Ezra Klein Interviews George Saunders: “The writer shares his observations on how social media has shaped the American psyche and how more compassion and affection could help.”

From a New York Times interview by Ezra Klein of George Saunders:

I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.” So this episode is going to come out on Election Day 2022. That’s a hard episode to program for. You don’t want to sit around speculating. You don’t want to go so far off topic because that’s where people’s minds are right now, or my mind is right now.

And so what do you do? Well, elections, they’re an expression of more than just a vote, right? There are national psyche at war with itself. There are divisions in our desires. And I think they’re particularly, the way we think about and talk about and understand each other. I mean, elections are stories coming into collision.

And so I had the thought to ask George Saunders back on the show. Saunders is one of the great storytellers of the time. He’s one of my favorite writers of short fiction, of essays. He wrote the beautiful novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which won the 2017 Booker Prize.

His work has always been very political, including his nonfiction. He has covered Trump rallies for The New Yorker. He did great work back in the day on homelessness, before the real turn to that in political media.

He wrote an essay in the early 2000s called “The Braindead Megaphone,” which we talk about a lot here that I think is still maybe the best thing for understanding how deranged our models of political communication are today. I had him on the podcast about a year and a half ago. We’ll link that episode in the show notes. That was a really beautiful conversation around the craft of storytelling and kindness and mindfulness and meditation and consciousness. It’s really one of my favorite episodes.

And he’s got a new collection of short stories out, “Liberation Day,” which are really interesting, chilling and more, I think, directly political, particularly when you put them all together, than a lot of his other collections are. In a way, I think of Saunders’s entire career as revolving around this question of whether the language we use and hear can increase the quotient of compassion and understanding we bring to the world — and whether that can, in turn, do a bit of good.

And so in this conversation, we spend some time just ambling around. I would actually say we’re trying to figure out what this conversation is. And then something emerged in it, some really beautiful, difficult ideas that I think are going to linger in my mind for quite some time.

EZRA KLEIN: Tell me about the story “Love Letter.” Who’s writing it? Who are they writing to? What is that construct?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Sure. It’s maybe set some number of years in the future — five, ten, we don’t know. And it’s a grandfather writing to his grandson. And you get the sense that a big political shift has happened. And now we’re living in autocracy.

And basically the grandfather very sweetly kind of a like nice grandpa is telling the story to the grandson of how things got to be this way, kind of apologetically. But his subtext is he wants this kid not to be political and to just sort of sit on his hands and enjoy life without engaging. And over the course of the story, we kind of find out that this grandson has possibly a lover who’s been imprisoned by this system.

So for me, at first, it was just an event, you know. It was before the election. And I just was kind of agitated and kind of boiling over with grief, really, that, you know, I thought, are we really going to give this system up as easily as we seem to be, you know?

And so I just were like, ah, I got to get this out of my system. So I just went to write kind of a screed, really. And then, screeds are OK. But I like to assign them to a character. So once I had said my piece. I gave it to this grandfather. And then you kind of just let it play out.

And what happened during writing that was interesting to me was that he makes a pretty good case in a time like that to just be quiet. But even as he’s making the case, he’s kind of talking himself out of it. So in my reading of it, by the end of the thing, he’s not quite sure. In fact, he’s offering his grandson money to do whatever he needs to do.

EZRA KLEIN: There’s a paragraph in that burrowed pretty deep for me and I’ve been reflecting on. I’d like to have you read it. It’s one beginning with, “What would you have had us do?”

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Sure. “What would you have had me do? What would you have done? I know what you will say. You would have fought. But how? How would you have fought? Would you have called your senator? In those days, you could still at least record your feeble message on a senator’s answering machine without reprisal. But you might as well have been singing or whistling or passing wind to it for all the good it did.

Well, we did that. We called. We wrote letters. Would you have given money to certain people running for office? We did that as well.

Would you have marched? For some reason, there were suddenly no marches. Organized a march? Then and now, I did not and do not know how to arrange a march.

I was still working full time. This dental thing had just begun. That rather occupies the mind. You know where we live. Would you have had me drive down to Watsonville and harangue the officials there? They were all in agreement with us at that time.

Would you have armed yourself? I would not and will not. And I do not believe you would either. I hope not. By that, all is lost.”

EZRA KLEIN: That paragraph opens a question that remains open in that piece and that honestly I think about a lot. And I want to say very clearly here I am not saying that America is about to tip into autocracy and people need to pick up weaponry. That’s really not what I’m saying.

But it does happen to systems. They do fall apart. History’s full of that. And I do wonder what you do in those moments. What is the answer to that for you?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, this is where I slip out of it by being a fiction writer, because Dylan said in “Chronicle,” he said, sometimes I write what I to be true. Sometimes I write what I know to be false. Sometimes I write, and I don’t know whether it’s true or false.

So one of the blessings of being a fiction writer, especially if you’re kind of a neurotic like I am, is you can just summon up a viewpoint like we just heard. And then you assign it. So is that true? In some absolute sense, I have no idea. It’s true for this guy.

And then hopefully the story, in some way, complicates or opposes it. So I think reading that, I agree with him, you know, that violence is never — is not the way. I also can understand that his grandson might feel that is sort of a concession. And as you point out, there are times when systems fall apart. And so I think that for me, the blessing of being a fiction writer is you can have it always at once. In fact, you’re supposed to have it always at once. Chekhov said a story doesn’t solve problems. It formulates them correctly.

So I enjoy the part where a voice inside me appears. And then I really enjoy the part where I make that voice hard to refute. But I don’t necessarily agree with the viewpoint.

And the way that a story starts to get complicated and to really speak to our deeper nature is when I would say when it’s self contradicting. There’s a beautiful Chekhov story called “Gooseberries.” And there’s a very persuasive argument that says that happiness is decadent. And it only comes at the expense of others. And Chekhov says, every happy man should have an unhappy man in his closet with a hammer to convince him by his constant tappings that not everyone is so happy and that sooner or later, life will show him his claws.

