21st Century Literature discussion

52 views
2014 Book Discussions > Tenth of December - Overall (May 2014)

Comments Showing 1-39 of 39 (39 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce This is the place to comment about the book as a whole. Also, post here any links to relevant resources.

How did you find the book as a whole? It has received some extremely rave reviews from some very reputable literary sources, as well as winning two major awards. How did you find it? What did you think were the themes? What do you think the stories had in common?


message 2: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce Time to fess up: I didn't get a lot from this book. I'm quite interested in looking at that fact [my reaction] in an academic way, almost as a starting point for a discussion on subjectivity.

Because: lots of people love the book. Not just like it, adore it. Plenty of authors I love love it. The discussions so far this month seem to indicate a high degree if engagement and resonance.

For me, it had its moments. There is a great mind and creativity at work here, clearly. But his style just grated on me in almost every story. The themes and exploration reminded me often of AM Homes, but the prose seemed far less... elegant. I didn't enjoy the text, the words themselves, they seemed like a barrier to what was in the stories, rather than an enabler.

Now, I speak as someone who used to dislike [to pick just a few]: olives, folk music, red wine, Joy Division and coffee. All of which are in fact amazing. So I realise the issue may be with the subject rather than the object.

Hence the post/discussion... wondering. Why do I find it so indifferent, when everyone else loves it?


message 3: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Feldman (stephaniefeldman) | 4 comments I love George Saunders, for the same reason you don't: his voice. I think voice/language is one thing you can't really argue about. You can analyze plot, character, etc but voice is often that it-factor that either clicks or fails. I often pick up books, read a paragraph or two, and put them down--the writing's just not going to work for me.

(Personally, I think he's very funny, and I appreciate the tension between exposing the characters' faults and acknowledging their humanity.)

I do get very frustrated when I don't like a celebrated book. What am I missing? Sometimes it just comes down to taste. (Sometimes I'm sure everyone else is wrong. :) )


message 4: by Lily (last edited May 13, 2014 07:53AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments I'm curious. I don't think I know how to put words to the concept of "voice" as being used here. Would either of you comment/define?

"VOICE: Distinct from the terms PERSONA, NARRATOR and TONE, voice is associated with the basic vision of a writer, her general attitude toward the world. The poet Sylvia Plath's voice, for example, might be called that of a victimized daughter, wife, and mother."

http://rwc.hunter.cuny.edu/reading-wr...


message 5: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Feldman (stephaniefeldman) | 4 comments "Voice" is such an over-used term--I cringed a little bit even as I typed it. I mean the prose: word choice, rhythm, style. It's very much a matter of taste. The other part to it is how the prose carries the story. Sometimes a sentence is lovely but feels a little hollow, or works at cross purposes to the story--like Terry said about the language obscuring the story, rather than adding meaning to it. That's how I think about it, anyway.


message 6: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce So things happen [plot], people have characteristics [character], but these can almost be seen as a 'reality' that is viewed through the 'lens' of the voice, the style the author uses. Imagine you have the same scene, the same events, the same key points of character to be gotten across. How would five different authors voice it? How would Eugenides, Wallace, Bukowski, Saunders, Hesse each describe and bring out essentially the same thing? [of course, one author can have more than one voice, but there's often a commonality between his/her voices]


message 7: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce That definition you found is odd, to me. That's not what I call voice.


message 8: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2065 comments Mod
I had the same thoughts as Stephanie. A writer with a very distinctive voice is bound to appeal strongly to some and be a complete turn-off to others.

As far as definition, a short answer is that it's the writing style, and how that style conveys the writer's (or character's) outlook and the themes of the story. I'd describe Saunder's as a near stream-of-concsiouness voice of those many would consider sad-sacks or outright losers.


message 9: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Terry wrote: "That definition you found is odd, to me. That's not what I call voice."

