Graduation speeches most frequently resemble audio self-help books, packed with well-worn, time-tested advice. Like the business audiobooks that line airport bookstore shelves, commencement speakers spend considerable time telling us things we already know. The best the audience can hope for is a personal story or an inventive twist to make the cliches seem fresh and relevant.
What should we expect when one of the writers we cover tackles such a speech? It's interesting to consider because the unabashed optimism required to suit the occasion is so different from what we expect in a work of fiction. For a novelist, meditating on the human condition doesn't always lead to normal, well-rounded, fulfilled characters and happy endings. So what is a well-respected author to do when asked to deliver sage advice to black-robed, diploma-bearing young men and women?
Conform ... and transcend.
The latest graduation speech to make the rounds (any Internet search will turn it up in seconds) is by George Saunders, delivered earlier this year at Syracuse University. Leave it up to a great writer to find a new way to say, "Be kind." Saunders's speech is very good.
Saunders is known for his quirky, dark tales. Michiko Kakutani reviewed his latest collection of stories, Tenth of December, earlier this year in the New York Times, writing, "In story after story there is a chasm between the characters' fantasies and the grinding boredom of their daily existence, between their aspirations to wealth and...