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“New Ethics” in the Fiction of George Saunders and Zadie Smith

Over the past few decades, there has been a sustained attempt to revive an ameliorative view of literature (specifically the novel), a movement which Dorothy J. Hale terms “New Ethics”. This is by no means a new approach; indeed, ethical defences of the novel are as old as the novel itself and have continued in the liberal humanist tradition of Lionel Trilling, Martha Nussbaum, and Wayne C. Booth. However, in the aftermath of both postmodernist literature (often characterised by its ironic detachment from moral concerns) and Literary Theory (with its deconstruction of the liberal humanist notion of the bourgeois self), recent defenders of literature have struggled to rebuild a critical language that can speak of the ‘ethical’ in fiction. In light of these movements, some critics and authors continue to ask: can morally passionate literature still be written? Can we ever know the Other? Can literature make us better people? By drawing on the work of “New Ethicists” such as Hale, I will demonstrate how the fiction of George Saunders and Zadie Smith engages with these ethical concerns, using the notion of empathy as a test case. In both authors’ defences of fiction, empathy (both between readers and characters, and between characters themselves) is held up as one of the principal virtues of reading literature. Yet, Saunders (to a lesser extent) and Smith (to a greater extent) also recognise the epistemic limits of empathy, often stressing the unknowability of persons and our inability to truly apprehend Otherness and alterity. Rather than succumbing to pessimism and despair in the face of these challenges, both authors recognise their ethical projects as vitally necessary in the twenty-first century, urging readers and authors alike to ‘[f]ail better’ in their engagement with literature and the moral life.

Hale’s concept of “New Ethics” seeks to unify the ‘pre-Barthesian’, neo-Aristotelian moral theories of Trilling, Booth, and Nussbaum with the work of ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers as diverse as Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Hale argues that these thinkers, although holding radically different political views, share an ethical theory of literature which is founded upon the reader’s ‘felt encounter with alterity’ and Otherness. This ‘ethics of alterity’ is, Hale argues, the ‘defining ethical property of the novel’, the process by which readers recognise the limits of their knowledge, thereby learning to honour Otherness outside of reading literature. Within such a thesis we hear echoes of Henry James’s (and Nussbaum’s) moral defence of literature: by encountering a consciousness other than our own, we are made ‘finely aware and richly responsible’ in our ‘perception of particular people and situations’, thus developing our ‘human capabilities to see and feel and judge’. Yet, Hale makes clear that this optimistic, neo-Aristotelian account of literature does not go far enough – it fails to heed the ‘poststructuralist critique of liberal individualism’, which rejects the notion of a unified, autonomous reader with privileged access to another’s consciousness. By contrast, Hale follows Butler in arguing that we must willingly submit and “bind” ourselves to the Other even as they resist our knowledge, thus reminding us of our own ‘limits of [epistemic] judgement’ and forcing us to honour ‘what cannot be fully known or captured about the Other’. Rather than ignoring such critiques (as Nussbaum has been wont to do), we can instead adopt a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of how Saunders and Smith define, embody, and empathise with Otherness in their fiction.

Zadie Smith, a notable contemporary defender of the ethical value of literature, straddles an ideological divide similar to that explored within the “New Ethics”. On the one hand, Smith is thoroughly indebted to Nussbaum (and Iris Murdoch) for her account of literature’s ability to ‘educat[e] […] the emotions’; on the other hand, through her reading of theorists such as Derrida, Smith also recognises the difficulty of achieving such an ethical education. Drawing on Nussbaum and Murdoch, Smith argues that ‘great novels […] force us to be attentive’ to the lives of others and their subjective realities, thereby learning to ‘car[e] about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us’. Smith views this attempt to ‘make a connection with a consciousness other than [one’s] own’ as the ‘primary novelistic impulse’. This is certainly true of her first three novels, which ‘worm […] [themselves] into many different bodies, many different lives’, employing an omniscient, ‘elevated third person’ narrator who wittily exposes the interior lives of characters to the reader. This style, which echoes E. M. Forster’s ‘muddled’ mode of narration, has clear ethical implications; by encountering a wide variety of ‘chaotic, irrational human beings’, readers learn to understand them through empathetic identification. Yet, as Smith begins work on her fourth novel NW, she becomes more sceptical of realism’s capacity to depict characters in their entirety. In her seminal essay ‘Two Directions for the Novel’, Smith faults Joseph O’Neill’s lyrical realist novel Netherland for its failure to depict an ‘authentic story of a self’, turning instead to Tom McCarthy’s avant-garde novel, Remainder, as a means by which to ‘shake the novel out of its present complacency’ by drawing our attention to ‘the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable’.

