’m sure this must have been hard. You can see him doing a lot of harkening back to the time before he was successful — relying on the conflicts and ideas of those earlier times. There’s this very modern phenomenon of an artist coming from outside, writing something from that place that is truthful and new, and then getting absorbed (via fame and success) into “the inside” (whatever that is), and thereby getting separated from the source of his material. Success makes opportunities and so many of those “opportunities” are actually exemptions — from hardship, from unfriendliness, from struggle. So I think a person has to do what he can to keep his life as real and normal as possible. For writers these days, I don’t think it’s that big of a problem. Like David Foster Wallace said, the most famous writer is about as famous as a local TV weatherman. But Miller was famous in a way that was very unusual and at a time when this thing we now know as American fame was a relatively new beast. I think you can feel his fame behind the second part of the book especially, although he’s too modest to make much of it.

CW: Did you engage with the photos in the center of the book? The two-page spread of photos of him with Marilyn Monroe, with the single subtitle “The best of times,” immediately followed by photos of Inge Morath — whom he would marry shortly after Marilyn’s death — struck me as very sad and moving. Photo albums don’t allow for much transition. Life just barrels onward.

GS: Yes, they were beautiful. I came away impressed and moved by the way he treated his time with Monroe. It’s clear he really loved her, and his way of writing about her as being ahead of her time was, I think, right on the money. Very strange to think of Marilyn Monroe as, you know, a woman, walking around in the world, vulnerable, trying to figure her own fame out, laden with real demons and so on. The photos also made me want to get some new glasses.

CW: Will you leave us with something from the book? A line or passage, and maybe a thought or two about it?

GS: Well, here’s a pretty good bit: “We drove into Beverly Hills, perfection to right and left, the nests of the famous and the rich impressing my ambitious heart and leaving an uneasiness in the mind. The place was so depressingly completed — maybe that was it, the sheer end-of-the-road materiality. The Tudor castle divided by a hedge from the New England farmhouse divided by a driveway from the French Provincial. To each his individual dream, connected only by the silent little Japanese gardener and his son padding from lawn to immaculate lawn picking up the browned fallen palm frond, the crisp, dead, adventurous leaf, while nothing whatsoever moved, stirred, cried out, each house suspended in its spell of total achievement and guaranteed against ever becoming a ruin, all too perfect to die.”

To me, the book was a really wonderful reminder to be here while we’re here — live fully, and this means think fully — be curious about the world and willing to take big, stupid chances, and reverse your position and so on. Miller embodied this spirit until the very end, and demonstrated it in his beautiful work. He was a giant, and I think it behooves all of us to know him better.

You can order a paperback copy of Tenth of December here.

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