So you read this. And you’re like, I never thought that my happiness was a decadent act. Thank you, Mr. Chekhov, for convincing me. But then in the same story, that guy who made that speech is shown joyfully, selfishly, swimming in this pond in a rainstorm, just exulting in happiness. So you hold those two things against one another. What’s Chekhov saying about happiness? Is happiness good or bad?

And Chekhov goes, yeah, da. So for me, that’s the magic of fiction is it in that moment, your normal mind that judges so easily and so happily gets tricked, really, and suspended. So for a few seconds there you really don’t know what to think about happiness. And therefore you see it more fully, actually. You see I’m dodging your question?

EZRA KLEIN: I do. I see that. Yes, so I’m thinking about how to pull you back into it. A lot of your stories — here’s my try. And I guess I would contrast a question it raises with another one you often raise. I think a lot of your stories are about how do people act, how should they act — and we’ll talk about this — in a system they should hate but might be complicit in or might believe they’ve chosen to join. A lot of that systems are, for you, I think often capitalism or very extreme forms of capitalism.

But this story, it seems to me, to be about when do you stop abiding by the rules and norms of a system you might love? And that’s often the question of liberal democracy. You have a beautiful line in that piece: “We were not prepared to drop everything in defense of a system that was to us like oxygen, used constantly, never noted.”

But more than that, there’s a way where defending a system of liberal toleration, in ways that are illiberal or intolerant, is this essential contradiction that people face all over the world, not just here and not even primarily here. And that contradiction feels very important to me, that kind of sense that it is worth doing anything to defend this, and also that the point of this system is you’re not supposed to do anything. You’re supposed to have rules and guidelines and norms and boundaries.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I think it’s kind of a question of, which manifestation of the system are you defending? So my gut — again, this is just not a political statement, a personal statement is, I really abhor violence. And I think violence cross contaminates. Like, when I was covering those Trump rallies, I saw exactly one woman on each side punched by someone on the other side. It’s sickening.

The time I saw it in San Jose, there was a Trump supporter, older woman punched to her knees. And I helped her up. She’s almost in tears. The person who hit her is in tears. There’s nothing noble about the violence. It’s just ugly.

So I think I agree with the grandfather in this case. If you say I’m defending a liberal system by illiberal means, then you’re not. And so then I think that’s important to say that because then we’re going to be more creative and energetic about defending it in the correct ways.

EZRA KLEIN: The story “Liberation Day,” the opening story of the book, is about — well, why don’t you describe what it’s about because I’m not sure how I would describe it.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I’m not sure how I would either. My stories, I kind of start them by just trying to get lost, trying to make some world I don’t recognize, and then gradually fleshing it out. But in this one, the opening image for me was kind of related to an earlier story in mine called “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.”

And in that story, there was a world where people were hanging up women from poor countries in their yards as lawn ornaments. And they were kind of perceiving it as a win-win because they got this beautiful thing in the yard, and the women were paid. So in this story, it’s a sort of a similar thing, except that people hung up are in your house in a studio, not unlike this. And their brains have been messed with so that some of them can speak at a very high level, super articulate on command.

So you as the owner can kind of dial in, tell me something about nautical. And the person will riff on that. Tell me something about city. And then there’s another group of people who are singers, who have sort of a similar skill. So the idea is you’re kind of a suburban guy, wants a hobby, and you’ve got a mixing board. And you can make these people put on these incredible presentations, that old trope.

EZRA KLEIN: And the reveal of the story is that people are choosing, in a way, to be there. They have signed up to be memory wiped and be made into a speaker or to be made into a singer.


EZRA KLEIN: They don’t remember that they’ve done this. The person who owns them believes or is able to rationalize that they have done nothing wrong. These people voluntarily entered into this arrangement so that the money they made from it would go to somebody else. And it’s this very, I think, profound question that is in a lot of your work of, what does it mean if people agree to be treated inhumanely because that seems to them to be their best option.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Right. Presumably the guy was in a terrible shape, bad enough shape that he agreed to have his memory wiped. Yeah, that, to me, is — I don’t really know why it’s interesting to me, but it does resonate with my early working years, the idea that we had our kids at home. And I was so happy to have a job.

But it was a 10 – or 12-hour a day job being away from them, doing something I had very little interest in. And so just lightly that kind of Terry Eagleton, capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body, that was just very lightly hitting me. The idea that in order to honor love, I had to be away from the object of love, doing something that didn’t interest me.

So I’m sure that’s in there somewhere. But honestly, my stuff — here’s my thought is, art serves a really important function, which is partly to get us temporarily free of rationality or of habitual rationality. For the producer of the art, me, to do that, I really have to be clear of concepts when I’m working.

So the whole game — and it sounds sort of simplistic but — is to find a voice or a riff or a little tiniest bit of a notion that will confuse me and also excite me so I can keep going day after day. So you’re really turning yourself over to a kind of a counter-rational process in the hopes that in the end, you’ll produce something that will put your reader through something that will be fun, first of all. And I would maybe tack on be beneficial, although that’s sort of an option.

I hope it says something complicated and contradictory that leaves you basically in the same state you’re in when you get off a roller coaster. Like, sheesh, what the what? Then, you might afterwards talk about it. That third curve was really something. But the essential thing happened in those three seconds after you got off the ride.

EZRA KLEIN: So I’m a horribly literal nonfiction writer, who has all the concepts always at the front of my brain and just sits there arranging them like pieces on the chessboard. And the term that — the one that often comes up to me in your work, “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” particularly, which is one of my favorite stories of yours, is an old term that used to be very common in critiques of capitalism, which is wage slavery. And we don’t talk about wage slavery anymore because we very much adopted the idea that if you consent to a job, if an employer offers you money, and you have agreed to do the thing for the money, whatever your conditions are, that is a freely chosen agreement.

And as such, we’re all good in all directions. But there’s a long running view, on the left, particularly, that people are often not in condition to consent. That when the alternative is indigency or your daughter cannot get the health care she needs, that the things people will do should often be understood as inhumane, whether or not they will say yes to them.