As Smith acknowledges in a 2008 lecture, a quote from Derrida (‘If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space’) helped provide a ‘new attitude’ towards her fiction, rejecting the desire for ‘human dissection [and] entering the brains of characters, cracking them open, rooting every secret out!’ Instead, Smith emphasises the mysterious ‘hidden content of people’s lives’, which can only be gestured towards through ‘[e]choes, shadows, inversions [and] fragments’ of language. As Ben Masters notes, NW’s shift from one narrative style to another both leads the reader to recognise the inherent ‘multiplicity of life’, whilst also (following Hale) drawing attention to ‘the way novels represent the apprehension of alterity as itself a perspectival event’. Through reminding us of our own epistemic limits, Smith makes clear that, more often than not, what we term “empathy” is more accurately a projection of our own ‘fantasies, desires, and feelings’ onto the Other. In contrast to Smith’s more existentially fraught relationship with Otherness, Saunders argues that ‘universal human laws’ (such as ‘need, love […] fear, hunger’) are ‘mappable onto strangers’, suggesting that ‘what one finds in oneself will most certainly be found in The Other’. As we shall see, however, this overly optimistic theory is rendered problematic when enacted in Saunders’s fiction. Smith argues that a perfect, unmediated communication between a great novel and an ideal reader can only exist in some Platonic realm, but never in this world, where we will inevitably fail to understand ‘that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves’. All that we can hope for is an ‘intimation of a metaphysical event [we] can never know’ – that is, mere glimpses into another person’s life, which fiction should attempt to provide.


George Saunders, like Smith, is one of the most prominent contemporary defenders of the ameliorative effects of literature. He has argued that fiction, in a distinctly Aristotelian vein, helps to ‘train [us] in […] virtues’ such as ‘empathy and sympathy and love and compassion’, thereby improving our engagements with the wider world (quoted from my interview with Saunders, see Appendix). Implicit in this process is the reader’s ‘ability to get out of [their] own heads’, to lose one’s sense of self through an empathetic identification with the Other. Saunders’s fiction works by drawing the readers’ attention to the radically different ways in which people appraise the world. For example, in his polyphonous first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, historical fragments are juxtaposed against each other, creating a “post-truth” landscape in which it is impossible to verify whether Abraham Lincoln was ‘[v]ain, weak, puerile’ or ‘extremely humane’. Thus, in the process of reading Saunders’s fiction, we inhabit the ‘complex […] baffling and ambiguous’ inner lives of characters who defy our immediate understanding, thereby becoming ‘more humble’ in this visceral encounter with alterity. Saunders achieves this effect partly through the use of abrasive techniques, often employed in postmodernist literature, such as self-conscious irony and satire. However, like his predecessors Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace, Saunders employs these techniques for ostensibly ethical ends; through disrupting the ‘conventional/accepted/ habitual modes of storytelling’, Saunders hopes to shock readers out of their habitual ways of seeing, thereby encountering alterity in a radically new way. Given this potential for empathetic connection between all of humankind, Saunders adopts a ‘basic position’ of ‘sincerity’ in his fiction, ‘generously imagining’ that his reader is ‘humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned’, holding out hope for a true connection between authors and readers.


* * *

Both Smith’s and Saunders’s fiction stages failures of empathy between characters to warn the reader against egotistical self-delusion, which prevents people from truly apprehending Otherness. In On Beauty, both Howard Belsey and his daughter Zora judge the world according to abstract theories rather than remaining attentive to the irreducibly complex and contingent nature of reality. As Hale notes, Smith’s third novel ‘affirms the perspectivalism upon which the aesthetics of alterity rests’ through a keen awareness of each character’s ‘socially embedded viewpoint’ within a ‘particular cultural formation’. This is by no means a novel idea – almost all literature is a ‘partial, failing, view from somewhere’, yet On Beauty emphasises the sheer impossibility of a universal ‘view from nowhere’ in a distinctively strong way. This is made clear in the Belsey family’s profoundly different receptions of Mozart’s Requiem, which Hale has termed a ‘de-mystification of a universal and absolute view of cultural values’. Howard, the ‘radical art theorist’ who views ‘Art [as a] Western myth’ refuses to be receptive to beauty, condescendingly asking if his family has been ‘touched by the Christian sublime’. Similarly, Zora refuses an immediate, affective connection to the concert, choosing instead to mediate her experience through a ‘recording’ which ‘carefully guided her through each movement’ (OB,p.70). Following Smith’s reading of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which provided ‘a good deal of inspiration’ (OB,p.xiii) for the novel, we can see that Howard’s and Zora’s approach to art is both aesthetically and, more importantly, ethically problematic. Scarry posits art as an opportunity for a ‘radical decentering’, whereby we ‘cease to stand […] at the center of our own world’ and instead empathise with something outside of our centre. Thus, whereas characters such as Kiki and Jerome are moved to tears when hearing the Requiem and also seek empathetic connections with others, Howard and Zora seem doomed to remain detached from art and, by extension, other people. As Andrzej Gąsiorek has argued, Howard’s postmodern detachment and ‘disavowal of affect’ does not lead to ‘rational bliss’ but rather ‘emotional inner chaos and blindness to the needs of others’. Smith makes this point explicitly by linking Howard’s suggestion that 9/11 was a ‘simulat[ion] (drawing on the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard) with his inability to realise that ‘[s]uffering is real’ and his actions truly ‘hurt’ (OB,p.394) others. Likewise, Zora’s aloof detachment from the beauty of art (such as poetry) causes her to instrumentalise Carl, who, in the novel’s key dénouement, forces her to recognise her lack of empathy: ‘[p]eople like me are just toys to people like you’ (OB,p.418). Here, as in her other novels, Smith highlights the near impossibility of transcending one’s narrow epistemological limits and recognising that ‘other people really exist’, wholly independent of oneself.

