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A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
Cover of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain
In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today.
“One of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of a writer that I’ve ever read.”—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.
In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.
From the New York Times bestselling, Booker Prize–winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December comes a literary master class on what makes great stories work and what they can tell us about ourselves—and our world today.
“One of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of a writer that I’ve ever read.”—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
For the last twenty years, George Saunders has been teaching a class on the Russian short story to his MFA students at Syracuse University. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, he shares a version of that class with us, offering some of what he and his students have discovered together over the years. Paired with iconic short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol, the seven essays in this book are intended for anyone interested in how fiction works and why it’s more relevant than ever in these turbulent times.
In his introduction, Saunders writes, “We’re going to enter seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose that our time maybe doesn’t fully endorse but that these writers accepted implicitly as the aim of art—namely, to ask the big questions, questions like, How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He approaches the stories technically yet accessibly, and through them explains how narrative functions; why we stay immersed in a story and why we resist it; and the bedrock virtues a writer must foster. The process of writing, Saunders reminds us, is a technical craft, but also a way of training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiosity.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is a deep exploration not just of how great writing works but of how the mind itself works while reading, and of how the reading and writing of stories make genuine connection possible.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book A Page at a Time

    Thoughts on “In the Cart”

    Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring a series of painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing for a compliment: “But what do you like about the story?” I whined. There was a long pause at the other end. And Bill said this: “Well, I read a line. And I like it . . . enough to read the next.”

    And that was it: his entire short story aesthetic and presumably that of the magazine. And it’s perfect. A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time. We have to keep being pulled into a story in order for it to do anything to us.

    I’ve taken a lot of comfort in this idea over the years. I don’t need a big theory about fiction to write it. I don’t have to worry about anything but: Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five?

    Why do we keep reading a story?

    Because we want to.

    Why do we want to?

    That’s the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?

    Are there laws of fiction, as there are laws of physics? Do some things just work better than others? What forges the bond between reader and writer and what breaks it?

    Well, how would we know?

    One way would be to track our mind as it moves from line to line.

    A story (any story, every story) makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises.

    “A man stood on the roof of a seventy-story building.”

    Aren’t you already kind of expecting him to jump, fall, or be pushed off?

    You’ll be pleased if the story takes that expectation into account, but not pleased if it addresses it too neatly.

    We could understand a story as simply a series of such expectation/resolution moments.

    For our first story, “In the Cart,” by Anton Chekhov, I’m going to propose a one-time exception to the “basic drill” I just laid out in the introduction and suggest that we approach the story by way of an exercise I use at Syracuse.

    Here’s how it works.

    I’ll give you the story a page at a time. You read that page. Afterward, we’ll take stock of where we find ourselves. What has that page done to us? What do we know, having read the page, that we didn’t know before? How has our understanding of the story changed? What are we expecting to happen next? If we want to keep reading, why do we?

    Before we start, let’s note, rather obviously, that, at this moment, as regards “In the Cart,” your mind is a perfect blank.

    In the Cart

    They drove out of the town at half past eight in the morning.

    The paved road was dry, a splendid April sun was shedding warmth, but there was still snow in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, evil, dark, long, had ended so recently; spring had arrived suddenly; but neither the warmth nor the languid, transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks flying in the fields over huge puddles that were like lakes, nor this marvelous, immeasurably deep sky, into which it seemed that one would plunge with such joy, offered anything new and interesting to Marya Vasilyevna, who was sitting in the cart. She had been teaching school for thirteen years, and in the course of all those years she had gone to the town for her salary countless times; and whether it was spring, as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the...
About the Author-
  • George Saunders is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of ten books, including Lincoln in the Bardo, which won the Man Booker Prize; Congratulations, by the way; Tenth of December, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Braindead Megaphone; and the critically acclaimed collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia, and In Persuasion Nation. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Reviews-
  • Booklist

