George Saunders: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

Close to the end of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders looks back on a class from his graduate school. His professor, a short-story writer, gave a reading of Chekhov. Saunders didn’t know much about Chekhov then: he thought Chekhov’s stories were “mild” and “voiceless”. The professor reads three stories, and in doing so, brings Chekhov to life. After that reading, Saunders was not only convinced of the power of the short story, but also “desperate” about writing better short stories himself.

And that’s partly how I felt reading his book. I felt like that student, sitting in a literature class, listening to an award-winning writer explain what makes a great story great. I’m not a literature major, I’d probably be farthest from it, writing computer software for a living. I had no idea that Russia had a golden age in literature in the 19th century. So for me, to read a great story alongside someone like Saunders, is a meditative experience.

Saunders draws out the human condition from the characters Russian writers created: our ennui, our guilt and compunction, our frailty and our artifice in hiding our frailty, our confusion, duality and uncertainties. Saunders also explains the story as an art form: its techniques, its prose, its layers, its story, its ending. Sometimes he writes alternatives for us and asks us to compare. Along the way, he talks about his own life as a writer and how his own writing failed and then evolved.

The book was inspired by a creative writing course Saunders teaches, so it also has many nuggets of writing wisdom. What’s nice is that Saunders simply doesn’t throw jargon at you. He doesn’t say “plot”, instead he says “meaningful action”. He gives similes that stay with you. Consider what he says about making writing efficient: “it’s a story, after all, not a webcam”. In one place, he compares a writer to a juggler, who always has a few balls up in the air that eventually need to be caught. In another place, he compares a story with good prose to a kite, and says the kite still needs the wind of causality to fly.

What’s also nice is that Saunders pairs his advice with solid context in the form of the connected story. There are at least two places where he systematically tabulates patterns and actions in a story to prove his point. It’s a Socratic analysis, Saunders asking a question and then answering it, but the answer bringing up a further question that needs answering, and so on. Saunders was an engineer before he became a writer, and I think this influences how he approaches writing as well as teaching about writing.

I wish I had read a book like this earlier. Not that I want to be a writer, but in order to know how to appreciate great writing.

I also wished I read more Saunders. So I got his best-known work, Lincoln in the Bardo. It has rave reviews and some say it is a new genre in itself. I am afraid to say, I couldn’t read it. I read about 40 pages but couldn’t go any further. Didn’t work for me, sorry!

Update 2021/04/18:
This interview where George Saunders discusses his book (50 min) is a nice complement.

See also