Maybe it’s better than the alternative. But that’s because the alternative is a kind of horror. And that just seems to me to be a very present concern for you, that question of, when should our consent be good enough?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Right. For me, it’s just interesting to watch and see what does the work do to your spirit? That’s really the question. If you can take joy in it, great. I know when I was working the tech writing job, I found a way to take joy in it because that was a survival mechanism. And it wasn’t the gulag. But there is a way in which I could say, well, I would rather be elsewhere. But thank god I’m not somewhere worse.

I would say we’re very, very tolerant of misery now for our workers. The idea that somebody would work three jobs and not be able to afford a house is pretty crazy. And that’s been a slow drift that I think was enabled, in my experience, in the Reagan years, where you were never to complain about working conditions and so on.

So I think that’s in the stories. And it’s in my life. I’ve seen it — when I was a kid, I kept a diary. And I found it a few years ago. And this was during the periods when I felt so like a hippie, free and easy, just traveling all over. Every page is about money. I need this much money. I borrowed this much money. I have to pay it back. I borrowed this guy’s shoes, and I ruined them, literally.

So I think that’s the great background story of America. And I don’t think we can simply say, all work is brutality. But some work is more brutal than others.

EZRA KLEIN: Have you ever read the late David Graeber’s book “Bullshit Jobs?”

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I have not, no.

EZRA KLEIN: So his book is about this idea of jobs that the people doing them think need not exist.


EZRA KLEIN: There are many jobs. And you can poll people, and they will tell you this, where they think that what they are doing is useless. For some reason, somebody’s paying them to do it. And that there is a violence to the soul to do something that even you think has no real value.

And one of the things this often points to, to me, is that we seem to me, to be within, let’s call it, 100 years of a pretty profound rupture in what we are trying to achieve here, which is I think most politics, and particularly most left politics, but not only, is actually very built around the idea that everybody should have a good job. And they should have a good job, and that should be enough for a good life.

And then there’s this other — there’s long been a strain of politics, but it’s always lurking in the background of the robots and automation and A.I. conversation, the “Star Trek” politics. Maybe the point of life is not to have a job. Maybe the point of life is to get past the point. Because one of the horrors, I think, the tough things to face up to in the world is that a lot of truly terrible jobs are not bullshit jobs.

Coal mining is how we built modernity. Lithium mining today is how we are building the decarbonized future many of us are hoping to see. But possibly someday we will be able to offload a lot of work, much more so than we can even imagine now, onto robots and automation, onto other things. And it’s a really interesting question that keeps recurring of whether or not this would be a tragedy or a triumph, a dystopia or a utopia.

How do you think about that, not as a policy question, but as a question of what role work —

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah, it’s interesting.

EZRA KLEIN: — does or has to play in our lives?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: My guess is that some people would mess that up too. You know what I mean? People are people. So if you give all of us a life of pure contemplation, some people are going to mess it up.

EZRA KLEIN: I would go completely insane.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah. I would too.

EZRA KLEIN: But is that because I was socialized to think that every day has to be — I have a derangement, where if I cannot basically justify my day on my own to-do list, it’s very hard for me to feel like I merited my day on Earth. I’m not good at just —

GEORGE SAUNDERS: No, I’m the same way.

EZRA KLEIN: — at the Sabbath.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: We just sold the house upstate. And I went up there. And for three straight weeks I did 15-hour days of just work, physical work. And I have not been that happy in years. It was — I had a very simple do list every day, which is just go. Like, don’t even think, just go.

Went to bed totally exhausted. And I felt so happy. So I don’t know. I think the main thing is, as you suggest, I think we have a national malaise that has to do with national purpose.

What’s our purpose? Why are we special? What’s different about us? It’s all there in the founding documents actually, what a thing. We’re going to let every being, no matter who they are, have the dignity of being safe and free and happy. That’s pretty awesome.

But I think politics so-called now has become an industry, certainly. And somehow it’s obscuring that. It’s obscuring that very beautiful idea within that. What’s the individual’s purpose? I would say it’s to burn through delusion, try to figure out what’s actually happening in this mind, in this body.

For example, why am I so convinced that I exist as a person, that I exist permanently, and that I’m central to everything in the world? Well, we kind of know why. It’s because of thinking. And it seems fairly urgent that we should get to the bottom of that because death is coming. And it’s going to shock the shit out of you when it does come.

So those are — you can imagine a country that, first of all, really walk the walk of everybody’s valuable, and we’re going to protect it radically — everybody, no exceptions. And second of all, somewhere in there, there is an idea that the point of all of this was to come to a more profound understanding of who we are, which I think is going to cause us to realize that we’re here to have affection for one another. So that would be a great setup.

And whenever I see political problems, political dissent, political violence, I think it’s because the system has a different goal than those. It has a goal that we in our hearts, we know is not really in our interest. So to have a system that valued us, wanted us free and happy, and wanted us to be aspiring to the highest goal and materially made that possible, then I think we’d all be pretty in sync with our system. But in so many ways — and some of them you’re suggesting — the capitalist system and our current sort of cockeyed form of democracy works against these individual interests.

EZRA KLEIN: A lot of your stories seem to me to posit another tension or reason that politics and people go awry, which is a conflict that often emerges between the care we have for those near to us and the consequences that might have for those far from us. So to go back to “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” that is built as a diary of a father who is intensely concerned with his daughter’s happiness.


EZRA KLEIN: And she wants to be seen as cool and rich. And she comes from a successful family. And he is basically trying to assemble these doll slaves to help her. And he sees himself as functionally failing her as a father when he’s not able to do that.

In “Liberation Day,” you have a story that is about this guy wants to create art for his neighbors and be an artist. And again and again, it seems to me that you posit this question of, when is our concern for those near to us a path to a deep immorality? When is that the tool that a system can use — or we can use — to get us to rationalize some truly horrible things?

You have another story in there about a mother whose son is lightly but nevertheless assaulted. And her desire to have justice for him in a way that doesn’t go great. You’ve said some of the most moving things I have heard on fatherhood. So I’m curious about this particular obsession of yours, this fear that love of family, love of those near to you can become a disconnection and instrumentalization of those far from you.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah. I read somewhere when we first had our kids — I can’t remember who said it. But it was a very beautiful statement about how maybe the best we can do is imagine a little pod, and the people we love are in it. And it would be a very noble work of a lifetime just to keep that pod safe. And I thought, that’s so true.