    December 15, 2020
    How did Saunders, who first trained as an engineer and labored in oil fields, become a writer recognized with a Man Booker Prize and MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships? In great part by reading the masters, especially the giants of nineteenth-century Russia's "resistance literature." So important to Saunders are the stories of Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, he's been teaching them to MFA students at Syracuse University, his alma mater, for more than two decades. Admirers of Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) and Saunders' equally imaginative short story collections will discover the full scope of his passion for and knowledge of literature in his deeply inquisitive, candid, funny, and philosophical analysis of seven stories, each included here, by his Russian mentors. Saunders discusses each story's structure, energy flow, the questions it raises, and how "meaning is made," embracing both technical finesse and the mysteries at creation's core, writing, "That's what craft is: A way to open ourselves up to the suprapersonal wisdom within us." He also shares his own experiences as a novice writer and explicates his view of fiction as a ""vital moral-ethical tool."" An invaluable and uniquely pleasurable master course and a generous celebration of reading, writing, and all the ways literature enriches our lives.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 21, 2020
    Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo) offers lessons from his graduate-level seminar on the Russian short story in this superb mix of instruction and literary criticism. In surveying seven stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, Saunders concludes that the secret to crafting powerful fiction is, “Always be escalating. That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation.” Each story is presented in full, along with Saunders’s commentary: on Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” Saunders asks, “why we keep reading a story,” and on Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” he writes that facts can “draw us in” when the “language isn’t particularly elevated or poetic.” Saunders’s teaching style, much like his fiction, is thoughtful with touches of whimsy, as when he breaks the action of Turgenev’s “The Singers” into a table and compares the short story writer to a roller-coaster designer. The writing advice, meanwhile, is expansive: revising, he writes, involves intuition, and he views a story as a conversation. His closing note for writers is to “go forth and do what you please.” Saunders’s generous teachings—and the classics they’re based on—are sure to please.

  • Kirkus

    January 15, 2021
    The renowned author delivers a master class on the Russian short story and on the timeless value of fiction. Though Saunders is known mainly as an inventive, award-winning writer--of novels, short stories, cultural criticism--he has also taught creative writing at Syracuse since 1997. "Some of the best moments of my life...have been spent teaching that Russian class," he writes. This is the book version of that class, illuminating seven stories by the masters: three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, and one each by Turgenev and Gogol. All stories are included in full, and readers need not be familiar with Russian literature to find this plan richly rewarding. Opening with Chekhov's "The Cart," Saunders shows just how closely we'll be reading--a page or two of the original text at a time followed by multiple pages of commentary. The author seeks to answer "the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading?" As he shows throughout this thrilling literary lesson, the answer has little to do with conventional notions of theme and plot; it's more about energy, efficiency, intentionality, and other "details of internal dynamics." Saunders explains how what might seem like flaws often work in the story's favor and how we love some stories even more because of--rather than in spite of--those flaws. Saunders is always careful not to confuse the internal workings of a story with authorial intent. Once we become accustomed to reading like he reads, we proceed through the stories with great joy, anticipating even further delights with his explications to follow. "The resistance in the stories," he writes, "is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind." A master of contemporary fiction joyously assesses some of the best of the 19th century.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    February 19, 2021

    Best-selling author Saunders (Lincoln in the Bardo; Tenth of December: Stories) presents a version of a class on Russian short stories that he has taught at Syracuse University to classes of the best young writers in the United States, limited to six students at a time. The book contains the texts of meticulously constructed stories by Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol, written between 1836 and 1905 during a Russian artistic renaissance, shortly before what Saunders calls "one of the bloodiest, most irrational periods in human history." The book's title is taken from one of Chekhov's works in this collection. Saunders defines a story as "a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality," and in which everything must serve a purpose. Each story is followed by a detailed analysis and commentary. The book, the author notes, is not intended as a "how-to" for others, but rather offers reflections on how he works. Others, he says, must determine for themselves what works best for them. VERDICT Recommended for readers as well as writers interested in how short fiction works and why it is relevant in turbulent times.--Denise J. Stankovics, Vernon, CT

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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