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Ethics in Fiction

May 19 2017
Sara Button

Recall a book that has changed you. That has made you gasp, or shudder, or look at new parts of the world with delight. Or picture a literary character you fell in love with. A fictional friend that offered a hand to you, dear reader, and unzipped a window leading from your world into another. And remember for a second, about words you have clung to, lines you’ve underlined, pages you’ve dogeared, spines you’ve bent in early hours. These are the best sorts of stories. Stories that move.

These are the sorts of stories George Saunders wants to write, and by most accounts he does. Known for his innovative style and voice, he has brought real people to the page with wit and grace in his magazine articles, while prodding our imaginations in mind-bending short story collections and his recent debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. With that same wit and grace, he spoke to a crowded Cubberley Auditorium on May 11 to discuss ethics in fiction with Stanford faculty members Joshua Landy and Bernadette Meyler.

Going into the evening he wanted the audience to think about a few things. First, what is the role of art, and thus of fiction? Great writers and artists have said a lot on the subject, and Saunders agrees that art can be formative and life-changing. “It enlivens us,” he said. Art feels ethical. But Saunders cautioned against forcing purpose or process on it; oppression can follow. “The artist’s job is to constantly remind herself that art has the right to be completely useless”; she needn’t know what she’s doing. Saunders also challenged the audience to consider the emotions we feel as readers versus the artist’s required state of mind to create a work. “Talking about the benefits of art doesn't necessarily have anything to with the state of producing it...If my own experience is any indication, having too many ideas about your intentionality might even screw you up,” he said.

His main point was also practical: Saunders sees revision as a key to writing more generous, more ethical fiction. First, strong writing forges a connection between author and reader: “If I change something over here, my sensitive, intelligent reader who’s just as worldly as I am feels it, so we’re in an intimate relationship from the first page, the first sentence. We’re like two people in a motorcycle sidecar. You’re right next to me. And every time I made a good editing choice, you come a little closer; when I go left you go left.” But every micro-decision we make in editing matters, too. “Specificity takes us out of the place of judgment and moves toward particularity,” allowing writers to veer away from stereotypes (or being boring) and toward complex characters. That’s not to say he’s for saccharine writing. Anyone who has read Saunders’ work will tell you that the glory of his storytelling is not necessarily that we are happy at the end; often it’s the jolt of his prose that sticks with us.

Saunders ended his remarks by summarizing a Chekhov story with what seems to have an unresolved ending, but serves as much more. “[Chekhov] lets those two ideas sit there and resonate back and forth,” Saunders said. “To me that is maybe the highest way in which fiction is “ethical,” which is it just says, ‘There are many truths in the world. Sometimes they run up right against each other.’ And the highest form of human wisdom, maybe, is the ability to abide there in that contradictory space for as long as we can.”

Law professor Bernadette Meyler, who also holds a PhD in literature, and Joshua Landy, professor of comparative literature, joined Saunders onstage. Meyler’s remarks revolved around the connection between the ethics of reading and writing, asking what role might compassion and empathy play for each role. Landy riffed on an alliterative foursome--capaciousness, catalyst, connection, and creation--posing questions related to the inherent intimacy of fiction. The conversation wandered from over-planning (“In my experience, the trick of writing is to make sure you’re befuddled as you go”) to the importance of destabilizing fiction (“I want to stun somebody”), and a robust audience Q & A gave way to further advice about storytelling.

What stuck with me about the night’s discussion was the recurring theme of honoring the imaginary reader. Doing so “enacts an ethical assumption which says every person in the world is as real as you,” Saunders explained. Without respecting the audience, the metaphorical sidecar would split apart and veer precipitously toward a cliff. But this reminder that our neighbors are also people felt more pertinent to life than anything else said onstage. When we envision others as abstractions, in writing or reality, we can convince ourselves that our choices don’t matter so much. That folks a world (or block) away couldn’t possibly relate to our perspectives. Fiction can help us see that they might.


SARA BUTTON is a freelance writer, editor, and educator based in Menlo Park. She has an MFA in Writing from the University of Pittsburgh.