Next step of my George Saunders’ research: ALA Conference 2023

I will be presenting my research on masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction this May at the 34th American Literature Association 2023 conference in Boston, U.S.A.

ALA 2023 at the Westin Copley Place in Boston

I’m sure this trip will prove to be a key step in the early stages of my Saunders’ project.

I will be presenting my paper “‘This is how I feel’: Shame and Masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction”. This paper will be based upon the research that I am doing at the moment, so it will most likely offer a brief critical overview of the current state of scholarly research on shame and masculinity, research that I conducted recently at the British Library in London; before moving on to some textual probing of Saunders’ texts to argue for the central role of shame in Saunders’ narratives of masculinity. I may well focus mostly on Saunders’ early fiction; but we will see how it pans out. I am working on this alongside another article on guilt, ghosts, and masculinity that I have written about here. So maybe, looking into the future, if I do focus on early Saunders’ fiction, these two articles could come together to be a first chapter of the Saunders masculinity monograph… We’ll see.

But shame itself is a highly charged topic – both in terms of its contemporary relevance but also in terms of its inherently gendered nature. Shame has been gendered as feminine by society, history, and literature.

There are many engaging books on shame out there. A good way in might be Peter N. Stearns Shame: A Brief History (2017). But if you really want to dig into shame, then it’s probably best to start with Helen Block Lewis’ Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971), working your way through Michael Lewis, Elspeth Probyn, Sara Ahmed (as well as Sartre, Agamben, and other philosophers philosophising), and then coming to Kaye Mitchell’s more recent Writing Shame: Gender, Contemporary Literature and Negative Affect (2020).

I’m pretty confident that shame (and guilt) will prove to be major pillars of Saunders’ writings on masculinity. It makes sense, right? Especially with Saunders’ empathetic narratives of those men who try their best while the workings of society force them to face the realities of their actions, their decisions, and their fate.

I am very proud to be presenting as part of the George Saunders’ society and the two panels have been set up seemingly effortlessly by Brian Jansen. I am looking forward to meeting the other Saunders presenters and maybe looking to future collaborations.

I’ll report back in upcoming posts on the progress of the paper and the Saunders’ project more broadly. Writing is all about momentum, so let’s keep it moving. We’ll worry about the direction it’s moving in later!

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.