George Saunders, Pop Culture Phenom, Comes to Chicago

sold out

I’ve liked George Saunders’ since I read his short story collection Pastoralia as a freshman in college. I’d never read anything like it. There was a historical re-enactment theme park, like a zoo where humans came to see other humans. There was a version of Hooters called “Joysticks” where men sold their bodies alongside hot dogs and chicken fingers. It felt like Kurt Vonnegut with more imagination, humor and consideration of America’s engorging low-wage service industry. Reading Tenth of December, his collection released in 2013, cemented my fanship.

The longer I live in the midwest, the more I appreciate his characters’ derpy voices, and I’m not the only one. There are a lot of men on dating apps in this city who message me saying they like George Saunders too. It’s a sidelong mention in my profile, not a terribly significant fondness, but it is the focus of a good one-fifth of the messages I receive.

The men who find me worthy of a swipe right joined me in hotly anticipating the Valentine’s Day release of George Saunders’ newest book, Lincoln in the Bardo. One of my favorite male novelists had written his first novel, and to top it all, he was coming to Chicago to read and sign books for a Chicago Humanities Festival Event. Most of the CHF events I attend feature historians or psychologists, sociologists or scientists. I attend them because I want to learn something new or I want to understand something more deeply. Seeing George Saunders felt more like going to see a comedian I’d always loved.

Walking to the Music Box on March 3, I thought a new Star Wars movie was coming out. The line for “George Saunders in Conversation with Peter Steeves” stretched two blocks south of the theater. Every seat of the 800-seat theater was sold out, and based on the people clamoring for tickets on the Facebook event page, the waiting list was nearly as long as the line outside. The girl sitting next to me was eating a big bag of popcorn. People drank tall boys. When did George Saunders become so popular?

He’s a New York Times bestselling author, his previous book was a National Book Award Finalist, nearly every story he’s written is an O’Henry winner, he’s a MacArthur Grant awardee — clearly, he’s renowned. Saunders belongs to a separate category of celebrity/pop culture figures. In addition to fiction writing, he writes popular award-winning essays on topical themes like this one about Trump supporters from last summer. He’s one of those famous commencement speakers, gives amazing interviews and is annoyingly quotable. He’s funny too. Here he is singing with Stephen Colbert. Most importantly, he’s self deprecating and he talks often about years when he found it difficult to write. The room perks up whenever he says he wrote a dreadful first novel.

Saunders’ Chicago Humanities Fest appearance began with a choral reading of a scene from Lincoln in the Bardo. Local actors read the parts of his characters and he read for Lincoln. During the course of this reading I decided I’d have to listen to the The Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook, which was recorded with a cast of 166 including a handful of celebrities. Peter Steeves, the director of the DePaul Humanities Center and a thoroughly interesting man in his own right, interviewed Saunders. Saunders talked about his fondness for A Christmas Carol and how they influenced the chorus of characters in Lincoln in the Bardo. He repeated the common Saundersisms about ruthless editing practices, radical empathy for characters and in life, and treating your reader as an intellectual equal.

Why do we love George Saunders so much? All of it. His books are heartbreaking, witty and imaginative. But instead of being intimidatingly brilliant, he’s a down-to-earth genius. And his publisher’s PR team is incredibly aware of this so whenever he produces a book he is EVERYWHERE for a couple months. We feel like we know him so well, like everyone has heard of him to the point where he’s an easy conversation starter on dating apps.

The Chicago Humanities Festival hosts its annual Springfest in the last week of April. View the impressive lineup of speakers here.

Emma Terhaar
Emma Terhaar