Practically every literate human has entertained the idea of writing a novel. For most of us the idea fades as soon as something good comes on TV. But imagine if you wrote short stories for a living. Imagine if you wrote dozens of incredible short stories over almost twenty years and became the world's most famous living short story writer, but still never published a novel. Wouldn't you really really want to write a novel? In other words: Why the hell hasn't George Saunders—New York Times-certified "Writer of Our Time"—written a novel?
Novel or not, George Saunders is one hundred million times more accomplished than you or I ever will be. His fourth short story collection published this month, The Tenth of December, has received the kind of public adulation usually unavailable to any book that hasn't been waved around by Oprah on TV. A New York Times Magazine article pegged to the release was less a profile than the beatification of a secular saint. ("George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year," was The headline. This was one of the least hyperbolic statements in the whole thing.) Saunders is a certified genius; he won one of those MacArthur grants. And he is worth the fuss. His stories are brilliant: funny and sad, dystopian suburban landscapes animated by gonzo prose that tears at your heart as his characters do terrible things for the most noble reasons imaginable.
But Saunders is more than just a fantastic short story writer. He is The Writer For Our Time, according to the Times' Joel Lovell:
It's the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is 'the writer for our time.' Still, if we were to define "our time" as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness - if we define "our time" in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.
Still, it's odd that the Writer For Our Time has not written a novel. Fairly or not, the novel is the Super Bowl of fiction writing, and any fiction writer who hasn't written one is going to be relegated to runner-up in the annals of literary history. Sure, they'll be a fan favorites and heroes to MFA students and connoisseurs of literature, a John Cheever or Raymond Carver or an Alice Munro, but without a novel there's no chance a fiction writer can reach the sort of Pop, era-defining status Lovell imagines for Saunders: Prophet, public intellectual, and person we force every grade school student to read.
That George Saunders hasn't written a novel isn't for lack of trying. The only thing normal about George Saunders' writing career is that he's still an aspiring novelist, just like you and I were for those few moments when we got bored of TV. In a recent conversation with his editor Andy Ward, Saunders revealed that three of the stories in his new collection started as novels "until they came to their senses." "That seems to be the definition of 'novel' for me: a story that hasn't yet discovered a way to be brief," Saunders said. This is the zen-like acceptance of things we'd expect from the Saunders of the New York Times profile, a practicing Buddhist who exudes such a robust aura of goodness and humanity that it effortlessly gloms onto other people: simply reading his stories "makes you wiser, better, more disciplined in your openness to the experience of other people," writes Lovell.
But, come on. Even Saunders must get at least a little less serene when he realizes his novel is turning into yet another Goddamn Short Story, again. This is life or death stuff for fiction writers. One of my creative writing professors in college was a brilliant, widely-published short story writer. Last I heard, he had started a novel. Then he dropped of the face of the Earth. I've Googled him every few months to see if the novel came out. It hasn't, and neither has a single piece of fiction for years. Someone should check on him. I'm worried he might literally be trapped under his manuscript.
My wish that Saunders be tormented by his failure to write a novel is entirely selfish: Nothing motivates better than abject fear of failure, and I want his unpublished novel to gnaw at him to the point that he writes it, because I really want to read it. But the fact that Saunders has never written a novel also explains his unimpeachable position in American literature, and the gushing that accompanies each new collection. Literary types have a peculiar fetish for the short story writer: Short fiction is the Hard Stuff—pure uncut stories prized by real literature heads. Novelists are trotted out on talk shows and op-ed pages to give their thoughts on the issues of the day. Many are openly egomaniacal. But short story writers are noble craftsmen, painstakingly assembling flawless sentences into a delicate storytelling apparatus.
"I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters," Saunders has written. "He enters in one state of mind and exits in another." Short story writers tinker away at the box, and unless they're George Saunders, they do it pretty much in obscurity. Great novelists are not content to be simple tinkerers. "Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand—but tell it," says Zadie Smith.
To be polite, everyone pretends there's nothing really wrong with Saunders having not written a novel. It wasn't even pointed out in the Times profile. But, come on. If George Saunders is the Writer For Our Time—and I think he is, and should be!—and if his stories can literally make the world a better place then he needs to write a novel and get Oprah to talk about it on TV and put it into the hands of as many of the sad but nobly struggling people who are the subjects of so many of his stories as possible. (He should also probably write TV shows and movies, since nobody even reads novels any more.) The excessive praise heaped on great short fiction writers begins seem patronizing at a point, like an out of town guest struggling to compliment a New Yorker's cramped and overpriced apartment: "Look how much you've done with so little space!"
I suppose it's crass to give a writer grief for something he hasn't yet written. I'm beginning to sound like one of those creepy, over-obsessed fans who hound Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin about writing the next installment of the series. Whatever, we can't all be George Saunders.
Write a damn novel, dude.