Anyone who writes fiction should read fiction. I’ve pushed back against that truth at various points in my life: reading takes time away from writing, or my writing style becomes spoiled by the author I’m reading. But it’s self-evident common sense. The only way to learn about fiction is to read it.
The attention economy puts constraints on the time available for fiction reading. We’ve got to keep up with social media, and we’ve got to make sure we get our news from more than one source, don’t we? How am I ever going to decide what to spend my limited time reading, of all the books that are shiny and new, and all the acclaimed stories that have ever been published?
That’s why I appreciate it when somebody I really respect tells me what to read. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders compiles seven stories by four nineteenth-century Russian authors (Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol). Based on twenty years of teaching these works to aspiring writers at Syracuse University, he follows each story with an essay analyzing what makes it work, and a series of “afterthoughts” that extend these lessons to the process of writing.
There’s no contemporary author I admire more than George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo (a novel, because “novel” is the only word broad enough to encompass everything that is swept up in this work) won the Man Booker award. His stories are published regularly in The New Yorker. They’re unfailingly deep and engrossing, fully imagined down to astonishing specifics.
I’m probably like many modern American readers in that I haven’t read much in the way of Russian writers or nineteenth-century literature. So to start, thank you to Saunders for exposing me to these seven stories. That said, the fun of the book for me was in the exploration and explication, and especially, in the indirect glimpses into Saunders’ own way of writing.
“Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose,” he writes about the first Chekhov story. He lays out a method of writing that emphasizes revision, over and over, a relentless recursive examining of every word and phrase to make sure it belongs and it delights. The quality of Saunders’ writing proves the effectiveness of this intuitive but demanding process. I’m grateful to him for sharing these insights.