George Saunders, lauded for his short stories and winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, has been a teacher on the Syracuse University MFA creative writing program since 1997. This book is based on one of his Syracuse courses on Russian literature.
A Swim in a Pond includes seven classic short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol, with accompanying essays, and some writing exercises. The essays are a mixture of literary criticism, writing advice and moralising on literature as ‘a vital moral-ethical tool’. Saunders avoids technical language, jargon, and anything too intellectual. He sticks to asking us to consider how each of the stories works, how they make us feel, and why. Saunders writes, ‘I’m not a critic or a literary historian or an expert on Russian literature or any of that. The focus of my artistic life has been trying to learn to write emotionally moving stories that a reader feels compelled to finish.’
Despite his insistence on only looking at ‘the physics’ of how a short story works, Saunders sneaks in some literary history. We get a few facts about the life and politics of Tolstoy and Chekhov and the documentary function of short stories at this time. He also introduces us to the concept of ‘skaz,’ a type of Borat-style unreliable narrator used by Gogol. This shows the limits of close reading a text and asking ‘how do I feel and why?’ especially in relation to writing from other time periods or other cultures. Sometimes we can’t make sense of what we read without understanding its context.
Saunders writes in an easy-breezy style, with lots of silly anecdotes and self-deprecation. Whether or not this appeals to you is probably a question of personal taste. I feel that Saunders is trying a bit too hard to be the cool teacher that everyone likes, and occasionally while reading I wanted to rebel and shout, ‘OK Boomer!’ from the back of the class. On the other hand, it’s a light, easy, fun-filled read, which takes its subject seriously, but not too reverentially. Saunders says things like, ‘Write it like Tolstoy. Use, you know, a lot of facts. Ha ha.’ He makes the Russians feel approachable.
Saunders avoids talking much about the fine details of prose style, probably because these are all translated stories. He points out that he doesn’t read Russian, and occasionally includes different translations for comparison. Mostly, he’s obsessed with story structure. In fact, Saunders is so obsessed by structure that he breaks down several of the stories into charts, tables and diagrams. According to Saunders, a more tightly organised structure is a better story.
His writing advice is woven in throughout the essays, which makes it, in fact, rather haphazardly organised, but all the usual suspects are there: be specific, be economical, ‘always be escalating.’ Writers need to engage in ‘ritual banality avoidance,’ which means that, ‘if we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will (we aspirationally assume) present itself.’ On the difficult subject of ‘finding your voice,’ he says writers have to stumble down off the mountain of imitation to find a little ‘shit-hill’ with their own name on it, and then commit to making it bigger and better.
Saunders also says that writers must treat the reader with respect, and that any seeming moral failings in a story – sexism, for example – are, in fact, technical failings. Unfortunately I don’t think he adheres to his own rule. At one point Saunders suggests that art might not matter that much after all, and wonders what influence these writers might have had on the subsequent Russian revolution. Then he quickly backs away, writing, ‘these questions are above my pay grade. (Even asking them has made me a little anxious.)’ This is disingenuous: you don’t spend more than twenty years teaching Russian literature at a university, without forming an opinion on these topics. The type of reader who picks up a book based on a master’s degree course probably knows that Saunders must have an opinion, and probably feels more intrigued than anxious about the question: ‘What impact did Tolstoy have on Stalinism? Discuss.’ To pretend otherwise is disrespectful and patronising.
Why, then, does Saunders insist on maintaining a tone of genial, faux-silliness throughout his book? Discuss. I wonder whether Saunders developed his everyman-shtick back when he was really was more of an everyman, with a more working-class background and sensibility than many of his colleagues? But Saunders has been doing this so long now that he’s become a prize-winning member of the establishment. Like a comedian whose jokes about everyday life aren’t so relatable once he gets famous, Saunders may need to stop playing dumb and develop a new shtick.
Having said that, A Swim in a Pond gave me a much better understanding of these Russian writers, reminded me of some important writing points, encouraged me, and made me want to read more Chekov. As Saunders himself concludes: it’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is published by Bloomsbury and is available here.
George Saunders is the author of nine books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize and the Premio Rezzori prize. Tenth of December was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize. He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Reviewed by Kate Tyte
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