In NW, Natalie Blake’s egotistical nature is juxtaposed against the novel’s two empathetic protagonists, Leah Hanwell and Felix Cooper. Drawing on the Derridean right to secrecy, Smith performs her ethical position of openness to alterity by giving the reader only impressionistic glimpses into the protagonists’ inner lives. In contrast to Saunders’s universalist view of humanity, Smith seems to suggest that it is precisely our inability to empathise with Otherness which is common to all; indeed, the statement ‘I don’t know you any more’ is said to occur ‘[i]n households all over the world […] eventually’. However, as Hale notes, although it may be ‘impossible to have an unmediated knowledge of the other’, Smith recognises that one can ‘approximate the other’s alterity in better or worse ways’ through a conscious striving for openness and empathy. Characters such as Natalie and Annie – who reject their ties to the community in favour of a rugged world of individualism – are depicted as alienated, socially paranoid, and therefore unable to connect, even with their loved ones. Indeed, when Natalie gives birth to her child, she sees only a ‘mysterious black-eyed other […] not in any way identical with the entity Natalie Blake’ (NW,p.270). At the novel’s close, Natalie makes a concerted effort to empathise with her best friend, Leah: ‘she was able to almost imagine something like her friend’s pain and, in imagining it, recreate some version of it in herself’ (NW,p.328). Yet, the hesitant phrasing (with the qualifiers ‘almost’ and ‘like’) casts doubt on the effectiveness of this empathetic leap into Otherness. Despite Natalie’s recognition that connection must begin with an ‘honest account of her own difficulties and ambivalences’, she cannot overcome her ‘instinct[s] […] for self-preservation’ (NW,p.331), resorting to banal platitudes (‘people generally get what they deserve’) in an ‘automatic, self-referential’ (NW,p.332, emphasis mine) manner. We can link Natalie’s failure to become more open and empathetic with Smith’s own pessimistic belief in ‘human limitation’. Yet, how do we square this view with Smith’s parallel emphasis on the need to recognise one’s epistemological limitations in the process of honouring Otherness? NW refuses to resolve this contradiction, yet ultimately it rejects the optimistic novelistic arc from self-deluded fantasy towards enlightened self-knowledge, leaving its characters isolated in either stasis or death. 

Saunders’s fiction takes as its subject matter some of the worst excesses of American individualism and selfishness. Characters are depicted as trapped in their own neurotic, self-justifying monologues, unable to imagine a world in which they are not ‘central to the universe’. As David Rando notes, Saunders peoples his stories with ‘no-life lowlifes’, forcing the reader to inhabit some of the most disaffected and marginalised members of the ‘American working class’. Indeed, stories such as ‘Puppy’ and ‘Winky’ initially seek to distance the reader from its working-class protagonists. In ‘Puppy’, we first follow Marie, a mother who ‘spoil[s]’ her children with her husband’s ‘credit card’ and feels moral indignation at the sight of a boy, Bo, ‘harnessed and chained to a tree […] tethered like an animal’. Marie swiftly assumes that the boy’s ‘white-trash’ mother, Callie, is motivated by ‘cruelty and ignorance’, wishing to ‘snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin’. Likewise, in ‘Winky’, the reader is encouraged to denounce Neil Yaniky’s mantra of selfish individualism: ‘Now Is the Time for Me to Win!’, which he justifies to himself under the shallow guise of ‘love’ for his sister, Winky. However, Saunders refuses to allow any single character to claim moral authority; Callie and Winky are also given an equal amount of internal focalisation through a free indirect style, giving the reader access to their moral motivations in the face of severe economic hardship. We learn that Bo suffers from a mental illness that requires him to be restrained; thus, Saunders presents the act as a form of compassion – it is Callie who ‘love[s] him more than anyone else in the world’. As Layne Neeper argues, Saunders unsettles our habitual moral assumptions and challenges our capacity for empathising with ‘the pathetic Other [who] expressly does not deserve our benevolent receptivity’ by providing the reader with just ‘enough knowledge of the […] character’s psychological motivations’ to ‘understand [rather than] condemn’ their actions. In Lincoln in the Bardo, such an inability to empathise with another’s radically opposed moral universe, exemplified in the fight between racist confederate Lieutenant Cecil Stone and former slave Elson Farwell, merely results in the two ‘fight[ing] on into eternity’ (LB,p.321). Such irreconcilable disputes based on mutual misunderstandings find a contemporary parallel in the two ‘separate ideological countries’ of modern-day American politics, ‘LeftLand’ and ‘RightLand’. Saunders provocatively suggests that this political (and personal) polarisation results from a failure of empathetic imagination; if we instead attempted to ‘read the secret history of our enemies’, we would ‘find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility’, thereby achieving an almost ‘unimaginable alteration of [our moral] reality’ (LB,p.321).

