NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today.
LONGLISTED FOR THE PEN/DIAMONSTEIN-SPIELVOGEL AWARD • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Washington Post, NPR, Time, San Francisco Chronicle, Esquire, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Town & Country, The Rumpus, Electric Lit, Thrillist, BookPage • “[A] worship song to writers and readers.”—Oprah Daily
For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.
In his introduction, Saunders writes, “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, questions like, 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?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.
Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) offers lessons from his graduate-level seminar on the Russian short story in this superb mix of instruction and literary criticism. In surveying seven stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, Saunders concludes that the secret to crafting powerful fiction is, "Always be escalating. That's all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation." Each story is presented in full, along with Saunders's commentary: on Chekhov's "In the Cart," Saunders asks, "why we keep reading a story," and on Tolstoy's "Master and Man," he writes that facts can "draw us in" when the "language isn't particularly elevated or poetic." Saunders's teaching style, much like his fiction, is thoughtful with touches of whimsy, as when he breaks the action of Turgenev's "The Singers" into a table and compares the short story writer to a roller-coaster designer. The writing advice, meanwhile, is expansive: revising, he writes, involves intuition, and he views a story as a conversation. His closing note for writers is to "go forth and do what you please." Saunders's generous teachings and the classics they're based on are sure to please.
Stories and Comments
In the past I might have read these Russian short stories and been underwhelmed. In his characteristic style, Saunders’ provides a funny, beautiful, and comprehensive analysis of why he loves these stories and how they work as exceptional examples of short story writing. It will change how I read short stories in the future.