Let me confess: I haven’t read many Russians. The big novels, yes, but few of the classic short stories. It feels like time to correct that omission with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life) by George Saunders.

The four 19th century Russians–Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol–deliver on the promises Saunders makes in his subtitle. They teach us, by way of seven sample short stories, about omission, patterns and escalation.

Or rather, Saunders does. I’ve never heard him speak, let alone attended one of his short story writing classes. But I like to think that reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain comes a close second for writers and readers of Russians and everyone else.

For readers

For Saunders, writing begins with reading. The Russians were not the first authors he discovered. The Russians are the ones against whom he still measures his own work.

They seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool. They changed you when you read them, made the world seem to be telling a different, more interesting story, a story in which you might play a meaningful part, and in which you had responsibilities.

George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life) (Bloomsbury 2021)

Saunders wants to write stories that ask big questions like these Russians do. How should we live? What is our purpose on earth? What is truth? In short, “to write emotionally moving stories that a reader feels compelled to finish.”

A reader is an unfailing judge of what she enjoys reading. So Saunders ask us (writers and readers) to study the way we read to examine how the mind works.

Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.

Saunders, p6

For writers

To make us aware of how we read, Saunders doles out “In the Cart” by Anton Chekhov. One page at a time. Then Saunders asks questions. What do we know so far? What are you curious about? Where do you think the story is headed?

Page by page, Saunders points out where the Russians raise reader expectations. The Russians then honor those expectations with a pattern or deviate from that pattern so as to satisfy the reader “but not too neatly.” The reader wants to be respected for her intelligence and discernment. She wants the writer to take her seriously.

This is an important storytelling move we might call “ritual banality avoidance.” If we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will (we aspirationally assume) present itself. To refuse to do the crappo thing is to strike a de facto blow for quality, (If nothing else, at least we haven’t done that.)

Saunders, p34

For me, the most timely bit of writing advice comes in the essay on Tolstoy’s short story, “Master and Man”. I’ve just torn apart my novel-in-progress and put it back together. Like an amateur car mechanic, I find myself now with leftover parts. How to choose? Saunders knows.

[T]here are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.
First, a willingness to revise.
Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality […] because causality is what creates the appearance of meaning.

Saunders, p244

According to George

I was already enamored of Saunders as a writer. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain lets us see Saunders, the English professor. To enliven his lectures, Saunders offers tables and diagrams to illustrate the Russians in this collection. He gives us exercises on cutting, escalation and translation, brilliant analyses of all four Russians and sage writing advice throughout.

Best of all, Saunders treats us like deeply curious readers. He believes that the writers among us are as intent as he is on improving our craft to the best of our abilities. There is no doubt in his mind that we will appreciate the beauty of these Russians. Saunders believes in us: as readers, writers and human beings.

At the beginning of the first class of the semester I always ask my students to imagine themselves putting a parenthesis in front of everything I’m about to say (i.e. over the course of the semester) and preceding that parenthesis with the words “According to George.”
At the end of the last class, I ask them to close the parenthesis and add the phrase “Well, anyway, that was all according to George.”
You can close that parenthesis now.

Saunders, p388
23 May 2021 | Karen Kao