As an antidote to these aforementioned vices, Smith and Saunders turn to characters with almost superhuman levels of openness and empathy, whilst also acknowledging that such virtues are often unappreciated and taken advantage of by the rest of society. In both On Beauty and NW, Smith sympathetically praises characters such as Kiki Belsey, Leah Hanwell and Felix Cooper for their unreserved openness to alterity. Kiki can ‘draw […] upon reserves of forgiveness’ (OB,p.43) and trust the overwhelming power of ‘Love’ (OB,p.59), even when faced with repeated marital infidelity. Like Margaret Schlegel – her counterpart in the novel’s paratext, Howard’s End – Kiki finds commonality with the opposing Kipps family through a focus on the personal, unlike Howard, who remains blinded by his rigid commitment to ideologies. When discussing affirmative action with Monty Kipps, Kiki implores him to acknowledge the ‘close[ness]’ of racial divisions by drawing upon the inviolable ‘tru[th]’ of her own lived experience: ‘In my mamma’s neighbourhood, you could still see a segregated bus in 1973 […] It’s recent’ (OB,p.368). By following E. M. Forster’s famous maxim, ‘Only connect!’, Kiki learns to accept that ‘[t]here is such a shelter in each other’ (OB,p.430), even in those who initially appear radically different from oneself.


In NW, Leah and Felix also strive to remain ‘FULL OF EMPATHY’ (NW,p.33) by cultivating a robust sense of openness, even in their interactions with thoroughly selfish people. Leah is presented as the only person who ‘thinks communally’ (NW,p.78) in Willesden, providing hospitality to those in need (such as Shar); due to this, she is able to fully inhabit a state of Otherness, as when she ‘stares at a red bindi’, transporting herself to a ‘more gentle universe […] where people are fully and intimately known to each other’ (NW,p.44). Likewise, Felix earnestly desires to be a ‘good guy’(NW,p.159), smiling at strangers in public (NW,p.118) and reciting the Serenity Prayer when faced with racist stereotyping (NW,p.130). Yet, despite their embrace of alterity and Otherness, Smith remains sceptical of the effectiveness of these virtues in both her novels and the real world. Kiki’s forgiveness of Howard (which has led her to ‘stake […][her] whole life on [him]’ (OB,p.206)) does not lead him to learn from his mistakes, and Smith refuses to offer the promise of a happy marriage between them. Leah’s hospitality towards Shar is shown to be based on an overly optimistic ‘understanding of human nature’ (NW,p.18), leading to her being scammed out of ‘Thirty pounds’ (NW,p.16) and eventually causes the death of her beloved dog, Olive, causing her to leave her community for a more isolated life of safety. Even as Felix faces his own death for a simple act of kindness (asking two men to give up their bus seat for a woman), he remains firmly empathetic with his murderers: ‘instead of fear, a feeling of pity came over him; he remembered when being the big man was all that mattered’ (NW,p.168). What point is Smith trying to make here? Is the fault with her characters’ misguided faith in the power of empathy? Or are these events an implicit critique of a society which fails to value empathy? Smith does not offer clear answers to these questions, yet ultimately the tragic aspects of both novels speak for themselves, leading one to view such openness as both unworldly and dangerously naïve.

‘An untested virtue is not a virtue’, so Saunders proclaims. Following this statement, we can interpret almost all of his fiction as ‘testing’ the efficacy of virtues such as compassion, empathy, and love. In stories such as ‘The Falls’, ‘Victory Lap’ and ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, Saunders ‘construct[s] a situation in which [these virtues can] show [their] true colors’ – achieved by pushing his characters to their ‘breaking points’ in life-or-death situations.50 As Kasia Boddy argues, Saunders’s fiction ‘remind[s] us of the agency, the effort, involved in moral behavior’ by depicting moral improvement as ‘possible, or perhaps even more likely, in the worst environments’. Indeed, under extreme emotional distress, characters undergo a moral epiphany in which they realise a cosmic vision of the universality of human suffering and the fundamental need for love. For example, in ‘Escape from Spiderhead’, when made to watch Heather kill herself, Jeff asks desperately: ‘why are such beautiful beloved vessels made slaves to so much pain?’ (One wonders whether such a realisation can only be obtained through such extremes. If this is so, wouldn’t most people fail to cultivate these virtues in their everyday lives?)