I didn't know -- but decided to include a straw man. Hunter College seemed a reasonable source. More distinguishing from other attributes than some others considered -- and didn't dig hard. What you described could sort of fit, when push comes to shove?


message 10: by Ben (new)

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments I have yet to start with Tenth of December - I have the ebook all lined up to read on my kindle but have been reading different short stories thus far, I will certainly get to one or two before the end of the month though.

I did read Saunder's Brief and Wonderous Reign of Phil which i did not particularly care for which has been part of my reticence.

For those who have read it they may be interested in Michael Silverblatt's Bookworm interview with the author about the book here http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw/b...
I have not listened to it yet as I want to try a couple of the stories first but some readers may want to check it out. I usually enjoy Silverblatt's discussion and analysis as well as his way of interviewing authors.


message 11: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2065 comments Mod
Speaking of voice, if anyone hasn't heard Saunders reading his own stories I HIGHLY recommend it. He's an amazing reader, and it helps you follow his particular tempo.


message 12: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments I saw Terry's lead off comment, and I realized my reaction was somewhat the same. I found the stories engaging. Tempo and dialogue seemed to move just fine. I think I get tired of the voice and some of the plainness of the humor. All of his characters have a charming type of uneducated, unsophisticated understanding of life, and the prose is what you might call 21st Century American 7th Grade style. I think it takes a lot of talent to write that kind of prose, and especially as engaging as Saunders is, but I get tired of the stupidity. I read the book several months ago, and all I knew is that there wasn't much to discuss about these pieces...

To Terry's question, if these exact stories were written by a DFW, the voice and style would be completely different, almost polar opposite.


message 13: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce I'm sure it is a reasonable source, Lily. It's just not a way I've heard it put before personally, but my base of experience is mainly amateur writer's discussions. I've never studied literature formally.


message 14: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce I guess I agree that the more distinct the voice, the more 'Marmite' [love/hate] the effect. I know people who were pretty 'meh' about the distinctive voice in The Virgin Suicides, which I could've read for volumes.


message 15: by Lily (last edited May 13, 2014 02:33PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Terry wrote: "...I've never studied literature formally...."

Nor I. (Well, audited one class on postmodern lit after I retired, but I don't think that really counts.)

Google did provide lots of options, most of which I didn't pursue nor try to derive commonality.


message 16: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments For reference, from Wiki, when these stories were first published:


"Victory Lap" (The New Yorker, 2009)
"Sticks" (Harper's, 1995)
"Puppy" (The New Yorker, 2007)
"Escape from Spiderhead" (The New Yorker, 2010)
"Exhortation" (part of "Four Institutional Monologues" from McSweeney's #4, 2000)
"Al Roosten" (The New Yorker, 2009)
"The Semplica Girl Diaries" (The New Yorker, 2012)
"Home" (The New Yorker, 2011)
"My Chivalric Fiasco" (Harper's, 2011)
"Tenth of December" (The New Yorker, 2011)


message 17: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Another interview with George Saunders:

http://www.salon.com/2014/01/04/georg...


message 18: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments By the way, I don't know about the definition about voice, but that is one of the most insulting things I've seen written about Plath. That is written by somebody who may know one of her poems and has no clue what it meant.


message 19: by Steve (new)

Steve | 20 comments Carl wrote: "I saw Terry's lead off comment, and I realized my reaction was somewhat the same. I found the stories engaging. Tempo and dialogue seemed to move just fine. I think I get tired of the voice and som..."

With regard to DFW, check out Oblivion. I think it would make for an interesting compare/contrast. Among other things, both collections make interesting use of point of view.


message 20: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments Yes, Steve - I loved Oblivion!


message 21: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Feldman (stephaniefeldman) | 4 comments I agree that the definition/Sylvia Plath example is reductive, but there's something to recognizing point of view as part of voice. Sometimes the distinctive perspective is sociological. I don't think it takes away from an author's artistic achievement to recognize the social or political knowledge they bring to their work.


message 22: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments I really had to work at reading these stories the first time through, when I read this because it was on the long list for the National Book Award for fiction in 2013. I found the "voice" of it and The Good Lord Bird by James McBride to be the most difficult for me to appreciate. On the second read for this discussion, I found some of the stories easier and therefore more enjoyable. I now have some I definitely like and others that I definitely do not.