And then I thought, except it kind of isn’t. What you actually have to do is imagine that your pod is just as real as my pod. And the people of value in your pod are exactly equal to mine. And if not, we’re going to get into the situation you’re talking about, where I’m going to say, we really need x. Now, it’s going to come out of your pie. But it’s my family.

So that’s something that I’ve struggled with a lot because the realest thing in my life has been the love for my wife and kids and extended family. And like, I think, so many Western people, you do have that slight feeling of piggishness sometimes when you’ve realized that you’ve erred on the side of protecting your pod. And you can look around, and you can see that other pods are affected.

So that’s definitely something I think about. And I don’t think — one of the things I tend to write about are things that concern me and that I don’t really see as simple answer to. I think it’s totally natural for people to protect them and theirs. That’s Darwinism 101.

It’s also perfectly natural to feel guilty about it because you see that it is a little bit selfish. And I guess my thought was with fiction, with writing it and with reading it, you don’t get to an answer. But if the story is well told, you increase the power of the opposition in your own mind.

You have the two forces are now both very strongly represented, as they are, I think, in “The Semplica-Girl Diaries.” And at the end, you don’t have an answer. But you have a new respect for the question.

EZRA KLEIN: So a lot of the stories in the new book are about the role of language. Or at least a central feature in them is people are losing language, or they can only use language when they’re turned on in a certain way, that there is something that controls or binds their language. They’re not allowed to say things. If they do say things, they’ll be violently punished. Tell me about that preoccupation for you in this collection?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: So I think these days, it seems like we are having languages imposed on us. I mean, the fact that you have a social media that tells you how many characters to use, this is language imposition. You have to wonder about the agenda there. Why does anyone want to restrict the full range of my language? What’s the game there?

Say with social media, we are receiving stories in a different way than we’ve received them in the past, I think. For hundreds of thousands of years, we receive stories at a certain frequency, let’s say. Now they’re coming in faster, more staccato. They’re malformed in their syntax because of the method of delivery.

They’re designed to agitate, to attract attention in this kind of strange way. So all these things are happening. And as those stories come in, I don’t think we’re quite able to process them.

And so we are, in a sense, having languages imposed on us that are not necessarily the best language to get to truth. They’re languages that are essentially designed to get us to do something. And it’s a kind of a new rhetoric, actually.

EZRA KLEIN: Imposed is a really interesting word there because there are these constraints imposed on us. And then we work within them and feel that we are the one in control of them. And you get into this very Marshall McLuhan-esque territory of whether or not the medium is changing our message or whether or not we use mediums for our own purposes.

I’ve become, like, a very big McLuhanite in recent years. And I’ve seen you say that, quote, “These days, it’s 100 percent true that the medium is the message.” So tell me how you understand the medium is the message idea and why you’ve come to feel more strongly about it.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: OK. I mean, I can talk from the vantage point of somebody who spent my whole life working with these six – and seven-page literary texts that were typically composed over many months. The process is to go in to the first draft, micro edit it over and over and over again.

And the article of faith is that by doing that, I’m doing two things. One is I’m infusing more myself into the text, in a way that I’m not planning. Second of all, the whole document is elevating its rhetoric to become more nuanced, more ambiguous, hopefully funnier, more persuasive, surprising. So that’s something I really love because it gets me to be somebody other than this guy. The end result of eight months of work on a short story is that there’s a presence there behind it that’s more intelligent than I am. So that’s pretty cool.

Now, we compare that to this new form of storytelling that we’re being subjected to. It’s obviously got wonderful features and all that. But if you have a form of storytelling that has a constraint imposed on it in terms of number of characters and/or it has a hidden agenda, which is to attract likes or whatever, it has another hidden agenda, which is to agitate, to get a sort of facile, superficial attention. It’s written quickly and so on, the familiar suite of things.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. You can’t edit it.


EZRA KLEIN: These are all decisions.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Right. So my thing is just look at your mind when you’re doing the one and when you’re looking at the other. Look at your mind when you begin a Chekhov story and when you finish it. What kind of things have been evoked?

Go on Twitter for 40 minutes, the same time it takes read a Chekhov. Where’s your mind there? The medium is a message because if I have said to you, here’s the way in which you can communicate, that’s going to limit what you can say. It’s going to limit the state of your mind while you’re saying it. If you think about the sheer volume of our social media interactions, it’s got to change the national moment. We can see that it as kind of fun, affable toxin, really.

EZRA KLEIN: I spent a lot of my 20s, maybe even in my early 30s building up a social media presence. And at a certain point, I had a million Facebook followers and 2.7 million Twitter followers. And it’s very —

GEORGE SAUNDERS: That’s pretty good.

EZRA KLEIN: Thank you. Yeah, no, I’m amazing. And slowly, I’ve left both platforms. And people always assume I did it because somebody said something mean to me. And I’ll get emails from people I really like and really respect. And they’ll say, I hope you come back. I find your work there a value. I’m sorry — they’ll just assume somebody’s offended me.

And the reason I left wasn’t because somebody said something mean to me. It’s that I became more and more sure I would say something mean to somebody.


EZRA KLEIN: That there is a way in which my thinking would become more and more like the averaged out system, medium. Maybe it’s a weakness on my part. There’s certainly people who are there and do not seem to fall prey to this.

But I feel like the great insight of McLuhan is this question of, do you want to be acted upon like this? That we’re always told that we act upon the mediums, right? We can put whatever we want on Instagram. We can put whatever we want on Twitter. We can put whatever we want on Facebook. But that in fact, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, whatever are in those periods putting what they want on you. They’re making you more like them.

And so the question of, do you want to be more like them, do you want that attention span, whatever it might be becomes a really — and this is true for cable news. It’s true for everything, right?

