Editing Analysis: George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead”

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Like some postmodern fiction writers, George Saunders is not only interested in “showing” and “telling” emotion through the story’s narration, dialogue and action, but also through the specific placement of words and phrases on the book’s pages. Terse sentences are isolated, creating a clinical or urgent atmosphere within the sparse settings of “Spiderhead”. For example:

Mike gave. That is, there on his back, scalp bleeding, he gave, by shooting me a certain look, like, Dude, come on, we’re not all that serious about this, are we?

We were.

I was.

I don’t even know why I did it.

Postmodern fiction has become multidisciplinary in its writing structures as they attempt to convey emotion and meaning through metatextual mediums, in this case with word isolation and emphasis on whitespace akin to a minimalist scene in an experimental movie or the brief exercises of a poet.

Whereas Browne and King worry about excessive use of emotional descriptors for dialogue and narration, Saunders has focused on utilizing speech-like inner monologue as an “excuse” to overuse emotional descriptors. The protagonist Jeff is loose in his thinking, signified by the mix of run-on sentences and two-word utterances, and will quickly describe his emotions in an elementary fashion:

Reading that made me feel a little funny that we’d fucked and I’d loved her.

But I still didn’t want to kill her.

That is not to say that Saunders completely shirked any responsibility to the most traditional approach to “show and tell.” A great piece of advice from Browne and King is that varying writing styles between narration (in this case, Jeff’s inner monologue) and “scenes” (mostly the dialogue Jeff has with other characters), the author produces a varied set of textures every couple of pages. Bursts of dialogue and bursts of narration occur, with small transitions in between as expository scenes describing the drugs and the scientists’ actions are mixed with small utterances by various characters.

Saunders tends to be more straightforward in postmodern writing style compared to the likes of David Foster Wallace, but it still occasionally denies Browne and King’s commonly expressed guidelines for maintaining transparency between the reader and the story. As per their advice:

One of the easiest ways to look like an amateur is to use mechanics that direct attention to themselves and away from the story. You want your reader to be so wrapped up in your world that they’re not even aware that you, the writer, exist.

However, subtle and overt attributes of “Spiderhead” tend to bring attention to both the writer and the page itself. Aside from the word isolation mentioned above, the “corporately”-named drugs mentioned throughout the story are always marked with the iconic United States trademark symbol, which helps to both expand the universe of the story but also call attention to Saunders’ rhetoric regarding pharmaceutical drugs and the pervasion of corporate terminology in all aspects of life, including the metatext.

In summary, we find that George Saunders is using the ideals of “show and tell” in ways that differ from the more limited definitions of Browne and King’s guidelines. The “telling”, or narration is loose and speech-like. The “showing” oscillates between terse dialogue scenes and metatextual quirks. This further expands the options that a writer can utilize to vary the texture of their stories.

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