A new project? – Masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction

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One of the most enjoyed writers on the MA courses that I teach is George Saunders. And that is no surprise. As complex and clever (see: literary) that Saunders’ satirical stories might appear, I would argue that first and foremost to the reader they are accessible and, most importantly, affecting. This, of course, is part of Saunders’ “narrative empathy” that many scholars put forward as the defining feature of Saunders’ stylistics (see Kelly, Basseler, et al.)

Put simply, Saunders’ stories change you when you read them. You come to them as an interested reader, they take you in over the course of twenty or so pages, and they leave you a different person by the end.

And his stories are incredibly “contemporary” – in a number of ways – but certainly in terms of how they deal with a range of different contemporary issues: neoliberalism, technological advancement, healthcare, consumerism, obesity, the workplace, and many others.

There is one issue that is repeatedly overlooked however: masculinity.

And this is particularly striking when we take a moment to consider the extent to which Saunders employs first person male narrators, or how often his protagonists are men. And this is not intended as a criticism of Saunders; rather, very much in light of the project of the Critical Study of Men and Masculinities as a field of research, the aim is to argue that what I call as this “middle category” of masculinity – middle age, middle-class, middle-of-the-road men – should be identified and investigated in order to understand their place in the workings of society and the organisation of gender and masculinity.

And that’s what I am striving to resolve with this current project: masculinity in the fiction of George Saunders.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be dedicating the majority of my research time to Saunders. This includes two closely connected articles that I am working on at the moment and a conference speaking engagement at ALA 2023 in Boston. I will speak more about these in due course here on these pages.

This week in particular will be spent close reading key stories from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Saunders first collection of short stories. I’m struck by the fact that all but one of these stories is narrated by a male character, a trend that continues throughout Saunders’ fiction. Again, this is not a criticism; rather it should be regarded as an indicator of the necessity to finally approach Saunders’ superb stories as fields for further masculinity-aware investigation.

(If you are interested in reading more, then I recommend Hollie Adams’ article on masculinity and the American Dream in Saunders’ short fiction here.)

To finish, I’ll just say that for my own readings I am particularly interested in guilt and masculinity in Saunders’ works. And I think there is something there with how his male narrators reflect upon their guilt with the ghosts that appear before them. I think there is something in that.

I’m excited to spend time with Saunders this week and report back on these ghosts in upcoming posts.