In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders sets himself a far more ambitious task, connecting Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son with the Union’s victory in the American Civil War. Through this profound suffering, Saunders claims that Lincoln’s ‘tent of empathy got bigger and bigger […] includ[ing] slaves and former slaves’, resulting in the Union’s moral triumph over slavery. Within the novel, the group of ghosts (which includes slaves) ‘leap […] [i]nto the President’ (LB,p.250), in a literal manifestation of E Pluribus Unum: ‘[o]ne mass-mind, united in positive intention’ (LB,p.254). In this ecstatic orgy of ‘mass co-habitation’ (LB,p.256), Lincoln experiences a morally expansive epiphany; with his ‘mind [being] freshly inclined toward sorrow’, his ‘sympathy extend[s] to all […] blundering, in its strict logic, across all divides’ (LB,pp.303–4). Through inhabiting the minds of slaves (such as Thomas Havens), Lincoln comes to appreciate a ‘kinship’ with other races, thereby ‘endeavor[ing] to do something’ (LB,pp.311–12) for them. In this cosmic vision of humanity, Lincoln recognises that ‘at the core of each lay suffering’, with ‘no[body] content, all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood’ (LB,pp.303–4), thus requiring compassion. And yet – how can Lincoln simultaneously desire to ‘[o]bliterate’ the Confederate army, which is also composed of ‘suffering, limited beings’ (LB,p.305)? Are we really to believe that Lincoln wished to ‘end suffering by causing more suffering?’ (LB,p.307)? As Robert Baird outlines, we can sense Saunders ‘testing what appear to be his own most cherished notions about the way the world works’ – namely, that of the need for universal kindness and compassion without descending into a radical moral relativism. These doubts find a modern parallel in Saunders’s criticisms of the liberal response to populist politicians; rather than responding to a ‘bully’ with outrage and condemnation, liberals merely wait for supporters to be ‘persuaded’ by their ‘compassionate […] and measured […] respon[ses]’, thereby allowing the bully to keep ‘getting out ahead of [them]’. In such moments it appears that empathy alone fails.

This ethical dilemma points towards a larger conflict between Saunders’s and Smith’s treatment of empathy. Even if we believe, in the abstract, that ‘everyone wants to be happy’ (already a problematically sanguine notion) and that ‘[e]ach person thinks, deep down inside, that he or she is good, and is right’, this does not mean that every person is indeed right and good. Rather, shouldn’t we recognise that not everyone suffers equally, that there are forms of suffering which must be prioritised over others (for example, the suffering of slaves over the Confederate army)? Here, it would seem that Saunders’s ethics falls prey to the ‘humanistic syrup’ which Foster Wallace warned of decades earlier. By contrast, Smith’s “New Ethicist” emphasis on perspectivalism and epistemological limits, as opposed to a cosmic god’s eye view, acknowledges human subjectivity alone as the starting place for empathy. In order to achieve real moral progress, perhaps one must move beyond a passive empathetic acceptance of evil, towards a ‘revived human proclivity for hatred-inspired action’ (LB,p.275, emphasis mine), motivated by a highly subjective encounter with injustice. Yet, Saunders and Smith both make clear that such actions must ultimately find their origins in the painful, ongoing process of empathetic identification; just as Havens and Lincoln find it ‘hard’ to inhabit each other’s minds, we must be ‘resolved […] to stay’ (LB,p.343), to ‘[s]tay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day [we] die, world without end, amen.'


Primary Reading

Saunders, George, Civilwarland in Bad Decline (London: Vintage, 2017)

—— Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

—— In Persuasion Nation (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

—— Lincoln in the Bardo (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

—— ‘On Process’, The Kenyon Review, 36 (2014), 4–6

—— Pastoralia (London: Bloomsbury, 2000)

—— Tenth of December (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

—— The Brain-Dead Megaphone (London: Bloomsbury, 2009)

—— ‘Trump Days’, The New Yorker, 11 and 18 July 2016, pp. 50–61

—— ‘What writers really do when they write’, Guardian, 4 March 2017 <> [accessed 12 December 2020]

Smith, Zadie, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (New York: Penguin, 2009)

—— ‘Fail Better’, Guardian, 13 January 2007

—— ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction’, The New York Review of Books, 24 October 2019, pp. 4–10

—— Feel Free (New York: Penguin, 2018)

—— ‘Love, Actually’, Guardian, 1 November 2003, pp. 4–6

—— NW (New York: Penguin, 2012)

—— On Beauty (New York: Penguin, 2006)

—— ‘Read Better’, Guardian, 20 January 2007, pp. 21–22

Secondary Reading

Baird, Robert, ‘Showers of Hats’, London Review of Books, 30 March 2017 <> [accessed 12 December 2020]

