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'Never Anything but Kindness': George Saunders, Folio Prize Winner

24/03/2014 17:17 GMT | Updated 23/05/2014 10:59 BST

Like many people gathered at the St Pancras Hotel last week for the inaugural Folio Prize awards, I was delighted when Lavinia Greenlaw, chair of the Jury, announced George Saunders as the winner. The Prize was set up (in the aftermath of the supposed 2011 Booker fiasco) to reward the best English language work of fiction published in the UK last year, and came with an attention-grabbing prize of £40,000.

It was an intriguing (for which read: totally mad; for which read: brilliant) shortlist, a fact I began to appreciate during the week preceding the Awards. I spent those days speed-reading my way through all eight of the nominated books in order to interview their authors at the Folio Fiction Festival, held at the British Library over the weekend prior to the prize-giving.

At one point before the announcement, my money was on Jane Gardam: what could be more inappropriate, and yet perfect, than setting up a prize to lean towards experimentation in form, only to give it to a broadly realist account of English village life (and here I must emphasize: a profoundly beautiful, and frequently hilarious, broadly realist account of English village life). But then I also began to think that Eimear McBride must be a shoo-in: of all the books, her A Girl is a Half-formed Thing did most with language: sentences--themselves apparently half-formed--that would float across pages like clouds, forming (even briefly) the most unexpectedly striking shapes. In fact, as I read my way through the shortlist--on tubes, on escalators; in the middle of the night; in the middle of a particularly tedious skype meeting--I saw that any one of this supremely varied list might, and should, win.

But George Saunders was a brilliant winner. The stories in Tenth of December marry a wry, unfettered approach to form and voice with a big heart. They're very funny and very sad and very real (if not necessarily very realistic). And he's a very nice man (and very good at reading schedules for Literature Festivals: I was happily toddling off for a cup of tea in the sun until he helpfully pointed out I was down to interview him in three minutes).

What caught my attention, though, was his acceptance speech last Monday (a video of which is on the Prize website). The usual thing at first- thanks, delighted, my agent, and so on... He said some very sweet things about his wife. And then, as it seemed he was about to finish, he turned back towards the mic, and gave the gathered a few more thoughts. 'Just real quickly...'

He talked about how, as he got older, life was starting to seem simpler...that the real goal was to develop our abilities to be more sympathetic to others...to recognise the truth that in spite of what it feels like we're not separate from one and other. He said he was happy to be part of this community of readers and writers and editors. He explained that for him fiction had always been about softening the borders between himself and other people...that in a time where so much of public discourse tells us that we're separate, literature is a wonderful way to remind us that's a lie...that we're connected, and we can actually do things within our life to become more connected.

It felt different from the usual speeches that you get at these things. `Only connect': yes, of course, we know that, but here it seemed different and more vital and both small and very, very big. It reminded me of other things he's been writing recently that touch on that rather unfashionable but related concept: kindness. I thought of his commencement speech at Syracuse University last year (Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse), in which he adopted the persona of the 'old fart, his best years behind him' to share a memory of his biggest regret: not almost dying from monkey-faeces-infested water in Sumatra, or something involving hockey that I guess was ice hockey and not actual hockey (as we would call it), but being mean to a little girl in seventh grade. And not even that mean, really; just...not being kind.

'What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness', he told the graduating class of 2013. 'Learn that we're not separate...err in the direction of kindness'. It's a theme that also came out in a profile in the New York Times Magazine to promote Tenth of December last year. In one of the stories in that collection, a character thinks of his family, and tells himself: 'Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now.' Typical Saunders, in the profile, at one point he equates the kindness of strangers with proximity to death, reliving the clarity he got when he reached out (literally) to his fellow passengers when the plane he was in suddenly hit trouble.

But for all its 2014 currency, for me Saunders's speech evoked another George, and a classic from the literary cannon: a dead cert for the Folio Prize had it been around in 1874. The past few weeks have seen a flurry of George Eliot books. It's not even an anniversary, but there's something Eliot in the air. Three books reviewed, and an editorial, in the TLS , and reviews all over the papers last weekend for Rebecca Mead's biblio-memoir The Road to Middlemarch. Mead, a staffer on the New Yorker, writes of Eliot's aspiration for 'a kind of encompassing empathy', and her belief in 'complex connections and openness to others'. Like Saunders, Eliot believed that 'If Art does not enlarge men's sympathies, it does nothing morally'. Of course these sentiments all find their most perfect encapsulation in the novel Middlemarch itself, and with its central figure, Dorothea. The novel is full of references to kindness: 'abundant kindness', 'chivalrous kindness', 'adorable kindness'... 'never anything but kindness' in one character's (albeit ironic) words.

It's the conclusion that you remember (assuming you get to it- I'm not convinced that 800 odd pages is necessarily always a kindness to the reader). I never asked George Saunders what he makes of Middlemarch- he might find the lack of humour trying, I suspect; but there in that final gloss of Dorothea's life is what he was talking about last Monday. Simple connections and 'incalculably diffusive' effects:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.