George Saunders on Voice and Voices

George Saunders, perhaps the most important living short story writer in the English language, served as a guest lecturer during the Tampa MFA program in the June 2012 residency, and as a component of his visitation, he delighted fans and acolytes alike with a reading of a few of his short stories.

After the readings, which were quite the highlight of the residency period, one of my colleagues mused: “Perhaps I would not have liked that particular story so much if he had not been reading it.”

I have heard it said that writer’s do not always make for good readers, and I myself am an advocate for reading a piece yourself before hearing the author’s rendition (see “The Odd Dangers of Writers as Readers”). But George Saunders, you see, is quite good at public readings. He reads in multiple voices and knows the material well enough to read it with confidence and comfort (and nothing is more uncomfortable, we should note, than an author who jerks the audience from the story some ten or twenty times to offer footnotes and corrections during a reading, an experience I have endured in recent months).

Saunders recently sat with the podcast virtuosos behind the new The Organist podcast and spoke for a good half hour on how he uses voice and how voice shapes his work. Listen to the full interview, if you will:

Saunders notes in the interview how others have approached him after a reading, saying how his own reading fully illuminated a short story, how his use of voice changed the piece in a way.

That issue of changed meaning and hue is my chief complaint against hearing writers read work, though Saunders creates sort of an opposite problem: improving a work we might otherwise enjoy less. But the fact that Saunders’ work has rivaled any other great short story compilation over the past two decades suggests there is something else at work here. Thousands of readers will never hear his voice, but will only read it.

Which to me says that Saunders is a master of the written voice. When I heard him read pieces with which I was already familiar, it was like the transition from black and white to color, or color to high definition — not from television to radio or smoke signals, as is the case too often when I hear a writer read their work and the reading alters it materially in a negative way.

Rather, his readings made quick the long-term goal of voice. Instead of reading 750 words and observing the speaker was neurotic, the audience can hear Saunders, who knows the character and knows how to read neurotically without sounding cheap or fake, present the character as neurotic within 50 or 100 words. There is an economy to his reading, but not a material alteration. Perhaps, then, the key to becoming a great public reader is becoming a great writer of voice.

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