There’s nothing that it isn’t true for. But the question of, do you feel well changed? I always think about a lot of media literacy. There’s constantly talk now about media literacy. And it’s all about how to evaluate typically sources and what you’re seeing. And I don’t feel much of it gets at this question often enough, of being attentive to how you are becoming, understanding yourself as malleable.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: No, that’s beautiful. And in this Russian book “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” the reading model that I find myself using is simply this. You start the story in a neutral state and just watch — watch the inflection of your mind. Then at the end, you get spit out, and you’re in a different place.

Then on the second read, you can go back, and you can be pretty precise about where your mind inflected. That is kind of an exercise that works for everything, certainly would work for social media. Just start with a nice happy mind. Go into it and see.

And I think, as you’re pointing out, it’s not necessarily that you come out vitriolic. But it’s an interesting exercise to kind of see because that’s one thing we can really control is where our minds are. We can put ourselves into through different things that elevate or de-elevate the mind.

EZRA KLEIN: You wrote this essay some time ago that I think about a lot called “The Braindead Megaphone.” And in it, you have this the central metaphor, an image of a party, and then a person at a party with a megaphone. Can you just talk a bit about the setup there?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah. So the idea is if you’re at a party and everybody is having nice human interactions and talking from their own experience and exploring, mutually exploring, and then somebody comes in with the megaphone and starts talking about anything, the bushes outside the house, for example — the voice is loud. It’s overpowering. And it presumes a kind of a frame of reference, that it assumes that these bushes outside the house are very important.

And soon we’re going to see that people start responding to that. They’re noticing it. Then they themselves start having opinions about this megaphone. So basically this person who’s got a loud, perhaps not entirely intelligent and perhaps agenda-laced program is going to sort of distort the ongoing conversations.

EZRA KLEIN: The reason that essay’s really stuck with me is that I think it ends up being very prescient about something that was not as true when you wrote it, as it would become true later. It was hard to get that much volume before the algorithms, before you could get 200,000 retweets on something or you could get a million readers for it on Facebook — that we actually created this megaphone. And what’s even weirder, though, is it’s like we set up a megaphone at the front of the national room. And it’s a competition to get it.

And so it’s not just that there’s somebody with a megaphone, but that now everybody wants the megaphone. And you have to do what the megaphone wants you to do to be megaphoned. And then everybody else who wants to compete for the megaphone learns from what the last person said and has to say something a little bit more like that in tone and volume.

And I think of the central feature of the social media age as this kind of recognition or this reality that what matters is how often you are behind the megaphone. And what people think of you behind the megaphone doesn’t matter. In some cases, everybody hating you behind the megaphone just gives you more turns at the megaphone. And ultimately, then everybody knows your name, and everybody’s talking about you. And just that, that fully separate dimensionality of volume, is just, to me, a very defining feature of our communications era.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah. And it’s interesting because it’s anti-nuance. And in fiction, the beautiful thing is you write yourself always into a state of higher-level confusion or ambiguity. So the power, I would allege, is that you become less certain.

You’re making a finer and finer point. And the result of that is the person might just sort of feel a state of holy befuddlement, like, yeah, it’s really hard to be good in this world. It’s hard to be in the right position. It’s hard to be affectionate enough. It’s hard to stick by one’s values.

So fiction is a quiet — it’s a very quiet thing. You put two people in a room. You give one of them a slight problem. You go into each of their heads. You follow them around.

At the end of it, you have something maybe that doesn’t look like power, which is uncertainty. But I think for all of the moments in my life, I would rather be a little uncertain, actually. I’d rather be a little less certain and less powerful because in the world that you’re describing, these tremendous power of that megaphone means you can make a small mistake and cause a great disaster.

EZRA KLEIN: I read you say in a recent interview that you feel — that essay coming out when it did, now quite long ago, that it’s missing a lot. And you’ve been kicking around ideas for a sequel. And I wanted to see what are some of those ideas? What are those intuitions towards the sequel?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Well, I’ll tell you a thought experiment. And I haven’t thought through this all the way through. But it feels right to me. So let’s imagine you had a baseball stadium. And you sent out invitations, and you said, OK, if you’re a Republican, wear red. If you’re Democrat, wear blue. Come to the stadium.

Everybody comes. There’s a podium in the middle. And there’s a guy up there who’s going to make a very incendiary speech about immigration. Pro or con doesn’t matter.

So you know how that’s going to turn out. People are going to fight. There’s going to be maybe physical violence, lots of rancor.

Now, rewind, same people, forget the costuming. Come to the baseball stadium. Same people come. They sit in the same seats. Instead of a podium, there’s a game, the Pirates and the Reds or whatever.

Those same people are behaving in completely different ways. Why? Well, social cues partly. We know how to behave at a baseball game. We might joke a little bit, but it’s nothing serious.

So then I want to work backwards and say, all right, so same people, same day, fights, no fights. Why? So to my way of thinking, one is you prioritize the red-versus-blue identity. You told the person to think that way about themselves. Then in their path or in their view you put what you knew would agitate them. And they responded to the cue.

Also, you sort of implicitly said, this is political. And by the way, political has to do with immigration, abortion. You named four or five other things. In the other one, the context was baseball. We know how to be civil in baseball.

So I’m just trying to think how it can be — what is the culture doing that is causing the partisanship? There’s something in that model that’s valuable because these aren’t different people. They’re manifesting differently. The people in the second stadium are somehow — through some means, they’re manifesting a different version of the multitude they contain to make a happier circumstance. So I guess I’m just thinking about what we are doing culturally to encourage the first model and discourage the second, if that makes sense.

EZRA KLEIN: Let me offer a thought maybe.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah, please.

EZRA KLEIN: Go back to the megaphone, right? So one of the things in the original story is that the megaphone is neutral, in the sense that it’s held by a guy. The megaphone doesn’t have any thoughts about the situation. And that feels to me like what changed and speaks to that second thought experiment.

So imagine that in the stadium, different people get to choose what happens at the floor, right? And somebody goes out, and there’s a baseball game. And somebody — and runs a baseball game. And somebody goes out and gives an incendiary speech about immigration and so on and so forth.

