George Saunders: Everyone Wants to Be Loved. What Do We Do with That?
In Conversation with Linn Ullmann on the How to Proceed Podcast
How To Proceed is a bi-monthly conversation about writing, creativity and the world we live in. Author Linn Ullmann talks to some of the world’s most exciting literary voices about their books, their writing process, and how they view the world and current events around them.
In this episode, George Saunders talks about Trump, civility, and the public discourse of our time; kindness and meanness; form and revision; voice, memory, and empathy; and, of course, the living and the dead.
From the conversation:
Linn Ullmann: I was reading both your Trump essay from four years ago and the interview in Paris Review, sort of in concert. In the Trump essay, just eerie to read today, you write, “Trump is not trying to persuade, derail, or prove. He’s trying to thrill, agitate, be liked, be loved, here and now.” And since I was reading the Paris Review at the same time, where you talk about writing and where you also say something like, “When I’m writing, I want to entertain you for twenty pages. I want to keep you reading. Actually, I want you not to be able to stop reading.” And I thought—
George Saunders: “I want you to love me.”
Linn Ullmann: I want you to love me. I want you to like me. I want to entertain you. So this criticism against Trump that we all look at—or not all of us, many of us—look at it in horror, but isn’t a lot of the same things that you say drive Trump, isn’t it also what can drive a writer?
George Saunders: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s where we have to go the next step and say, OK, let’s say that probably everybody wants to be loved, to some extent. And then we say, well, for what? I think those of us who have chosen a certain gap, whether it’s art or medicine or whatever, we say, I want to be loved for being virtuous, let’s say, or for being skillful.
But even there, I’ve certainly been in a place where I’ve said all the right things. “I want to be loved for writing good books.” And then I write a good book, I hope, that the world likes me for. But even then there’s still danger, because you could let that make you insane. You could just continually be running after that sugar buzz.
I think the thing is that to live a virtuous life, you never get to go on autopilot, and you never get to switch off and hide behind your maxim. With Trump, part of the problem is he wants to be loved and he doesn’t care how or why. And so there’s this constant turning of every subject to himself, which, you know, in a person in real life, he would just recognize it as a deep flaw, a failure of maturation.
But again, the point is, I think all human beings are probably fueled by the same energy. I would say so. I don’t think there’s too many—there are sociopaths, but mostly there aren’t. So, I want to be loved. Great. Everyone does. Now, what do you do with that? And can you stay vigilant until the end?
If I find myself—and I do every day, I’m kind of in a constant conversation with my own ego and my own desire to be somebody—I guess the thing is we never get to stop wondering. And I think he stopped wondering many, many years ago.
Litteraturhuset in Oslo is Europe’s largest of its kind, dedicated to presenting literature in the broadest sense of the word. Since its opening in the fall of 2007, the house has welcomed authors from all parts of the world, and through readings, conversations, lectures and debates, it strives to open up for new horizons and perspectives on the society, the world and the people around us.
George Saunders is the author of eight books, including the story collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2006 he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013 he was awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and was included in Time‘s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.