On some special Sundays, we offer readers “Sunday Shorts”—original stories by the best short fiction stylists of our time. But today, instead of a new story, we’re celebrating one of the masters of the craft, George Saunders, and his ode to the form, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. What follows is a review of the book by Hamilton Cain, and then an interview with the author, conducted by O’s Books Editor, Leigh Haber.
The great Russian authors of the nineteenth century paved the way for our own modernity, their creative fires stoked by the inequalities of classism, imperial oppression, and the conundrums of love and morality. And the pleasures they’ve provided! Our debt to them is huge. Yet who hasn’t felt a twinge of intimidation when approaching Tolstoy and Chekhov and Gogol and Turgenev and Dostoevsky. Why bother climbing Olympus?
Fear not: the eminent short story writer and Booker Prize-winner George Saunders comes to the rescue with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, an enthralling, clear-eyed, between-the-covers seminar on seven classic Russian stories and what they reveal about the form–and about human nature. For over two decades Saunders has been teaching these stories to students at Syracuse University, breaking them down page by page –even paragraph by paragraph – to distill each master’s technique, how the layers (Saunders calls them “blocks”) shape up and relate to one another, gently stirring like a mobile. And he acknowledges the form’s unique power to pose and answer the big questions: “How are we supposed to be living down here? What are we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth?”
For example, through a pattern of repetition and variation Chekhov’s “The Darling” teases out the loneliness of a middle-aged woman. Turgenev’s “The Singers” offers up a surfeit of details and asides about drunken peasants in an inn only to braid everything together in the final page. Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” highlights the shifting political winds in late Tsarist Russia by elevating a simpleton as a real person with real struggles and an innate humanity. “To review: a story is a linear-temporal phenomenon,” Saunders observes,” a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us.”
There are razor-sharp critiques here but also rich personal history. What’s most striking about the book is Saunders’ conversational, even intimate tone–we are getting a master class in how to read and write fiction. A Midwestern baby boomer, Saunders writes candidly about his training as an engineer, his passion for music, his love of wife and daughters–all tributaries that feed his craft. He notes how he hammered out story after story in a Hemingwayesque mode – realist, tightly structured – only to rack up rejections from journals. But then by accident he backed into a voice that sounded like no other, one that captured his slapstick humor and was eventually published in his début collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: “The story was oddly made, slightly embarrassing – it exposed my actual taste, which, it turned out, was kind of working-class and raunchy and attention-seeking.”
And perhaps that’s how A Swim in a Pond in the Rain shines brightest: by picking his way through these seven tales Saunders rejuvenates his craft, not only as an author but as a teacher. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Chekhov, Gogol, and Tolstoy, long dead, still live and breathe each time he sits down at the keyboard, his idealized self facing off against the flawed man. “I find this happening all the time. I like the person I am in my stories better than I like the real me. That person is smarter, wittier, more patient, funnier – his view of the world is wiser,” he says. “When I stop writing and come back to myself, I feel more limited, opinionated, and petty. But what a pleasure it was, to have been on the page, briefly less a dope than usual.” — Hamilton Cain
For a deeper dive into the book, and into the larger importance of short fiction in our lives, read the conversation between O’s Books Editor, Leigh Haber, and George Saunders.
You write that you want your own stories to “move and change someone as much as these Russian stories have moved and changed me.” What are some of the ways those stories have moved and changed you?
I’d say the main thing is that, every time I read one, my relation to the world gets altered or, you know, “micro-altered.” I come out of them wanting to be a better person. I love the world more and feel a greater sense of belonging, feel more strongly that I have responsibilities in this world that I may not be living up to – which is exciting. It means that stuff matters. Which makes life more fun.
What makes the short story form particularly suited to having this effect?
I’m not sure. I know that this group of stories (and a bunch of others written by Russians in this particular timeframe) have this effect more strongly on me than do most others, and I think that’s because they understood that the function of art is to make us look around in wonder and maybe feel discontent at the way human beings, including ourselves, behave.
But any good story is, I think, going to be felt as a moral-ethical document. Why? I think it’s built into the form. If I say, “Once upon a time,” and you look ahead and see that my story is, say, eight pages long, the implication (the implicit promise) is: Something big is going to happen and it’s going to happen fast and it’s going to matter/is going to be non-trivial. That is, the form promises urgency. It also promises change. The first part of a story presents some sort of stasis (“Things had always been this way.”) The presence of additional pages means: “This stasis is about to get disrupted.” So: change is going to happen. And when a static situation changes, that makes…meaning. (If, on pages 1-2, Jim has never had a pet and hates pets and swears he will continue to never have a pet – we know he’s going to get a pet. What we don’t know is why – something has to change, in Jim, or happen to Jim. And that is going to amount to a small moral manifesto. If Jim’s life is saved by a dog, and Jim then comes across an orphan dog that looks like the one who saved him – that’s saying one thing about life. If Jim steals from work and his boss says he won’t call the cops as long as Jim adopts his terrible, dysfunctional, 200-pound Rottweiler – that’s saying something different about life. But the meaning comes directly from the change.
