Magnetism seems magical not least because it is invisible. It acts semi-secretly in plain sight, whether it’s holding one photo suspended on a refrigerator door or protecting all of Earth from the ravages of the harsh solar wind. We don’t see it act — we only observe the effects, as in this illustration of iron filings being rearranged by a bar magnet.
I am going to ask you to keep that image in mind while you read this passage from a recent George Saunders essay on the process of writing:
When I write, “Bob was an asshole,” and then, feeling this perhaps somewhat lacking in specificity, revise it to read, “Bob snapped impatiently at the barista,” then ask myself, seeking yet more specificity, why Bob might have done that, and revise to, “Bob snapped impatiently at the young barista, who reminded him of his dead wife,” and then pause and add, “who he missed so much, especially now, at Christmas,” – I didn’t make that series of changes because I wanted the story to be more compassionate. I did it because I wanted it to be less lame.
But it is more compassionate. Bob has gone from “pure asshole” to “grieving widower, so overcome with grief that he has behaved ungraciously to a young person, to whom, normally, he would have been nice”. Bob has changed. He started out a cartoon, on which we could heap scorn, but now he is closer to “me, on a different day”.
Did you see the iron filings move?
Saunders starts off with two characters, Bob and the barista, connected by an action. Saunders then adjusts the story until his alignment with Bob becomes clearer and clearer — Bob gets a past, a backstory, an emotional landscape. Bob becomes me, on a different day. The barista gets a single adjective: young. Saunders says this is “more compassionate.”
But I notice the barista’s still the one getting yelled at. She never even gets a name.
I found this jarring because in the initial setup, I allied myself far more strongly with the barista than with Bob. Granted, we started with Bob is an asshole so the initial flinch is tied to that whole I’m not an asshole self-defensive impulse that’s so hard to shake. But even though I’m now a middle-aged lady who writes full-time and prefers tea to coffee, I’ve worked enough years in retail to automatically class myself as barista-adjacent. So I was waiting for her part in this drama to be more completely revealed. And it never happened. She stays a passive grammatical object, a thing that exists for Bob to do something to.
Quick poll: how many of us assumed the barista was white? I caught myself doing just that. Same with Bob, now I think about it.
Did you see the iron filings move? I did, but not soon enough.
Later, Saunders gives us another example of his composing process. He starts with a sentence, Jane came into the room and sat down on the blue couch. This makes him “wince.” Slowly he pares away at it, word by word, making it more and more “Hemingwayesque” until he’s left with merely Jane, which, he says, “at least doesn’t suck, and has the virtue of brevity.” Even in text, I guess, women should take up as little space as possible.
I want to tell you that Saunders isn’t doing this deliberately, even though he’s in the middle of an essay about self-editing and artistic deliberation. But on purpose or not, it fits a larger pattern.