A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders 2021
This is not a book to be taken up lightly. First of all, at 410 pages, it weighs a solid 1 pound 9 ounces. Second, it is detailed literary criticism which is not everyone’s favorite genre. Third, it focuses exclusively on six short stories by Russian writers of the 19th C, again not everyone’s sweet spot.
Having said that, however, if you haven’t been warned off, read it and lose yourself in a brilliant writer’s take on the elements that make a short story memorable and important. Saunders is a master, the author of ten books including the Man Booker Prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ and a famed writing teacher at Syracuse.
In this book he shares his take on stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, some famous (e.g. The Nose) and some unknown to me. In each case he dissects in great detail the elements of the story that ‘make it work’, that change our view of the world even if only for a few moments. His analysis made me aware of how superficially I usually read, especially fiction and especially the short story which upon finishing, I will often move on immediately to the next without taking the time to analyze, understand, and revel in the authorial skill and masterly writing.
This is not a ‘how to’ book for short story writing aspirants. Rather, it’s a ‘how he did it book’ in which Saunders provides hints at how the writing has been effective. Effective for what? Well, here’s a list of how, in Saunders’ words, fiction alters the state of our minds: “I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind. I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid. I feel I exist on a continuum with other people: what is in them is in me and vice versa. My capacity for language is reenergized. My internal language (the language in which I think) gets richer, more specific, and adroit. I find myself liking the world more, taking more loving notice of it (this is related to the reenergization of my language). I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won’t be. I feel more aware of the things of the world and more interested in them. So that’s all pretty good.”
Along the way, Saunders does give aspiring writers advice—be specific, focus on causation in your story line, edit, edit, edit. He summarizes a writer’s goal as ‘having the reader want to read the next sentence.’ The beauty of this book is in his explanations of how these four writers make choices that work, that alter our view of the world, that are believable, that are beautiful, and that want us to keep reading until the end. Read this book for an immersion in the craft and beauty of writing and reading.