Carl, I'd be interested in hearing more about why the voice would be called "21st Century American 7th Grade style." I don't have much interaction with middle school kids these days and this doesn't sound like any of the 7th graders I spent a lot of time around 8-10 years ago.

Another book that was beloved by many that I found difficult because of the voice was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, especially the part I had to read outloud to understand at all!


message 23: by Whitney (last edited May 19, 2014 11:29PM) (new)

Whitney | 2065 comments Mod
Linda wrote: "Another book that was beloved by many that I found difficult because of the voice was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, especially the part I had to read outloud to understand at all!..."

Did you think it was worth the work? If so, I highly recommend reading Riddley Walker, which was the inspiration for the middle section of Cloud Atlas, (the post-apocalyptic section with all the slang, which is what I assume you're referring to). Riddley Walker is one of my favorite books, and coming across the homage to it in Cloud Atlas made me all tingly with happiness.


message 24: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2298 comments Whitney wrote: "I highly recommend reading Riddley Walker, which was the inspiration for the middle section of Cloud Atlas, (the post-apocalyptic section with all the slang, which is what I assume you're referring to). Riddley Walker is one of my favorite books, and coming across the homage to it in Cloud Atlas made me all tingly with happiness."

Yes that is the section I had to read outloud to understand. I liked that section much better than the first section so I'll see if I can locate a copy of Riddley Walker and give it a shot! Thanks.


message 25: by Shelia (last edited May 23, 2014 03:24PM) (new)

Shelia Rudesill (sheliaboltrudesill) Most of the stories rang of suffering, grief, cruelty, and a lack of morality. Tenth of December, as a whole, is a torturous read.

Victory Lap was brilliant but the luster deteriorated quickly story after story until the last one, Tenth of December, grabbed my attention and redeemed my review from a one star to a three.

I watched the interview of George Saunders by Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm. If Saunders wants to raise the consciousness of the reader in relationship to people in need he needs to end his stories with a ray of hope instead of the cliché: People suffer.

I was surprised at the lack of proper grammar and punctuation. Maybe Saunders thinks this is his “voice” yet most writers are held to a higher standard. Why have grammar rules if avant-garde writers ignore them in order to have a “new” or “fresh” voice? Then academia applauds them? Most of his writing is a joke just like Jackson Pollack’s “drip” technique. Let’s just not study and spend thousands of dollars learning proper techniques if we can just write or paint without a solid foundation.

This book has many different genres. If Saunders wrote a novel, which he said he hoped to do in the interview with Silverblatt, I doubt that his attention span could keep him in a single POV or single genre for the minimum 70,000 words.


message 26: by Lily (last edited May 23, 2014 02:52PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Shelia wrote: "Most of the stories rang of suffering, grief, cruelty, and a lack of morality. Tenth of December, as a whole, is a torturous read..."

Shelia -- You are harsh on a fellow writer?

I can't share the assessment of "lack of morality." More a tough, avant-garde, even perhaps post-modern look at morality?

I presume you have read his famous commencement address as well? If not, I do suggest searching it out. Although I am no particular fan of Tenth of December, that address alone positioned me for a more open and sympathetic reading of Saunders.

It is here: http://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/201...

I am no art critic, but I don't react that it is a particularly accurate analogy to parallel Jackson Pollack "drip" techniques as a "joke," despite as diverse as reactions to modern art remain.


message 27: by Shelia (new)

Shelia Rudesill (sheliaboltrudesill) Jackson Pollack dribbled his paints on canvases on the floor because he was too drunk to paint standing up, (This is a fact). He laughed at himself because he knew he wasn't doing art...he was dribbling. But some very wealthy and influential people, Peggy Guggenheim, being one of them thought it was art and it began selling.