Boddy, Kasia, ‘“A Job to Do”: George Saunders on, and at, Work’, in George Saunders: Critical Essays, ed. by Philip Coleman and Steve Gronert Ellerhoff (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 1–22

Booth, Wayne C., The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988)

Buell, Lawrence, ‘In Pursuit of Ethics’, PMLA, 114 (1999), 7–19

Butler, Judith, ‘Values of Difficulty’, in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, ed. by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 199–215

Childs, Peter and James Green, Aesthetics and Ethics in Twenty-First Century British

Novels: Zadie Smith, Nadeem Aslam, Hari Kunzru and David Mitchell (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

Derby, Matthew, ‘Between the Poles of Biting and Earnest: An Interview with George Saunders’, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 35 (2001), 87–99

Derrida, Jacques and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, trans. by Giacomo Donis, ed. by Giacomo Donis and David Webb (Cambridge: Polity, 2001)

Éigeartaigh, Aoileann Ní, ‘Liminal Spaces and Contested Narratives in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parámo and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo’, Irish Association for American Studies, 8 (2018–19), 66–83

Felski, Rita, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Fischer, Susan Alice, ‘‘A Glance from God’: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Zora Neale Hurston’, Changing English, 14 (2007), 285–97

Forster, E. M., Howard’s End, ed. by Oliver Stallybrass (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000)

Gąsiorek, Andrzej, ‘“A Renewed Sense of Difficulty”: E. M. Forster, Iris Murdoch and Zadie Smith on Ethics and Form’, in The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction, ed. by David James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 170–86

Gatti, Tom, ‘Trump as an agent of mayhem: an interview with George Saunders’, New Statesman, 29 October 2017 <> [accessed 12 December 2020]

Gibson, Andrew, Postmodernity, Ethics, and the Novel: From Leavis to Levinas (New York: Routledge, 1999)

Hale, Dorothy J., ‘Aesthetics and the New Ethics: Theorizing the Novel in the Twenty-First Century’, PMLA, 124 (2009), 896–905

—— ‘Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel’, Narrative, 15 (2007), 187–206

—— ‘On Beauty as Beautiful? The Problem of Novelistic Aesthetics by Way of Zadie Smith’, Contemporary Literature, 53 (2012), 814–44

—— Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998)

—— The Novel and the New Ethics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020)

Hämäläinen, Nora, Literature and Moral Theory (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015)

Hume, Kathryn, ‘Diffused Satire in Contemporary American Fiction’, Modern Philology, 105 (2007), 300–25

James, David ‘“Style is Morality?” Aesthetics and Politics in the Amis Era’, Textual Practice, 26.1 (2012), 11–25

James, Henry, The Art of the Novel, ed. by R. P. Blackmur (New York: Scribner’s, 1962)

Keen, Susan, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

Kingston-Reese, Alexandra, Contemporary Novelists and the Aesthetics of Twenty-First Century American Life (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2020)

Lanone, Catherine, ‘Mediating Multi-cultural Muddle: E. M. Forster Meets Zadie Smith’, Études anglaises, 60 (2007), 185–97

Lipsyte, Sam, ‘George Saunders’, BOMB, 139 (2017), 132–42

López-Ropero, Lourdes, ‘Searching for a “Different Kind of Freedom”: Postcoloniality and Postfeminist Subjecthood in Zadie Smith’s “NW”’, Atlantis, 38 (2016), 123–39

Masters, Ben, Novel Style: Ethics and Excess in English Fiction since the 1960s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

McAdams, James, ‘“Now is the Time for Me to Win”: Social Dysfunction and “The New Sincerity” in the Works of George Saunders’, Readings, 1.1 (2015), 1–6

Miller, Alex, ‘A Conversation with George Saunders’, Modern Language Studies, 45

(2016), 28–39

—— ‘“Err[ing] in the direction of kindness”: George Saunders’s Compassionate Interrogation of Post-Postmodern America’, Modern Language Studies, 45 (2016), 10–27

Moraru, Christian, ‘The Forster Connection or, Cosmopolitanism Redux: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Howards End, and the Schlegels’, The Comparatist, 35 (2011), 133–47

Neeper, Layne, ‘“To Soften the Heart”: George Saunders, Postmodern Satire, and Empathy’, Studies in American Humor, 2 (2016), 280–99

Nussbaum, Martha C., Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Rando, David, ‘George Saunders and the Postmodern Working Class’, Contemporary  Literature, 53 (2012), 437–60

Ratcliffe, Sophie, On Sympathy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Scarry, Elaine, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1999)

Serpell, C. Namwali, Seven Modes of Uncertainty (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014)

Shaw, Kristian, Cosmopolitanism in Twenty-First Century Fiction (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)

Tew, Philip, ed., Reading Zadie Smith: The First Decade and Beyond (London: Bloomsbury, 2013)

—— Zadie Smith (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)

Tolan, Fiona, ‘“Painting While Rome Burns”: Ethics and Aesthetics in Pat Barker’s Life Class and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 29 (2010), 375–93

Wall, Kathleen, ‘Ethics, Knowledge, and the Need for Beauty: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and

Ian McEwan’s Saturday’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 77 (2008), 757–88

Wallace, David Foster, ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 13 (1993), 151–194

—— ‘The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress’, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 10 (1990), 217–39

Appendix - An Interview with George Saunders

Alex Leggatt: Critics often draw attention to the empathetic quality of your fiction. Do you have any specific ethical considerations when you sit down to write? Do you intend for readers to feel a certain way when they read your work? For example: through reading your stories, do you hope that they will become more tolerant/open-minded/empathetic? Can reading (especially reading fiction) make us better people?


