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George Saunders book is floor wax

George Saunders book is floor wax

George Saunders, one of this year’s Man Booker shortlistees, was recently asked whether his nominated book, Lincoln in the Bardo, falls under the historical fiction or the speculative fiction category. ‘I think it’s like that old Saturday Night Live sketch,’ he answered, ‘where the man settles an argument by saying “Hold it you two, it’s a dessert topping AND a floor wax.’” He went on to explain that he’s ‘comfortable’ with his novel being ‘cross-genre’. “When I’m writing something like this, my only goal is to move you, that’s really it. I want you to read it as something that actually happened and be emotionally invested in it. That’s my only goal.’ The accuracy of Saunders’ history – in this case the grief of Abraham Lincoln at the death of his son – is not paramount it seems: ‘When I think that way about “what was Lincoln thinking that night?” I don’t actually care that much.’ Hardly reassuring for the reader, you might think. But in fact, it is the reader rather than the history that matters most; what he cares about ‘is making the reader feel like it’s happening right in front of her face’.

Invention rather than verisimilitude is also important to another of the shortlistees, Emily Fridlund. Her novel, History of Wolves, is set in a deserted commune in the wilds of Minnesota. Fridlund herself lives in New York state, and travelled to northern Minnesota for research, but, she says, ‘it was also important to me that it was invented – a place that was sort of a combination of memories and research, but also invention’. It is that invention that gives her novel its sense of strangeness. Not everything in Fridlund’s life exists in the realm of the imagination however. When her editor called her to let her know she had made the Man Booker longlist she was in labour. Her son, post-shortlisting, is now two months old and will be accompanying his parents to London in October for the various Man Booker events: ‘I just got used to going to the coffee shop [after the baby’s birth] and now I'll be travelling to London.’ What she’ll do with young Eliot – a very literary name – come the award dinner on 17th October she has yet to work out. That’s a problem that might need all her powers of invention.

Howard Jacobson, Man Booker winner in 2010, recently found himself cast into a reverie by the death of Bruce Forsyth. This unlikely scenario came about when considering whether Forsyth, underneath all the razzamatazz, had been essentially a shy person. Jacobson himself, one of the most accomplished and assured public speakers going, outed himself as ‘a shy boy myself’ and being one he ‘followed the trajectories of other shy people with intense interest. If they could break out and make something of their lives, then maybe I could, too.’ It has clearly worked to some degree but the lesson Jacobson has learned is that ‘the shy remain forever shy, but somehow incorporate their diffidence into their performance; employ it as a source of energy; maybe coax that mysterious quality we call charisma out of it. To be creative is to keep one’s contradictions in harness. And aren’t the most-loved performers those who let their weakness show beneath their strength?’

The observation by Colin Thubron, one of this year’s Man Booker judges, that many jacket-blurbs need the censor’s red pencil has stirred a groundswell of support. The novelist Nathan Filer is someone who has also addressed the issue. He receives innumerable proof copies from various publishers, all hoping for some well-crafted words from him to grace the cover: ‘With each book I receive in the post, comes a letter from its publisher’ said Filer. ‘They all follow the same basic template: a few pleasantries followed by three or four paragraphs explaining how the book you are holding is the most incredible, astounding, breathtaking work of literature to ever exist.’ In the eyes of the publishers, the books might indeed seem incredible, astounding etc but the publishers’ real hope, Filer said, ‘is that two or three recognisable names will agree with the hyperbole and quote it back to the publisher’. What Filer didn’t say, however, is whether he ever capitulates and gives the publishers the encomia they desire.