My review is what I think. Most of the stories in this book did not seem sympathetic to me. At least I gave him 3 stars unlike the over 200 one and two stars on Amazon.


message 28: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce I've not heard that from anywhere else about Pollack. I'd be interested in a link.

I think in both cases we need to be careful about projecting our lack of connection with the work onto the writer and their ability and intentions. Taste is by definition subjective. Neither lack of grammar and punctuation, nor selection of a theme such as 'people suffer' (even if that is his theme, and I feel it's more complex than that) are universal factors.

I think that absolutely, we should each have our own opinion, and personally I didn't like the book that much at all (I gave it two stars). But I would stop very far short indeed of labeling it a 'joke'.

I don't connect with it. It is not my kind of art, particularly. But I choose to talk more about my response to it than to ascribe suppositions to the author and the work themselves. I am very wary indeed of assuming that 'the emperor has no clothes' just because I don't see them, or that there is some objective lack of merit in something I myself don't rate highly.


message 29: by Lily (last edited May 24, 2014 06:56AM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Shelia wrote: "Why have grammar rules if avant-garde writers ignore them in order to have a “new” or “fresh” voice? ..."

;-) Good uptake!


message 30: by Shelia (new)

Shelia Rudesill (sheliaboltrudesill) Terry wrote: "I've not heard that from anywhere else about Pollack. I'd be interested in a link.


I’m sorry. I thought a review was an opinion and not a critical argument. Please understand that I’m here to learn, expand my mind, and read books that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Maybe stating that some of Saunder's work is a joke was inappropriate. Perhaps misrepresented would be a better choice. Misrepresented as in appearing to be legitimate art or writing. Oh, gosh! I'm getting in deeper. So here's my story:

My husband is an artist and heard what I’ve stated about Jackson Pollock from Nathanial Kaz while Kaz lived in NC in his later years. Kaz (1917-2010) taught at the Art Students League in NYC for more than 50 years. While there teaching, Jackson Pollock was studying under Thomas Hart Benton (who taught there from 1926-1935). So, what I stated is not a fact but stated by a reliable source…so believe it or not. Pollock seems to have been an alcoholic most of his life and was driving drunk when he was killed in a single car accident when he was just 44.

I’m including these links to show how Kaz knew Pollock. Unfortunately there's no link to how my husband knew Kaz.... You'll have to take that one on faith.

Nathanial Kaz: 1917 – 2010 http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nyti... In addition to his prolific career as a sculptor, he was an instructor at the Art Students League in NYC for more than 50 years. (The school where Jackson Pollock studied under Thomas Hart Benton.)

Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956) http://www.biography.com/people/jacks... "As his fame grew, some critics began calling Pollock a fraud."

Pollock studied with Thomas Hart Bentonin (1889-1975) at the Art Students League of New York (the same school where Kaz taught). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_H...



message 31: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2065 comments Mod
Sheila, a review is an opinion, but a statement made in a discussion group is for the purpose of, well, discussion. We're all of us pretty opinionated, but hopefully open to hearing other opinions and maybe reconsidering our own. A statement such as a writer or artist being a joke is more likely to incite angry dissent rather than considered opposition.

We expect and encourage respectful disagreement, but we're here to discuss, not browbeat others with our opinion. And the limitations of the medium mean that sometimes we need to walk a little lighter since subtleties of intent are usually lost. I speak as someone who has done my share of accidentally igniting angry responses to what I thought were fairly inoffensive statements of opinion.


message 32: by Lily (last edited May 24, 2014 08:37PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2464 comments Shelia wrote: "Jackson Pollock: 1912-1956) http://www.biography.com/people/jacks... "As his fame grew, some critics began calling Pollock a fraud."..."

As is happening to George Saunders?

Yet, for a book of such fame as Tenth of December, I was surprised by the small number of Amazon reviews (751 as of tonight).

