Category Archives: Student Expert Posts

Background on George Saunders

George Saunders is a bestselling American author, whose fiction often focuses on the absurdity of consumerism and corporate culture. Though his writing is laced with “tragicomic” elements, critics cannot ignore the moral questions that arise in his works. Saunders is often compared to American author Kurt Vonnegut, who in fact served as an inspiration for Saunders, with his blend of satire, gallows humor, and science fiction.

George Saunders was born on December 2, 1958 in Amarillo, Texas but grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He graduated from Oak Forest High School and went on to receive a B.S. in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado in 1981. In 1988, he obtained an M.A. in creative writing from Syracuse University. Saunders’s scientific background has played an important role in his writing. From 1989 to 1996, he worked as a technical writer and geophysical engineer for Radian International, a New York based environmental engineering firm. After working with an oil exploration crew in Western Indonesia, he joined the faculty of Syracuse University in 1997 and has been there since. Saunders teaches creative writing for Syracuse’s MFA Program while still publishing his own fiction and nonfiction works. In 2006, Saunders was awarded a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship later that year. His nonfiction collection, The Braindead Megaphone, published in 2007, was featured on The Colbert Report and the Late Show with David Letterman.

Saunders won the National Magazine Award for fiction in 1994, 1996, 2000, and 2004, and in 1997, he won second prize in the O. Henry Awards. In an interview for The New Yorker, Saunders said of himself, “I’m a teacher at Syracuse and I write short stories. That’s about it.” Some of his short story collections include: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, In Persuasion Nation, and Tenth of December. Published in 2013, Tenth of December contains ten short stories that appeared in various magazines between 1995 and 2009. One of the stories, “Home,” was a 2011 Bram Stoker Award finalist. The collection won the 2013 Story Prize for short story collections. The book also contains the story, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” the idea for which came to Saunders in a dream.  In the dream, Saunders went to his bedroom window and looked down into his backyard. What he saw gave him “an incredible feeling of happiness,” though the image was that of the Semplica Girls hanging from their microline. Saunders wrote the story as a way to explore why he was so delighted at the sight of human lawn ornaments. He wanted to describe a world in which such a feeling was reasonable and even justified.

Saunders says that “the thing I get really excited about is dramatization.” As crazy and unrealistic as “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” seems, Saunders remained true to the original conception of the story from his dream. The futuristic aspects of the story serve to emphasize a world that is not our own, but, when considering the familiar allusions in the story as well, it is a world that may one day become a reality if humans remain concerned with materialism and competing with one another in matters of possession.

Introduction to Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz was born in 1968 in a poor section of the city of Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, and moved to New Jersey at age seven. He attended Kean College in Union before transferring to Rutgers University. Rutgers’ offerings in Latino and African-American history and literature opened new possibilities for creativity and political awareness, and Diaz came “to see himself as a Dominican, an American, and a writer.” After his graduation from Rutgers, Diaz enrolled in the graduate writing program at Cornell University, from which he received a master’s degree in Fine Arts. In 1996 he published a collection of short stores, Drown, which has made him one of the most promising members of contemporary authors.

His experiences as an immigrant serve as a vantage point for his own work, in which he powerfully explores the challenges and rich duality of the immigrant experience.  The young people in his New Jersey stories speak Spanglish, and still incorporate their Caribbean culture into their American lives. Yet Diaz’s narrative space, however, is not one dominated by nostalgic idealization. The narration of the characters struggle of asserting cultural identity is set against the gritty backdrop of petty humiliations and everyday deprivations of inner-city life.

Diaz garnered inspiration for his stories from his own troubled family life. His father left his mother for another woman when Diaz was an adolescent, and his mother could find only substandard employment afterwards due to her poor English. Thus at an early age, Diaz learned to escape his unpromising circumstances through writing. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker magazine, which listed him as one of the 20 top writers for the 21st century. He is best known for his two major works: the short story collection Drown (1996) and the novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Although reviews were generally strong for Drown upon its publication, the arrival of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2007 (which won the 2008 Pulitzer prize) prompted a noticeable re-appraisal of Drown. Diaz himself has described his writing style as “…a disobedient child of New Jersey and the Dominican Republic if that can be possibly imagined with way too much education.” He is a MacArthur Fellow, and currently teaches creative writing at MIT.

Introduction to Thomas Pynchon

Born May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, New York of Long Island, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr. is an a contemporary American novelist and writer of short stories. He is sometimes considered a “high modernist” as opposed to a postmodernist, characterized by his unwavering confidence in science and technology as means to reorder the modern world, socially and naturally, during the Cold War era. Along with his emphasis on sociopolitical themes like racial discrimination and imperialism, Pynchon blurs the line between “high” and “low” culture, focusing on both the philosophies and theologies of the upper class and the cartoons, cookery, conspiracies, and pulp fiction of those less affluent.

Pynchon was named “student of the year” by his high school newspaper for his early use of oddball names, sophomoric or wise-fool humor, odes to illicit drug use, and paranoia throughout his early writings. He went on to study engineering physics at Cornell University before serving a term of two years in the Navy. However, upon returning to Cornell, he changed his degree to English and published his first story in the Cornell Writer drawing on a friend’s experience in the Army. Pynchon graduated in 1959 and from 1960 to 1962 was employed as a technical writer at Boeing in Seattle, where he compiled safety articles for a newsletter in support of the BOMARC surface-to-air missile deployed by the U.S. Air Force. This experience in technical journalism and his knowledge of physics later combined with his love for popular culture, obscure historical tales, and contemporary comic books and led to the mix of history, science, and mathematics that appears in his novels.

After resigning from Boeing, Pynchon spent time in both New York and Mexico, where he reportedly worked from the 1960s to the early 1970s in his Manhattan Beach apartment writing Gravity’s Rainbow, his most renowned novel. He won the National Book Award for Fiction for the book and a unanimous nomination for the Pulitzer Prize fiction award, but was turned down for being “unreadable and obscene.” Warner Berthoff claimed that Pynchon’s vast knowledge and encyclopedic effort was as “encyclopedically monotonous and static” with so many ideas presented at the same time in the same way or with “exactitude in imagination” (Norton 1483). However, the artistic value of Gravity’s Rainbow is often compared to that of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Despite the disagreement as to Pynchon’s, endurance as an American writer, his wit, daring, and exuberance were thought to exceed those of all his contemporaries. Pynchon flirted with the lifestyle and some of the habits of the Beat and Hippie countercultures rejecting traditional standards, but found later that beat culture “placed too much emphasis on youth, including the eternal variety” as he stated in his introduction to “Slow Learner.” While “Slow Learner” was published in 1984, many of the stories found within it were published sometime earlier, including “Entropy” of 1960, in which Pynchon’s inclinations towards freedom contrast with the institutions of technological society. “Entropy” introduces the concept with which Pynchon’s name has come to be associated as it is the law of nature in which everything slowly goes to disorder. As the world endures more irreversible processes of science, more free energy is lost. Thus, Pynchon compares this loss to the losses incurred through modernization and the increasing disorder of the society. “Entropy” preceded Pynchon’s first novel, V. of 1963, a book that is as hard to read as a labyrinth is to navigate. However, while a maze is complicated and irregular, requiring a choice between passages, a labyrinth has only a single path leading to the center. Similarly, each of the characters exuberant “individual paranoias,” in Pynchon’s stories, while absurd, return the reader right back to the central idea Pynchon is parodying, questioning and exploring. “In Pynchon’s world everything serious has its silly aspects, while bits of trivia and foolery are suddenly elevated, through the style, into objects of sublime contemplation…” (Norton 1483).

Pynchon received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988 and is frequently cited by Americans as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Influenced by such an eclectic group, it’s not worth naming any specific names that influenced Pynchon’s style that is wholly his own in the fiction of his time period. However, James Wood sometimes associates him with the genre of “hysterical realism” along with Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Salman Rushdie, writing the “big, ambitious novel” that “knows a thousand things but does not know a single human being” and attempt to tell us “how the world works rather than how somebody felt about something.”

It is true that little else is known about Pynchon’s private life other than his time at Cornell University. Very little photos of him are in circulation; he is often called a recluse by the media. An article published in the Soho Weekly News actually claimed that Pynchon was in fact J. D. Salinger, to which Pynchon’s written response was “Not bad. Keep trying.” It is said that he moved to California after living in New York and married his literary agent, Melanie Jackson, descendant of Theodore Roosevelt and granddaughter of a Supreme Court Justice, where he fathered his son, Jackson, in 1991. Pynchon’s remaining novels, the last one dating 2013, are almost as dense, complex, and esoteric as the first couple, despite reaching towards the more conventional subjects of family drama and crime. I’ll leave you with his identifying words: “every weirdo in the world is on my wavelength.”