July 21, 2011, by Jon McGregor

On rocky islands gulls woke.

There are many things to love about the writing of George Saunders. I’ll come back to some of them another time. There are many things to love about The Brain-dead Megaphone, his collection of essays (Bloomsbury, 2008), some of which I may also come back to. But for now I want to highlight a couple of essays here which I keep coming back to as I try to work out what writing and reading are all about.

Thank you, Esther Forbes opens as a nostalgic recollection of the first ‘real’ book Saunders read as a young school pupil – Johnny Tremain, by, well, Esther Forbes – but opens out to be a brilliantly argued case for concision and compression in writing.

A person can write: “There were, out in the bay, a number of rocks, islands of a sort, and upon these miniature islands, there resided a number of gulls, which, as the sun began to rise, gradually came to life, ready to begin another day of searching for food.”

Or she can write: “On rocky islands gulls woke.”

The first sentence is perfectly correct. There is, strictly speaking, more information in it than in the second. But is the increased information justified by the greater number of words? The second sentence credits our intelligence. Where else would the islands be, but in a bay? The plural “islands” implies that there are “a number” of them. If the rocks are “islands of a sort”, let’s call them “islands.”

There’s a lot more; over the course of a few pages, Saunders manages to argue that this  compression can only result from a scrutiny of one’s own meaning, a scrutiny which results in a truth and honesty which is essential for good writing. (And the double-meaning of ‘good’ here is clearly deliberate.)  There’s more, and you should read it.

The second great essay about writing in this book is The Perfect Gerbil, a wonderful essay about a Donald Barthelme story which taught me how to read Barthelme. I’ll come back to that one later.

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