Longer excerpt of Pollock bio: (view spoiler)


message 33: by Shelia (new)

Shelia Rudesill (sheliaboltrudesill) Whitney wrote: "Sheila, a review is an opinion, but a statement made in a discussion group is for the purpose of, well, discussion. We're all of us pretty opinionated, but hopefully open to hearing other opinions ..."

Guess I just joined the club! Or maybe I just got initiated.


message 34: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce Yes. For me there is a big difference between giving our own opinion of the work [which everyone should feel free to do, no matter how negative], and ascribing motivations to the artist that go beyond what we can say.

I think when we question the entire legitimacy of something as art, when we call it a joke and say that the intention in creation was purely manipulative, we imply that all who do connect with it have been 'taken in', and are therefore [more or less] stupid. It is a line of argument that I have a very hard time with because for me it comes across as going beyond exchanging opinions, to prioritising one opinion above others, to claiming some kind of stronger tie with objective reality than opposing opinions.

This may not always be the intent but I believe it is how it comes across to many. I feel we are on much stronger [and more congenial] ground if we accentuate the 'I' in our opinion and are extremely careful in questioning legitimacy.

I actually sort of see both Pollock and Saunders in a similar light to you, Shelia. Pollock leaves me cold and I gave Tenth of December two stars. But there's nothing in your links that backs that up as objective reality on Pollock [drunk, yes, self-doubting, yes; cynical, not proven at all for me]. And there's nothing I've read in Saunders that would make me say that he is not a legitimate artist. I don't see many clothes on him, but there's a big jump from that to saying he is wearing no clothes.


message 35: by Shelia (new)

Shelia Rudesill (sheliaboltrudesill) Terry wrote: "Yes. For me there is a big difference between giving our own opinion of the work [which everyone should feel free to do, no matter how negative], and ascribing motivations to the artist that go bey..."

I see your point and agree. I simply believe that "some" of Saunders writing seems less than the highly proclaimed, award winning, artistic work of our time. The last story, Tenth of December, showed uplifting moral values and it's a story I can't get out of my head, hence I upped my "stars" from one to two to three by the time I got to the end of the book.

It's difficult for me to look at Saunders style and realize that many people applaud it as art. To me, it's too dark and too oppressive with little overcoming of hardships. And that for me means no clothes. However there are people, probably more gifted than I, who can still see the art through the darkness it exhibits.


message 36: by Jan (new)

Jan Notzon | 100 comments Whitney wrote: "Sheila, a review is an opinion, but a statement made in a discussion group is for the purpose of, well, discussion. We're all of us pretty opinionated, but hopefully open to hearing other opinions ..."

Well put, Whitney. I've had the same experience myself with provoking anger when offering an opinion. I myself was not offended by the remark, but I take your point about encouraging discussion.


message 37: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments For me, sometimes, I like to exaggerate my opinion quite a bit so people know my opinion even though I could be easily convinced of being wrong on most things, especially things I don't like.

I can't figure out the Saunders roar, though I thought it was a good book. I was tweeting Mary Karr about it, she being one of my favorites and a big Saunders fan, and she said he's comparable to Gogol, Babel, but she likes the heart and compassion. I think his big fans like all those things and are not deterred by any shortcomings in the prose.


message 38: by Whitney (new)

Whitney | 2065 comments Mod
Carl wrote: "but she likes the heart and compassion. I think his big fans like all those things and are not deterred by any shortcomings in the prose..."

Oh God no, at least not me. I love Saunder's heart and compassion, but it's the frequently pitch-perfect prose in the service of that heart and compassion that makes me a fan. When it comes to fiction, I'll overlook shortcomings in humanity before I'll overlook shortcomings in prose. Give me a fascist, misanthropic writer with compelling prose such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline over any writer with a 'nice' message and a sloppy, or even just workaday, style.


message 39: by Terry (new)

Terry Pearce Ha. Completely with you on prose, Whitney. Which is what I don't enjoy about Saunders. Not that I think his is sloppy. Just not at all my thing.


back to top