You write that the Russians you started reading saw fiction as “a vital, moral-ethical tool,” which is how you felt. Can you elaborate?
I came to fiction late and from a strange angle. I wasn’t a big reader in high school but what I read were books that seemed to want to help me learn me how to live – that tended to moralize. Ayn Rand, Robert Pirsig, Khalil Gibran, etc. I loved being alive and wanted to make the best of it, but I was also, deep inside, insecure and struggling…and I found the idea of having a life philosophy exciting. But real philosophy struck me as too hard (on the advice of a teacher, whom I’d asked, “Who was the smartest person who ever lived?” I tried to read Goethe, but couldn’t make any sense of it). I think I was looking for what I’d call a Philosophy of Easy Triumph– a somewhat didactic book I’d find I agreed with, and would then use to harshly judge all of the other kids at college, who were getting far better grades with much less effort, and going to Europe next summer, whereas I was going to work on a landscaping crew in Amarillo, Texas, for minimum wage. (The basic idea being that there might be something wrong with you, but with enough study of the right books, you can find that there’s actually something wrong with them. All of them.) So, when I read contemporary American fiction (other than Hemingway) it felt (to lunkheaded me) too nuanced and…contemporary. Because I was also a bit of a prig – didn’t drink, was fond of lecturing people on Ayn Randian concepts of dignity and the “eternal dominance of the egotistical doer” and so on. But somehow the Russians….they were like a gateway drug. They were talking about how to live but they seemed more realistic and lifelike, with flesh on their bones. They took up the big questions but then set about answering them using normal-sized human beings (no supermen or moral exemplars etc). I felt the authenticity and sincerity in them.
I also have a suspicion that I am a reincarnated 19th-Century Russian.
How does a short story help supply answers to such questions as: “How are we supposed to be living down here?” or to help recognize truth?
I think the main way is by painting the character into a corner that we ourselves have been in, or can easily imagine ourselves being in – perhaps in slightly exaggerated form. So we feel at one with that character, or we come to feel that way over the course of the story. At the beginning, we’re apart from the character and slightly above her. As our head gets filled up with specific facts about her (and as we come to see ourselves as “like” her) we move closer to her and she rises until, in a perfect story, we become one – she is us and we are her. We are equals, united by fondness (and this is true even if the character is “bad” or doing questionable things; we maybe don’t, and shouldn’t, “like” that character, but we see her more clearly, we have more data on her). And this is a pretty good aspiration for real life too. We see someone and they are, at first, The Other (lower than us and less interesting). But we might – we can – by leaning in and being curious – come to see that person as just “us, on a different day”. So what starts out as an artistic enterprise is seen to be, at least potentially, a spiritual enterprise as well.
When you think about it – when we wake in the morning we’re pretty much blank. Right away, information starts flooding in. Some of that comes from the world itself (we see a bird; a storm is moving in; the summer air smells wonderful; our partner tells us that she slept great and had a dream about her first-grade teacher.) And some of it comes from…other places. The radio, the TV and, increasingly these days (and I say this as a person who checks his phone when he gets up at 3 am to pee) from the internet. It makes sense, I think, for us to ask, of any information that is trying to penetrate that sacred kingdom called “our mind,” – “Where did you come from and how were you made? What basic assumptions are behind you?” The Tweet blushes and answers, “Well, a thought came into this guy’s mind and he blurted it out, with the intention of calling some attention to himself, come hell or high water. Also, we only allowed him 140 characters, because, uh, that’s, you know, our brand.” Facebook says, “We give you a chance to performatively control other’s perception of your life! Just don’t be dull or go on too long. And no unfortunate-but-truthful photos, please!” And so on. So: we’re being bombarded with information that is laced with someone else’s agenda and that mode of expression has come to dominate.
Compare this with prose written in a literary mode: there is absolute freedom; a person not only can, but should, revise the piece over many months of years and, every time, the piece is going to get smarter and more nuanced and wittier and (this is strange but true) more filled with compassion and sympathy and, yes, I’d say, love. And the aim of that piece of writing is communication – the writer is trying to communicate something of what she’s learned about life to a reader she views as her equal. It’s exploratory, ambiguity-embracing; it is happy to confound and resistant to facile judgment.
So – in spite of the above, I have nothing against social media, but I think our reading diet is too rich with it, and too poor in literary prose – prose that opens us up and makes us less agitated and combative, instead of more. We’ve somehow, many of us, come to treat literary stories and novels as a sort of freaky sidedish – but I’d say that storytelling is the essential human activity. We are doing it literally twenty-four hours a day, even in something as simple as, “Ah, the freeway is going to be jammed at this time of day – I’d better take the sidestreets” and certainly when we think, “I wonder if Mary realizes how much she hurt my feelings,” or “I can’t stand those [insert name of opposing political party]. This is all projection – making up stories when we don’t have all the facts. Fiction trains us in certain ways of doing this better, more fairly, and with certain necessary doubts seeded in. We learn the value, for example, of specificity. To look for the specific and eschew the generality. And so on.
