Saunders calls language “a meaning approximator that sometimes gets too big for its britches and deceives us.” Stories can call attention to this deception, imparting a teaching analogous to the spiritual counsel of Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence: “there is a time when . . . a soul’s own ideas, intuitions, work, investigations, and inferences become sources of delusion.” When ordinary human speech “realizes all its weaknesses and shortcomings and feels completely baffled,” God disentangles the soul from its troubles “far more easily than novelists, working away in the peace of their rooms, extricate their heroes from all their dangers.” Not being God, the storyteller sometimes does better to make our troubles palpable rather than solve them.
It would be folly, Saunders believes, to relegate art’s effects and its essence to the rational. Art has reasons that reason cannot understand. We “turn to art” precisely because “we ‘know’ something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.” Sometimes, though, the book devolves into facile moral maxims that mix self-help and sentimentalism, as when Saunders tells writers to “go forth and do what you please,” adverse advice that seems especially bland when served next to sharpened craft-talk.
But for Saunders, however emotive his morality may be, fiction is fundamentally moral; a badly-made story lacks moral authority and a well-made one can lead us to love better. Saunders is not wrong to trace the pulse of many literary problems to our strivings after moral salvation: Great works contain multitudes. The Russians teach us that lasting literature is not merely “something decorative,” Saunders writes, but “a vital moral-ethical tool.”
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor