Written by Jasey Roberts
In January, acclaimed short story writer and novelist George Saunders released a new nonfiction piece, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” – a book that is part-literary criticism, part-writing guide and, as with much of his work, part-manual for living a better life.
For decades, Saunders has been a professor of Creative Writing at Syracuse University’s M.F.A. program – the same program that has been taught by the likes of Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver. In “A Swim,” Saunders attempts to compress a semester’s course load of analysis into an incredibly detailed close reading of six 19th-century Russian short stories, written by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev. These are writers that Saunders openly loves and stands by. “For a young writer, reading the Russian stories of this period is akin to a young composer studying Bach,” he states in the book’s introduction. The stories themselves range from brief to novella-length, from funny to depressing and from realistic to surprisingly experimental.
Early on, Saunders introduces concepts such as the “Ruthless Efficiency Principle,” or “REP.” “[N]othing exists in a story by chance or merely to serve some documentary function,” he states. “Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose.”
Saunders then goes on to select stories like Turgenev’s “The Singers,” which is, at a glance, a story that is meandering and that very literally serves a “documentary function.” Saunders acknowledges this and instead of regarding it as an outlier to his previous rule, moves to dissect which parts of the story worked and which parts didn’t. He invites the reader to approach each of these stories with an open mind – to always take a diagnostic approach and to keep putting things in their “Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing” basket.
When speaking about Freytag’s Triangle (the plot diagram that goes: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), Saunders writes, “It’s an after-the-fact construction that won’t necessarily help us write a story, but it can help us analyze one that’s already up and running or diagnose one that isn’t.” “A Swim,” in many ways, serves that very same purpose. Aside from the three writing exercises in the Appendix (which are as unconventional as they are useful), Saunders isn’t attempting to teach the reader how to write but is rather teaching them how to think about writing. It is a must-read for fans of his work, for fans of the short story and for people who think they might like to write them.