Novelist, short-story writer and essayist George Saunders was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction Saturday evening in one of the final sessions of the 2023 National Book Festival, conferring a lifetime honor on a versatile writer whose most famous book cast one of Washington’s most famous residents in a surreal light.
“This year’s winner is George Saunders, and you might as well clap right now,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden told the enthusiastic crowd before giving the winner’s impressive resume.
Saunders, the author of 12 books and a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for “Lincoln in the Bardo,” a fantastical take on actual visits by the 16th president to a Georgetown cemetery where the body of his dead son was held in a crypt during the Civil War. Saunders, 64, has also been awarded the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story and received fellowships from the MacArthur and Guggenheim foundations.
Saunders cheerfully posed for pictures with Hayden before pretending to drop the crystal trophy, drawing a laugh from the audience in the convention center’s mammoth Ballroom A. In the subsequent conversation with Clay Smith, the festival’s literary director, Saunders discussed his career of writing short stories, nonfiction, essays and his stunning novel about Lincoln’s visit to Oak Hill Cemetery one night to visit the corpse of child Willie, who died in 1862 at the age of 11 of typhoid fever. More than 160 ghosts comment, narrate, argue and debate his presence in a cacophony of voices.
Saunders said he first heard the story about the grieving Lincoln during a visit to Washington in the 1990s but thought the material wasn’t in his wheelhouse. Two decades later, a more intimate tour of the cemetery spurred him to take on the challenge of writing about one of the most well-known, well-loved and mythologized of American presidents. “I just stood there (in front of the mausoleum) for a couple of minutes and something said to me, ‘If you can’t write this, and you don’t try it, then you have to stop saying you’re a writer.’ It’s such a beautiful, profound story, and if your excuse is, ‘I don’t have the depth to do it,’ just quit.”
It was hardly an easy process; he was bedeviled by self-doubts about taking on such a different, emotionally laden project: “Every day, it was, ‘Is it cheesy yet?’ ”
Polished on stage, comfortable in jeans, shirt, loose tie and a blue sport coat, Saunders was eloquent on the importance of writing and reading fiction. It can be both a balm and a gentle nudge toward acceptance and love during difficult times, he said, as we live in a world that is often beyond our intellectual and emotional grasp.
“I feel like we went off base a bit when we started treating literary fiction as a kind of an interesting side gig, you know, something that some English nerds do,” he said. And, a moment later: “Fiction does something just to remind us in the tiniest way that the real big truths of the world evade us mostly, except maybe in moments of love, tragedy, crisis,” he said. “Fiction can be a way of, sort of, in the safety of our own home, re-creating such moments, so that we remember that we have a greater ability to empathize with other people, even our enemies, than we thought we did.”
The Library’s Prize for American Fiction, begun under a slightly different name in 2008, seeks to recognize writers whose works convey something essential about the American experience with a unique style and heft. Previous winners include Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich, Isabel Allende, Don DeLillo and E.L. Doctorow. Last year’s winner was Jesmyn Ward.
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