As for truth – when we read a piece of fiction, which we know to be invented, we can feel ourselves pulled in by “the actual” – that is, moments when we go, “Oh, yes, it is like that, for sure.” So this might be seen as a practice of sharpening our truth detectors. If someone says, “As I walked, in Vermont, through the autumn forest, under the palm trees…” – we are thrown out of the story. Our truth-detector makes a big fat FALSENESS ALERT sound. A story – a good story – is a series of true observations, of all kinds, and then, sometimes, a leap into a zone of speculation, built on that foundation of “the true.” Reading, I’d say, increases our ability to feel that we are in a solid relationship with the truth (we know it when we see it). Also, spending some time every day with good sentences helps us identify bad ones, and the main trait of a bad sentence is that it is somehow lying. This is useful when listening to politicians. But try it – try to write a bad sentence that is nevertheless true. Or a good one that isn’t.
Explain how “Bob was an asshole” transmuted into the ultimately much more sympathetic version, and what light that sheds on how a story gets made?
Well, that’s a kind of silly example I use to illustrate an interesting and mysterious principle, namely that, when we try to make our sentences better (faster, more efficient, smarter, pithier) we also tend to make them more humane. In the example, I revise “Bob was an asshole” by asking those beautiful fictive questions, “How so?” and “Tell me more?” until it becomes, “Bob snapped at the barista,” and then, beyond that, “Bob snapped at the barista, who reminded him of his wife, Maria, who had died in November.” At first, Bob was located down there below us: a mere asshole. By the end, Bob is…someone who once loved deeply. He has become a form of “us, on a different day.” But he got there because we (in the revision process) were trying to write better sentences…
Is your book about how to read, or how to write?
Yes! I think ultimately they are two forms of the same activity. What is a writer, really, but someone who knows how to skillfully read her own work? And that reading takes place in a mode that we might call non-conceptual, whether we’re reading our story or someone else’s. In the book I describe this imaginary meter we have in our heads, with “P” on one side (for “Positive Reaction”) and “N” on the other side (for “Negative Reaction”). As we read, the little needle on that meter is moving back and forth all the time; whether we are “reading” or “writing,” a vital part of the activity is being aware of what the needle is doing. The reader might feel this as being drawn into, or pushed out of, the text; that reaction isn’t necessarily fatal, but it informs our feelings about what’s going to come later. For a writer, when the needle inflects into the “N” zone, that is the story saying, “Hey, pal – you might want to do some revision right around here.” So, at the heart of both activities is that holy state, increased alertness, or exaggerated awareness. And reading and writing both teach us to be in a better relationship with that state, I’d say. We learn to trust our own reactions, i.e., our own mind. (And, in a sense, isn’t this what we’re trying to do in every moment of life, even when we’re not reading or writing?)
“Having an intention and executing it does not make good art.” I’m so used to thinking about intention as the best way to begin anything. How does this notion inform your own writing process?
If we know what we want to do (or “say”) and we do say or do that – everyone is bummed out. Art is supposed to surprise itself. In most bad writing, the reader knows very quickly where the story is going and then it just…goes there. It feels like a lecture, or like when someone’s kid is trotted out and shows off for an hour and you’re supposed to like it. There’s something condescending about it. But really, what we’re hoping for when we read, is a partnership – the two of us, reader and writer, working together, both being surprised together.
The only way a writer can achieve a genuine surprise is to surrender control of the piece; to steer by some other basis than “What I have planned out.” The approach is different for every writer but it is, in my experience, intuitive. And it has to do with having a strong, joyful opinion (with “joyful” defined pretty broadly – we can be joyful while working hard and even while being genuinely frustrated, I think). So what are we doing when we revise? We are reading, having a visceral reaction, allowing (or blessing) that reaction, noting it, and responding (with a cut or an addition). This can all happen in a single second. It doesn’t, in my experience, involve much conscious, analytical/intellectual “deciding.” Just…altering a phrase or sentence so it pleases you better, and doing this over and over and over.
Gradually a story will form and it will be wilder and smarter and more ornery than the one you had planned.
(By the way: I think intention is important too, in the sense that, before we start something (anything) we’d want to generate a positive intention. (“I hope this helps someone, or cheers someone up,” or whatever.) But that is an aspiration about the state of mind we are going to be in as we embark; it doesn’t say exactly what we’re going to do, but aspires to a certain relation to the activity.)
There are writing exercises in the book, including one in which the reader is asked to write a 200-word story in 45 minutes using only 50 words. You observe that this exercise is “like dancing while drunk and filming it.” What do you hope for from the readers who experiment with this exercise?
Mainly that they find out that there are other writers within themselves than the one they usually channel. If I make a silly constraint and you try it, in a spirit of goodwill, you will find that there is usually a little cartoon bubble over your head, filled with what we might call your default creative stance – that set of assumptions you start out with (about what literature should do, or sound like, or what your “themes” are, and your strengths and weaknesses and so on). But there are so many writers (so many people) in each of us and sometimes that default creative stance (which we picked up along the way, in school, or at readings, or from know-it-all interviews like this one) doesn’t allow us to find the most interesting person (i.e., voice) within us. These goofy exercises sometimes let that writer in – she appears, all new and original and fearless, because the Same Old Writer is being held back by the constraints imposed by the exercise.