George Saunders: Well, let me start by saying that I think that reading fiction can, yes, extend our ability to get out of our own heads, which would tend to make us more empathetic – by which I mean, the character feels briefly more real to us.  And then, possibly, other people, out there in the real world might (might), sometimes, also feel more real to us (because of the imaginative experiences we’ve had while reading.)  I believe that’s possible.  I also believe, speaking beyond fiction, that developing our empathy and sympathy and love and compassion (and these are of course not all the same quality) is a very good thing – the best thing, the thing I have sometimes felt we are “put here to do.”  But I also know that there are better ways to develop those traits than reading and writing – meditation, for example, and other rigorous spiritual approaches.


Now, having said all that and speaking now of when I am writing – do I have any “specific ethical considerations?”  No, except – well, I was going to say “be truthful” but even that might not be quite right.  If I am being totally honest, my visceral concern is to keep the reader reading.  This is done by way of certain “moves” I’ve internalized, that roughly correspond with the old fiction chestnuts – speed, efficiency, truthfulness, humor, specificity, “showing not telling” – really, just whatever serves to keep a reader moving ahead.


So that’s one level of truth.  And practically speaking, it’s a lot of what I’m doing when I work.


However, if we unpacked that desire a bit, we’d find that one of the things that keeps a reader reading is her perceived “connection with” the character – the way she comes to feel that she is the character, or at least cares about that character.  That has an empathetic element.  Also, the way she comes to feel she is connected to the author (he is honouring her attention by thinking well of her and is communicating that via his prose – so they are in relationship with one another).  


So, there is something happening that feels moral-ethical – the two of us (reader and writer) are in connection, by way of our relation to the character and each other, let’s say.  Now: can that “make us better people?” I find myself, at this point in my life and career, cringing a bit at this.  I think it can, yes, but…there’s something too grand about it.  I’m not sure if we’d want to insist on that as something fiction does.  It might do it, it seems to do it – but I’m not sure that setting out to do it would produce a good story.  There’s something else going on there that goes beyond that intention.  (A person could have that intention and write a bad story; a person might even be inclined to write a bad story if that was the predominant intention – since he might be neglecting the key ground rules (“Keep reader reading,” for example, or “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”))  He might be inclined to go on auto-pilot – to only write those stories in which “empathy” was the predominant outcome.  


So…I think reading is part of the life of many good people and I think it buoys them up, in the same way that listening to good music will.  


But at this point I’m content to just sort of say, “Well, fiction does something“ – we all know that, having had it done to us – and that’s good enough for me.


Having said all of that – I do think that when we read, we essentially put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, almost like an extended visualization.  I suspect that’s good for us.  But at this point, I’m more interested in how good it makes us feel – the pleasure it yields.  Why it should do so is interesting (and not, I expect, unrelated to your question about empathy).


Q: Nabokov once wrote: ‘The design of my novel is fixed in my imagination and every character follows the course I imagine for him. I am the perfect dictator in that private world insofar as I alone am responsible for its stability and truth.’ Do you view the characters you create as being mere instruments in the service of some greater plot, or do you allow them to have a ‘life of their own’ as it were, and let them dictate the story instead? Is there some sense of an ethical obligation towards the characters you create?


GS: I agree with this part of the above: “I alone am responsible for its stability and truth.”  By the end, I implicitly bless everything in the story   – that’s my job, to get it to that point.  But I don’t get there by being a dictator – at least not in advance.  At the start I have as little plan as possible. (This is especially true for stories – for “Lincoln in the Bardo” I had a very general schematic that I could tell you in two sentences.)


I’ve described my process at length in, among other places, an article in The Guardian, called “What Writers Really Do When They Write,” but it’s basically: read what I’ve already got, react to it, from the guy, by making line-level changes, all done very intuitively and with as little “conceptual” thinking (planning) as possible.  Then…do that over and over, sometimes for years.  The thing will start to take shape and it will be a more interesting shape than I could have “planned in.”


So…no plan, all reaction (mostly).


Now, ultimately, I am in control – I am “a dictator” – in that I “approve this message.”  I read it at the end and either hit Send or don’t.  (And usually, I don’t, over and over.)  