But that somehow, whoever it is or whatever it is letting you out, that is giving you access to the megaphone or access to the field, it really cares what the audience response is. But it doesn’t care about the audience. All it feels is how much the audience feels, how angry, how happy, how funny, how sad. And all it has a preference for as extreme. All it has a preference for is a lot.

And I think in general, it’s easier to make people really pissed off quickly than it is to make them really pleased. And so a preference begins to emerge. If you get people really upset, you get to come back and back and back and back and back. And that it’s about, to me, this feedback loop we’ve created as a society between somebody making you mad and that somebody being in your face more often.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, she is not a particularly powerful member of the House of Representatives. She is in the minority party, at this moment anyway. She does not chair any committees. She’s not well-liked by her colleagues.

I cover the House. I have for years. She is not internally influential as a legislator. When I say her name, virtually everybody listening will know who she is.

They will know who she is because she’s extremely, extremely agitating to a lot of people. And because she is agitating, unlike some of her colleagues who — like, I’m not a Republican. I disagree with many of her colleagues on many things. But there are members of the Republican House minority who just show up to work and they try to do things that they believe in. And they’re maybe not what I believe in. But they work with their colleagues and whatever. They show up, and they do their jobs. They’re not trying to make everybody else infuriated. So their names are functionally unknown. And that’s the trick here now that we’ve gotten ourselves locked in this game of if I can arouse you in some way or another, you will see me more.

And a really, really fast path to arousal is annoyance. So that seems to me to be the twist, that the megaphone is a preference. And you get more turns at it if you really, really enrage people. And so we are just being fed a constant sense of what specifically enrages us. And we don’t like it and yet are somehow locked in this relationship to it. It’s very, very maddening. It’s very weird too.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Do you know that David Foster Wallace essay from years ago? And he was the first person to sense this. He covered — I can’t remember the name of the piece. But he covered a right-wing political radio host in the early days of talk radio.

And his conclusion was that it wasn’t the politics that people were tuning in for. But it was the agitation and the suspended narratives that would provoke outrage. You know, the kindergarten teacher who stomped on the American flag — more tomorrow. And so oh, you can’t believe she stomped on the American flag. You come back tomorrow. So it was clearly commerce.

The listenership went up every time they would put a cliff-hanging agitation or outrage story on. So to me, it’s interesting. Of course, it’s all money. And I think this is where I don’t know enough to really speak. But it seems to me that the world is lavishing a lot of money on the partisan divide.

It’s lucrative. It’s a quick, easy narrative. It’s very lucrative. And it’s very damaging. I have no idea how you back out of it. Maybe you do. But I don’t — it seems that it’s — at the core of it, there’s a lot of people who are making very nice livelihoods to stoke that fire. And the other fire, which is about nuance and ambiguity and curiosity about the way things actually work and actually improving the lives of individual citizens, that maybe is less sexy, less lucrative.

EZRA KLEIN: The reason I love McLuhan and the reason I was interested when he came up in your work is that I think he understood something pretty upsetting, which is that we are very fundamentally malleable and that we change. And to the very interesting, I think, thought experiment of the stadium, the more we are confronted with things that upset us, the more upset we become. The more we see things that make us angry, the more angry we become. I think sometimes there’s an illusion that our political selves are not our real selves. But I don’t really believe we have real selves.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: For me, it comes down to storytelling. And you’re absolutely right. No self is solid and exists. But we can force different selves to the fore.

So in traditional storytelling, in literary storytelling, the reader is agreeing to go through something, which is to, first of all, assume that the character in the story is on a continuum with her, no matter who the character might be. Then also that the writer is on a continuum with her. So the three of us are going to join together. We’re going to contemplate this imaginary being.

And in doing that, we’re going to get more interested in her. We’re going to make an identification between ourselves and that person. This stance is always leaning in. Like, is there anything else I need to know about this person? This is just me on a different day.

So that whole process brings out a self that I would say it’s more generous. It’s more interested. It’s more open. It’s less sure of what’s actually happening. And since the world itself is so fundamentally unknowable to us — the mind is always just making little scale models. For my money, to work at that kind of storytelling, to immerse ourselves in it almost as a ritual or as a sacrament, is a way to become more realistic about what’s actually happening.

Whereas this megaphone-type thing, it’s strange. In its system, it bears very little resemblance to what’s actually happening. As you pointed out, it’s just a thing that thrives on power. We respect the power because the power is powerful kind of thing.

So I mean, I don’t know what the answer is. For me, personally, I’m watching the mind and saying, if I spend a few hours with Chekhov or Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or Toni Morrison, Grace Paley, there are things woken up in me that I want to be active. The self that comes forward then is the self that feels actually more powerful than any other self, so.

EZRA KLEIN: Yeah. You have a beautiful story in the book that I think hints at an answer to this, which is “The Sparrow.” Can you talk a bit about what’s happening in “The Sparrow?”

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah. I started that story. A little voice came to me literally when I was sleeping. And it was the first few lines of the story. And I found myself narrating this woman, who, at least in the words of the story, she’s kind of nothing. She’s not very interesting. She’s never original. She only says the things that are expected.

And so the narrative voice that I was in was kind of looking down on her quite a bit and getting some laughs out of her. And then about halfway through the story, I wrote the line, “and then, of course, a fall had to come for her.” It’s funny because the brain just divides. And part of me just went, does it really? Does it really have to? Or is that just a habit of yours as a writer?

So I just started subtly trying to do something else. And in the end, it becomes kind of maybe the first love story I’ve ever written, where she is kind of a dull person. And she meets this guy who is kind of an egomaniac. And yet the two of them kind of bind.

So that early voice that was mocking her I assigned to the community basically, which then left me and the reader to figure out who she really was. It was an example of the story showing my own mind to me. I was in the habit of starting off with a character and then knocking them down the stairs at the end. And my mind said, you’ve done that a lot. Is there some way we could have her not go down the stairs, which then open up a whole kind of world of possibilities for her.

EZRA KLEIN: But the particular love story you tell, there’s something very quiet about it, but quietly powerful, I thought, which is it seemed to me to be about the way we change as people when someone else tells a nice story about us to us. She tells a story to this guy, who may be a bit of an egomaniac, but also is a guy who works at a grocery that his mom owns. And his mom’s sort of an overbearing, tough person.

And people are not probably that nice to him. And here’s this woman who’s really impressed by him and thinks he’s really funny and thinks he’s really great and always tells him he’s right about stuff. And he flourishes under that. And he loves being adored. And so he adores her. And she flourishes under that. And I don’t know. One of the things —

GEORGE SAUNDERS: That’s a really lovely reading, by the way. I love that.

EZRA KLEIN: One of the things I was reflecting on it after was how often we think we will change people by telling them what’s wrong with them, and how often that doesn’t work, and how often you change people by believing in what’s right about them. And that’s true in an individual level, and it’s true in — I don’t want to go too far with this. And I’m not suggesting any of this as a political answer.

But I do think there’s something true about it politically, too. Some of the great politicians see a better country or see a better version of ourselves and we see in ourselves. And for a minute at least, we sort of wake up to that.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah. I see it in my teaching. And one of the benefits of teaching a long time is you start to see the way it really works. So when you’re a young teacher of creative writing, you think your job is a kind of circle the goiters — cut this, fix this. Why did you do that?

And as I’m getting older, it’s just both really valuable and really difficult to praise something precisely. Maybe the story has got some issues. But if you can find two or three places where the writer has come into her own fully and spend most of your time praising that and not just hyperbolically, but really saying specifically what it did to you, you can see the writer light up. And it gives a person something to aspire to. But somehow it’s harder to do that.

It’s easier to just sort of list your complaints. But you have to be very confident and very inside the material to go back and recreate where you were positively inflected. And I think it sort of activates certain things in your mind that wouldn’t otherwise be activated.

EZRA KLEIN: It was my wedding anniversary a couple of days ago.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Oh, happy anniversary.

EZRA KLEIN: Thank you. And something I’ve thought about as I’ve been married longer, something I think about in my relationships to other family members, something I think about all the time with my children — so basically every important relationship in my life is what I’m saying — is that there’s often this inflection point in a particular conflict, in a particular moment, where something’s going wrong, at least wrong by my own lights. And you’re faced with this question of, am I going to be kinder to this person who is doing something that is upsetting me? Or am I going to really —

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Let them have it.

EZRA KLEIN: — tell them what’s up here? And children often force us in a really interesting and complicated way, where if my 3-and-1/2-year-old is having a tantrum, does he need to be put on time out? Or does he need to be hugged?

If I’m hugging him, am I helping this behavior? If I put him in time out, am I actually keeping him from being able to calm down? And I don’t know. I think that I used to believe more in the curative powers of a good stern talking to. And as I’m getting a little bit older and maybe a little bit wiser — and this is true for me too, like how it seems to work to treat me — that I’ve become less confident in it.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah, it’s very perceptive because in the end, I was the one who decided to be more gentle with her because I was going to throw her to the wolves. Something held me back. And the phrase I always think about in the context of what you’re saying is abide with. I think it’s from my Catholic youth.

But you abide with somebody, which means you just don’t judge yet. You let them talk. You let them do it as they have to do. The idea is that if you give someone enough rope, they’ll shut the rope off. They’ll be better.

So in that story, it was interesting because I resolved to be patient with her, which in a narrative sense mean I held off on making something bad happen to her for a few paragraphs. But I think that I really believe in what you’re saying. I think if you — it’s a mark of confidence and I think sometimes of age to trust that things will play out, which is another way of saying that you trust the person is on a continuum with you, that you don’t have to correct.

A person will — I guess the assumption is people want the same thing. They want to be happy. They want to be loved. So to the extent that we can extend our patience, some people some of the time will reward that. And in fiction, this is kind of what you’re always doing. It’s what rewriting is, actually, is you’re saying, I know how I want the story to come out. I know what I think of this character. Let me abide with it longer by rewriting it and see if there’s anything deeper I want for that person, see if there’s anything deeper they want to do on their own.

A young writer will tend to lop all that off because I guess they don’t like the anxiety of waiting. But as an older writer, waiting is actually what you’re doing when you’re rewriting. Just like with your kids, you’re kind of waiting with a slightly affectionate attitude.

EZRA KLEIN: In this conversation, we’ve talked, and specifically you’ve talked a bunch about storytelling. And something that has been in the back of my mind has been that storytelling for you and storytelling for me mean very different things. That storytelling in politics tends to be about the question of, how can I tell a story that makes you understand that I’m right or that makes you like me?

And the kind of storytelling and the craft of storytelling you’re talking about is much more about a kind of story that someone else can inhabit, right? You need me to not agree with your story. You need me to want to inhabit your story. I want to see if you could riff a bit on the distinction there because that question of closed and open storytelling strike me as maybe actually like the dominant theme of this conversation.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah, I love that idea. I think with the kind of stories that I want to tell, the goal is that you become the character. You are reading it. And I’ve designed it so it’s so intense that you can’t not first sympathize with, then become the character. And I think part of that is an open-endedness about agenda.

It’s not really about you liking the character or me or any of that. It’s about the identification with the character. And then I don’t even know why. I don’t know why that’s a good thing. I don’t know what that’s going to make you feel.

But 99 percent of what I do is to try to make you have that ride through the story, such that you don’t have any objections to it. On the contrary, you want to get back to it. You experience the curves and the dips and the drops. At the end, you’re deposited out in a slightly different mind-set.

It’s interesting because we talked about the megaphone. I actually don’t care that much what exactly you’re feeling. But I care that you’re feeling something intensely. And I have the faith that if I’ve done my job, the thing you’re feeling intensely I want to say it’s going to be good for you. I don’t really want to say that.

But it’s going to put you in a position that’s elevated compared to where you started. The only agenda is connection. I’m going to start telling you this story. And somehow in revision, I’m going to be really good at anticipating your resistances, anticipating the little expectation cloud that formed over your head and servicing that at every moment so that you can’t think of any excuse to bail.

