Barrett Hathcock at The Quarterly Conversation:
Novels by short story writers (let’s pretend for a moment that these categories aren’t porous) often feel too long, yet not long enough. One type is like John Cheever’s TheWapshot Chronicle, a collection of linked narratives that aren’t independent enough to be stories yet not connected enough to accumulate into a cohesive narrative. It feels like a bag of marbles rather than a marble sculpture. The other type of story-writer novel is the overbuilt birdhouse: a structure with an extreme amount of planning in which not much actually happens.
Which brings us to George Saunders, arguably the preeminent American story writer of our day. This post of pre-eminent, living story writer is like the Presidency. Only one person can occupy it at a time, and sadly that person is usually male. The requirements of this office are not just writing good stories. And make no mistake, Saunders writes excellent stories. This person must be iconoclastic. He must have imitators, and boy, does Saunders have imitators. This is not his fault. He is very successful at his own shtick, but that shtick contains enough easily identifiable characteristics that younger writers—willingly or not—can imitate him. It’s to Saunders’s credit that vast swaths of contemporary American writing look like Saunders’s discards. Many writers have made entire careers out of being Diet Saunders. I’m not going to name names. Just throw in an absurd premise set slightly in the future, a premise that seems to comment somewhat ironically on our late-capitalistic quagmire, throw in some lightly magical phenomena that function as heavy-handed metaphors, and maybe a pinch of moral allegory, all wrapped up in a heart-on-sleeve-be-kind-rewind sincerity, and you’ve got yourself a sub-Saunders story. And I say all this as someone who finds Saunders’s aesthetic terribly alluring, as someone who has written these stories myself.