I don’t think you have an ethical obligation to your characters except not (in service of your plan or of some aesthetic or political agenda) making them things they wouldn’t do (i.e., that their representation in the story so far doesn’t allow).  That is just called “bad writing” though – just like if you had something physically implausible – the reader would be “given pause.”  Her reading energy drops at that hint of falseness.


Likewise, a story will have a certain energy – it has a rhetorical presence.  So it “wants” certain things to happen.  The writer is trying to find out what those are.  Nothing mystical – if a story has in it a guy who claims he is never going to die, we want to see something try to kill him.  If a story is making the case that “true love is not real,” we want to see the other side of that idea fairly represented (“True love sometimes is real.”)


In this sense, “the ethical” in fiction is exactly equal to “the aesthetically beautiful.”


So, as far as process goes: one way I can make you stay in my story is to make my character believable and, even better than that, exemplary – to make him or her occupy her needed rhetorical position in its highest register.  So, if I am writing a thief, I have to make you believe that thief is you, on a different day.  He is a thief you recognize (from within).  To accomplish that magical trick, I have to become that thief and give him thoughts and impulses that are…mine.  Or, that are understandable (even if deplorable) – which is, itself, an act of empathy (in which the reader then participates).


Q: You once said in an interview that reality can be seen as a collection of internal monologues, which certainly helps to explain the structure for Lincoln in the Bardo! Do you hold out hope that, perhaps through reading, we can learn to transcend our own selves (and our neurotic internal monologues) and learn to truly appreciate other people/the wider world (especially as this applies to people whose lived experience is vastly different to our own)? Or is your view more pessimistic than that? Are we doomed to remain trapped forever in our heads?


GS: I think progress in something like this is best seen in a very local and incremental way.  No big dreams.  I know, for a fact, that after I’ve read a good story I’m a little bit more awake.  For a while.  And that’s a good thing.  It’s enough, really.  Trouble is never going to disappear from the face of the earth, ever.  It never has and it never will.  But, on the other hand, we all know, individually, that our lives are sometimes better and sometimes worse.  So, for me, at this point in my life, it feels like it’s good to keep my view (very) local.  How am I doing right now?  (How is this story affecting me, one hour after I read it?  How is writing this story changing the way my days feel?)


I think this idea of life as an internal monologue is useful, though – in explaining how all of this trouble happens.  It’s a pretty good scale model.  So when the shit hits the fan, we can sort of start to understand why.  We can also then go, “OK, if I was trying to change that guy, by changing his inner monologue via what I say or do, what would I say or do?”  And, in general, I’d say the output of that sort of investigation is going to roughly coincide with what good spiritual traditions tell us to do: Try to imagine that everyone wants to be happy.  Each person thinks, deep down inside, that he or she is good, and is right.  Which (this process) would make us (something like) more loving.  (“If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” [Henry Wadsworth Longfellow] said, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”)


Q: Final question: David Foster Wallace often spoke about the damaging effects of irony, and the need for writers to stand for principles that went beyond mere postmodern satire, which he termed ‘New Sincerity’. Do you think that the humanist values of empathy, generosity and tolerance can be advocated for in the deconstructive age in which we live? In your fiction, you often use techniques that would be associated with postmodernism, yet the overall effect of the story is, more often than not, salutary and moral. How do you reconcile these techniques with the overall moral effect of your fiction? 


GS: Again, I might gently push back on the “advocated for.”  I mean –  those virtues have to be advocated for, by we good people.  But we might want to be careful about thinking (or requiring) that fiction do it.  (I’m leery of “art” and “must” in proximity.)  I think empathy et al are beneficial side-effects, maybe, of engagement with art.  But we’d want to remember that so many things can happen when we read a story – the transformation of the reader (if it happens and is to be desired) can happen variously.  (Think about, for example, the experience of reading Flannery O’Connor, or John Kennedy Toole’s “Confederacy of Dunces.”  Are those experiences “empathetic?”  I’d say yes, ultimately, but in a really complicated way.) 


In my work, I always think of the experimental or post-modern or humorous or whatever as tools to get at the truth (which, as discussed above, is the same as “tools to keep the reader reading.”)  Another way of saying this: sometimes conventional/accepted/habitual modes of storytelling feel false and (therefore) boring.  They fail to rise to the occasion of describing what real life feels like.  So we need to invent, in order to present a more truthful (or “shimmering” or “life-invoking”) surface.  Because the story reality is telling us is not, you know, a “realist” story – it’s much weirder than that.


My teacher, Tobias Wolff, once said that “Every good story is experimental.”  He was trying, I think to destabilize the traditional dichotomy between “experimental” and “realist.”  A realist story, so-called, is not, when closely studied, all that “realistic.”  And the feeling of being alive- the feeling of making a mistake, of dreaming, of being in love, of getting old – these have never been adequately described (and never will be, because language is just not up to it.)


So…we experiment.

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