It's a Harsh Form, the Short Story
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
“To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works.”
What do nineteenth-century Russians have to teach the modern writer about crafting short stories? According to George Saunders, quite a lot. Based on his class at Syracuse University, his latest project provides close readings and analysis of seven of his favorite works from Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogal, all in the effort to sort out “whatever converts not yet a story into great story” as well as how to write “the kind of story that stops being writing and starts being life.”
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. By George Saunders. Random House. 2021. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
Last year, I went on a date with one guy who was obsessed with Russian literature (of which I had read none), and another who was a big George Saunders fan (of which I had read some). In the spirit of trying to understand the failure of both of these conquests, I picked this up when it came out in January. That goal was unsuccessful.
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What did I think?
The collection is composed of seven, Russian-authored short stories, Saunders’s seven reply essays that are “reading to see what we can steal,” and seven afterthoughts that offer broader reflections. I skimmed the stories and felt nothing much was lost given how detailed Saunders is in explaining where one author uses escalation to turn an anecdote into a full-blown narrative, or how another exploits specificity to produce plot, and perhaps most dauntingly the way “In the Cart” provides all of its necessary concerns on the first page. Saunders reads each story with the same question in mind: “If [it] drew us in, kept us reading, made us feel respected, how did it do that?” I must admit that none of these stories really drew me in, but I was curious as to why they appealed to Saunders, how he found greatness in spite of (or even at times because of) flaws. The answer is wide and varied. He admires patterns of excess that convert into virtue with the same gusto as employing quiet resistance to traditional thoughts of good and evil, applauds “non-normative” aspects—“aspects that seem to be calling attention to themselves through some sort of presentational excess”—alongside causality that is truthful, i.e. where “internal logic is solid.” Out of these praises he often shapes universal truths for writing, such as: “Any story that suffers from what seems like a moral failing...will be seen, with sufficient analytical snooping, to be suffering from a technical failing, and if that failing is addressed, it will (always) become a better story,” or, “Language can appear to say more than it has a right to say; we can form it into sentences that are not in relationship with what actually is or even what could be.”
Saunders’s favorite way of providing wisdom is through the metaphor, “A story is…” or “That’s really all a story is…” or “We might think of a story like…”, which appear in some variation more than a dozen times throughout the 400+ page book. The grounded answers to these prompts are: “a linear-temporal phenomenon”; “an organic whole”; “a limited set of elements that we read against one another”; “a continual system of escalation”; and “a beautiful system for presenting a pattern of controlled variation.” The more obscure thoughts include: “a kind of ceremony”; “a candy factory”; “a table with just a few things on it”; and “a black box.” He even imagines something called “Club Story” where the writer goes through a smoky bar asking each section of their writing why they need to be in there and, “in a perfect story, every part has a good answer.” His absurdity makes it a little hard to swallow when he argues (a touch condescendingly) that many young writers have the false understanding a story is merely “a delivery system for their ideas,” or when he claims poetry is “truth forced out through a restricted opening...normal speech, overflowed,” though I think the latter point does speak to something important that has to happen in writing, as well as my favorite of his story definitions: “frank, intimate conversation between equals.”
Saunders wrestles with the importance of technical proficiency versus emotional power, ultimately landing in a place where “the writer has to risk a cracking voice and surrender to his actual power, his doubts notwithstanding…to write in whatever way produces the necessary energy” if he wants to succeed, which means letting go of mechanical control and allowing feeling to take over, at least while drafting, for art’s validity arises out of its ability to spur sensations. Following this instinct is how a writer will keep the reader wanting answers to questions, caring, feeling curious, and constantly looking for meaning. Here, Saunders does offer some more truism-like advice (i.e. Remove all ideas that feel too obvious “by responding too slavishly to your expectations…To refuse to do the crappo thing is to strike a de facto blow for quality” and, “If you know where a story is going, don't hoard it. Make the story go there, now”), but ultimately, he returns his discussion to a matter of feeling, of trying to master understanding your reader’s reaction to your work separately from your understanding of it as the writer and then successfully juxtaposing the two. “A work of art...has to surprise its audience, which it can do only if it has legitimately surprised its creator,” Saunders writes. “The story has a will of its own…and if I just trust in that, all will be well, and the story will surpass my initial vision of it...Essentially, the whole process is: intuition plus iteration...That's how I see revision: a chance for the writer's intuition to assert itself over and over.” More succinctly: “To read and to write is to say that we still believe in, at least, the possibility of connection...it's not everything, but it's not nothing.”
🌟 3/5 — Eh…
This book felt for me the way Saunders describes some short stories, “read from a sense of duty, the way we walk through a middling local museum: noting things we should feel interested in but aren't, really.” Although it was momentarily compelling to learn about a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration referred to as skaz, I had such a hard time caring about the material he was referencing that it was difficult to appreciate the lessons derived from it. Somewhat ironically, a book meant to reflect the desire Saunders has for his MFA students to achieve their “iconic space”—“the place from which they will write the stories only they could write, using what makes them uniquely themselves—their strengths, weaknesses, obsessions, peculiarities, the whole deal...to become defiantly and joyfully themselves”—made me feel the way he describes a bad story: “statis, awkward, occasionally maddening.”
Writing isn’t all about plans or advice, construction and exaggeration, persuasion and questions. It’s about setting aside these things and leaning into the pleasure and fun of finding your voice. “Discussing a story in technical terms, as we're doing here, doesn't fully unlock the mystery of how [it] actually gets written...the actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully,” Saunders writes. “We're always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we're at our most intelligent in the moment just before… Great art occurs—or doesn't—in that instant… [It’s] the place where liking what we like, over and over, is not only allowed but is the essential skill.” Saunders says he hopes that his stories can move others the way the Russians moved him, and from the praise on the jacket’s back cover, I’d say they have, but I think this book would’ve been more successful if he had spent less time fan-boying and more time occupying the vulnerable, hard to describe space he knows hecan inhibit and that all writers want to inhibit. Sure, it’s scary, but I think it would’ve been very much worth it.
Beyond the book.
If you’re interested in joining the cult of George Saunders, I wouldn’t suggest you start here. His short story collections are far more digestible and show some of this advice at work, which is more fulfilling. Additionally, his Booker Prize-winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is truly a good time. However, if you want a little more context for this book, I’d guide you toward listening to (not watching; the video quality is terrible) this interview he gave with Daniel Torday in association with the Philadelphia Free Library where he talked about the process of writing during COVID-19 and discusses whether or not the book is a valid substitute for an MFA course. Spoiler: it’s not.
See you again soon!