And then at the end, you and I are kind of bonded. You’re like, oh, George, wow, how’d you do that? You got me through this whole story. You’re bonded with the characters in some complicated way. And then I think, for me, I have to kind of say, that’s it. Now, I don’t always stop there. I have a whole schtick about the beneficial effects of fiction. But in my most honest place, the wild ride, the temporary bonding, and we’re done.

EZRA KLEIN: It makes me think a bit about our earlier conversation about “Love Letter” because there was no answer to that. And one of the things I think is true in politics is that there are times when you can get into a reality where there is no good answer. By the time the question is, you’re looking back from autocracy. And should you have taken up arms or not?

That might have been worse. It might have been better. But it could have been worse. Once you got there, you were out of good answers. Maybe there was a better one than you chose. But you’re out of good answers. And I do wonder how much a way to think about this period is there’s a pretty desperate need for a story that enough people see themselves in and see enough connection in that you don’t get to the point where the question was really should you have taken up arms or not?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Here’s a thought about this, I guess, literary storytelling.


GEORGE SAUNDERS: When I wrote that book about the Russians, I was really surprised to find out how much specificity had to do with it. So the move is often is you start with a broad category — bored suburban housewife. Then just in the revision process, you’re assigning specific speeches and characteristics and even just hand gestures and tendencies and history to this person.

And in the process, she is still maybe bored suburban housewife. But she’s also Wendy. And she’s got a whole bunch of often contradictory traits that you’ve laden her with. The move, then, for some weird reason, is the human mind confronted with specificity grows, let’s say, fond. It doesn’t mean you necessarily like, but you’re kind of fond of this person. So that move to take a broad indicator and then specify it, you see more clearly. You feel more fond.

But there’s another thing that happens, which is you understand her problems with more nuance. You might be able to imagine turning the axis slightly. You’re a bored suburban housewife. But you’re also an aspiring choreographer with a bad left foot, whatever. OK. This now makes me manifest differently towards you. It’s just the adjustment in the concepts.

So if we adjust our concept, our projection about somebody else from abroad, and in politics, often at least somewhat dismissive position, we place that with increasing levels of nuance. My contention is that actually makes you certainly more affectionate. It’s probably a happier place to be from your point of view to feel affection.

But also, if there is a political issue, what we call a political issue, my contention is you’re actually in a more powerful place to make a change because you’ve abandoned the conceptual projections that made the trap so rigid in the first place. So in our country now, if someone says — I mean, I’m left of Gandhi. If someone says to me, what should we do about those Trump supporters? Well, I have a pretty limited answer to that.

Now, if we start specifying an individual person, then possibilities — I don’t think they necessarily work. I covered the Trump rallies, and I persuaded exactly zero people. But somehow in my gut, I feel like there’s more — it’s more open. The more specific you can be, the more you can abide with somebody. Then I think you actually become more powerful politically because you’re actually responding to things as they are — reality in all its complicated dimensionality — as opposed to your perhaps too simplistic projection of it, which is not going to budge at some point.

EZRA KLEIN: Well, isn’t this always what Barack Obama’s particular storytelling genius was? I mean, you go back to the ’04 Boston D.N.C. speech. The line that always lingers in my mind from that, which I’ll get wrong in memory a bit, but he says something like, we worship an awesome God in blue states. And we don’t like federal officials poking around our libraries in red states. I always think Obama’s great political genius wasn’t in the fact that he got people to like him. But he was able to convince people that he liked them, which is often much more important.


EZRA KLEIN: There’s a very, very famous political polling result that you always — the pollsters always ask it, right? Do you find this politician likable? And I’ve always thought it gets it actually backwards, that the much more important question in politics is, do you think the politician likes you? That’s the threshold condition to whether or not you’re going to like them.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Yeah, which is another way of saying, does the politician see you?


GEORGE SAUNDERS: So the thing is, I remember in 2016 just being so, sort of, shocked. And the world had gone insane. But actually, as a fiction writer, I finally got back to the point where I said, the world is fine. The world is what it is. It’s just an energy system proceeding to some end.

But you didn’t know enough. I didn’t know enough about the way conditions actually were. So it seems shocking and the world was broken [INAUDIBLE]. So one of the things that cures me, actually — and again, having to do with being a writer — is it’s my job to know how things actually are, even though I never will.

And even at a time like this, I take a lot of comfort in that, that, OK, I may have misunderstood everything. We all may have. Who would have imagined that we would have a big political partisan fight about a pandemic? That’s incredible.

But the fact that I didn’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t true. So fiction, maybe as opposed to political thought — or art — is in the full-time business of getting us to drop our deceptions and see the way things actually are, which to me is an inherently hopeful kind of thing, even if we can never actually get there. So Obama, to me, is somebody who when he’s speaking to somebody, and they feel seen by him, he’s touching on the idea that even if he totally disagrees with you, you don’t disagree with you.

The world makes sense from your perspective. And you’re going to make progress with that person by trying to understand what to you seems irrational. And his willingness to accept that is sort of a bonding thing.

EZRA KLEIN: I think that’s a good place to end. Always our final question, what are the three books that have influenced you that you would recommend to the audience?

GEORGE SAUNDERS: I have just been reading Luke Mogelson’s “The Storm is Here,” which I think is a tremendous insider look at the stuff leading up to Jan. 6. And it’s just an incredible — he must be a great reporter because people talk to him. They tell him all the specifics.

And also I read a really wonderful novel called “Sugar Street” by Jonathan Dee that I haven’t been troubled by a novel in a long time and kind of, like, really, really jolted by it. And the ending of that book really did it. It’s kind of a really insightful look at, I guess you’d say, conditions on the ground in working class America. And the other book I’m really loving is “Marlena” by Julie Buntin. And it’s just kind of a real detailed, strangely joyful look at working-class America and addiction that really surprised me in a few places.

EZRA KLEIN: George Saunders, your new story collection is “Liberation Day.” Thank you very much.

GEORGE SAUNDERS: Thank you, Ezra.

EZRA KLEIN: “The Ezra Klein Show’s” produced by Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma. Fact checking by Michelle Harris and Mary Marge Locker. Original music by Isaac Jones and Sonia Herrero. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. And special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.Ezra K

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