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Creativity, George Saunders-style

Creativity, George Saunders-style

Before he became a novelist, George Saunders was a technical writer dressed in “sad khakis” at Radian Corporation. His job was to write environmental impact statements – nothing creative there you might think. In fact the job didn't stifle his creativity but enhanced it: he wrote his first book of short stories, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, during moments stolen from work. Saunders is not alone it appears. A recent paper in the journal American Behavioral Scientist explained how a group of researchers looked at the responses given by 13,000 art school graduates to a survey set by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. While many had ended up with jobs in the arts, 39 per cent hadn't. Unsurprisingly, 87 per cent of the arts workers thought they were creative at work but then again so did 60 per cent of those who had ended up in non-arts fields. So it is not an arty job that allows you to be creative, but your own attitude in whichever field you end up in. Just ask George Saunders.

The “bardo” in Saunders's Man Booker-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo is a Buddhist concept denoting purgatory, a sort of waiting room for the souls of the recently deceased. The author himself is now a practising Buddhist but thinks perhaps he has always been one: “I think I was a Buddhist before I ever knew what that was,” he said recently, “just through my writing practice, which involves writing something, then trying to come back to it in a state of freshness – not clinging to what I thought was good about it yesterday, willing to experience its actual energy on the day of reading and then correct accordingly.”

A fascinating bit of news emerged this week which may help to explain why Indian novelists have been so successful in the history of the Man Booker Prize: Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala are all former winners. According to the NOP World Culture Score Index, Indians are the most voracious readers in the world, with an average of 10.4 hours spent book in hand each week. Compare that to Britain at 26th on the list with 5.18 hours a week or the USA at number 23 with 5.42 hours a week. It is worth noting too that literacy in India stands at around 74 per cent, so the country's readers are having to make up for the non-reading quarter of the population. Indeed in the West, where literacy is higher, the top-ranked reading nation, at 6th on the list, is the Czech Republic at 7.24 hours a week, then come Sweden and France, both at 6.54 hours a week. Many publishers, always so keen to expand their markets, have been flicking their eyes towards India for some time but perhaps they should now be fixing that gaze on the rest of the East.

One of those Indian Man Booker authors, Arundhati Roy, has made the unusual decision of saying that her 2017 longlisted novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, will never be made into a movie. Most authors are only too happy to sell the film rights to their books but Ms Roy has always done things her own way. “It is not a novel that wants to be an essay, it is not a novel that wants to be a film. All it wants to be is a novel,” she said. “I wanted to write something about the air we breathe and the air we breathe has caste, gender, Kashmir, love, animal and cities and everything.” So, on the page it will stay.

More evidence of the Man Booker Effect: Graeme Macrae Burnet, shortlisted last year for His Bloody Project, has a new novel out shortly, The Accident on the A35. But he's not quite sure how he managed to write it. Since his Man Booker shortlisting he's been on what amounts to a world tour, Australia, Russia, New Zealand included. “It's not even a burst,” he said recently. “I am waiting for it to end, and it hasn't ... And the attention from foreign publishers is one of the biggest things, and that is one of the biggest legacies. It goes on. I have got 20 events between now and the end of November.” No rest for the talented.