Saturday, March 20, 2021

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life - George Saunders


George Saunders is a prize-winning short story writer who has taught an MFA-level class on Russian short stories at Syracuse University for the last twenty years. As much as many of us would love to sit in on such a class, few will ever be given that opportunity. But now, Saunders offers the rest of us a glimpse into his classroom via A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. The four Russians in question are: Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol. 


Saunders uses seven of their short stories (three from Chekhov, two from Tolstoy, and one each from Turgenev and Gogol) to show his students “how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.” He does this (with the exception of the first Chekhov story) by having us first read the Russian short story for ourselves before delving into his explanation of how each  story is constructed, and why some of them work so extraordinarily well to change the very way that we “see the world.” Reading fiction, according to Saunders, leads to us opening ourselves and our curiosity up to exploring the world through the points of view and experiences of others. 


Saunders explains the study this way:


“We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art - namely, to ask the big questions: How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” 


But as Saunders notes, a story does not get to ask these questions, or any others, if we decide not to finish reading them. That’s where the craftsmanship and genius come in, and Saunders, using his striking conversational style all the while, explains exactly how Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol work their particular magic on the reader. Saunders recognizes, however, that authors will achieve none of this without readers, and he ends his introduction to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain with a tip of the hat to the:


“…vast underground network for goodness at work in the world - a web of people who’ve put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting. As I wrote this book, I had those people in mind.”


How are we to resist a compliment like that one?


Bottom Line: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is primarily aimed at aspiring fiction writers, but Saunders never forgets that someone has to read all those stories. His explanation of how a short story is constructed (and what to look for while reading them) and what an author is, or should be, trying to achieve in the process is truly eye-opening. A lot of what Saunders has to say reinforces what many readers already intuitively know about reading fiction but have never tried to articulate for themselves. This is no a preachy, professorial lecture in which an all-knowing authority reveals to the rest of us what we are supposed to think. Because Saunders wants readers to think for themselves, it is almost the opposite of that.


George Saunders



8 comments:

  1. This sounds so very different and it seems to me that it would make for a good discussion especially for aspiring writers.

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    1. It is kind of unique, I think, because it is just as valuable to readers as it is to aspiring writers. There are some group exercises at the end of the book - and some that can be done alone - so you're right, this one would make for good discussion.

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  2. What an amazing book! I've long been aware that reading fiction is every bit as valuable to a reader as non-fiction. Much as I like non-fiction I could never read it exclusively.

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    1. I agree, Cath, I think there is as much to learn from good fiction as there is from good nonfiction. It's a different sort of learning, but it's equally valuable, in my estimation. I generally read at about a 2-1 rate in favor of fiction over nonfiction, but I've been slipping a bit for the last year and not reading nearly the amount of nonfiction I used to read.

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  3. I love the excerpts you included here. I don't think I'd have considered this book as a choice until reading your review. Now, I'm certainly interested!

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    1. I think you would find it interesting, Jen, because of its style and what it has to say. I only had a struggle with one section - the sixth of seven sections - and that was because I HATED the short story featured. Luckily, it was probably the shortest section in the book. Saunders never did convince me to see much of quality in that one.

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  4. I find these kinds of books most interesting when I've read the short stories or novels they're discussing. Had you read any of the short stories in this one before? I haven't read many Russian authors, only a few things by Chekhov.

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    1. I had only read one of these before, and I hated it. Having to re-read it again was a little painful, and Saunders failed to convince me that anything by Gogol really deserves to sit side-by-side with stories from the other three featured Russians. I just don't like Gogol's work, and never have.

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