A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life - book cover
History & Criticism
  • Publisher : Random House; First Edition, Later Printing
  • Published : 12 Jan 2021
  • Pages : 432
  • ISBN-10 : 1984856022
  • ISBN-13 : 9781984856029
  • Language : English

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

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the 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.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • NPR • Esquire • "[A] worship song to writers and readers."-Oprah Daily

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.

Editorial Reviews

"Saunders is a gentle giant in American letters whose fiction frequently champions the downtrodden and satirizes a society rife with economic inequality. . . . [A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is] an analysis of classic Russian fiction that doubles as an introductory seminar on the mechanics of short stories-namely, how do they work and why? . . . Why does fiction matter now? The answer, Saunders finds, lies in understanding reading to be a kind of life skill-for understanding our position in the world, for arbitrating truth."-The Wall Street Journal

"This book is a delight, and it's about delight too. . . . [A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is] very different from just another ‘how to' creative writing manual, or just another critical essay. . . . One of the pleasures of this book is feeling [Saunders's] own thinking move backwards and forwards, between the writer dissecting practice and the reader entering in through the spell of the words, to dwell inside the story."-The Guardian

"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. . . . An invaluable and uniquely pleasurable master course and a generous celebration of reading, writing, and all the ways literature enriches our lives."-Booklist (starred review)

"A master of contemporary fiction joyously assesses some of the best of the nineteenth century."-Kirkus Reviews

"[A] true gift to writers and serious readers . . . With infectious enthusiasm and generosity of spirit, Saunders delves into seven stories that he calls the ‘seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world.' . . . While the genesis of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain can be found in the creative writing classroom-and writers at any level of their careers will glean priceless pearls from nearly every page-the genius of Saunders's book, and his clear intention in offering it up, is to elucidate literature for the engaged reader, deepening the reading experience. It is also a blueprint for a greater engagement with humanity."-BookPage

"Superb mix of instruction and literary criticism . . . Saunders's generous teachings-and the classics they're based on-are sure to please."-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The subtitle to this exhilarating and erudite work of non-fiction by the Booker Prize­winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December is: "In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life." In it, one of the greatest short story writers o...

Readers Top Reviews

Bill DeefBruce Meyer
This was a big disappointment. I had read one story of Saunders and liked it for its quick pace and humor. Well, none of that’s here. Here he’s just a pedestrian academic (to mix metaphors?). He takes some Russian short stories and rambles on about them with ruminations that are as shallow as the stories themselves. Unless you’re into the “lit as proof of author’s moral superiority” genres. I found out while reading this book why I don’t like these Russian writers. I don’t think that was the purpose, was it? Why Russian writers? Saunders knows nothing about the language and the culture. He has to read the translations and probably misses half of the references. For example, the professions in the 19th century. What does anyone in America understand about contractors, house serfs, scriveners, a “dipper in a paper mill”, a squire, a tradesman, etc.? And these are essential in the Turgenev story. The Russian men have to restrain themselves from kissing each other, something which I imagine most Americans would gloss over or just treat it with their own ethnocentric interpretation. The insults that drunken men use in the stories are ridiculous, “cur”, “dirty dog”, “ninny”, “stupid insect” or incomprehensible, “twister”. Saunders tries to deal with the problem of translation at the end of the book, but he does so through comparing different English versions, which is like dealing with a car repair by looking at the shape of its bumpers. Then, Saunders analysis of the texts is laden with cliches that only people in the late teens and early twenties might not have heard. “The elements of a story must be entertaining in their own right own right and advance the story.“ Some ideas are downright loony. “A story is like a Catholic Mass, a ritual.” Well, the author does thank his elementary school nun teachers at the end of the book. Saunders used to seem, in comparison to the other writers around his age, rather modern. This book for is proof that that was all smoke and mirrors. Like a religious ritual.
I got up every morning excited because after I fixed coffee and fed the dog I spent an hour reading. Geo Saunders was/is the perfect encounter. I learned things about writing and I learned more about human energy and focus. Talk about unawoke. So much I've missed over the years, in terms of technique and of understanding. The engagement was challenging and rewarding. In short, one of the best I've read. Ever.
Diana Kalinda Davies
This book is a treasure that I know I'll return to (and quote from) again and again. A beautiful and insightful analysis of Russian short stories; a powerful philosophy of reading and writing; a theology of empathy and deep interconnection; and some really practical and useful writing exercises all mixed together. As a minister, I expect I'll get a number of sermons out of this. This will preach!
Kathleen O’Hara
You can't go wrong with a "A Swim in a Pond ...." The writer of the book knows what he is doing. And the Russians, or wherever they were born, had a good idea too. Basically, it's a two-or-three-for-the-price-of-one deal so go for it. And if you did not get accepted to this guy's class on writing, read the book anyway and find out what you missed or did not miss. ( Look on the bright side, you saved some money either way.) There are expected flights of fancy, such as for example in the first story "In the Cart", reaching out to Einstein and touching on the law of conservation of energy. This imposition of highfalutin gibberish is accepted in modern academia and indeed has been a refuge for high priests in most professions. Just jump over any dung-strewn passages and skip to the good bits. Short story as a form is simple, no need to retrospectively dress it up in fancy theorems. Bottom line: this guy's agent will be demanding he write one of these books every year because there are more readers of books on writing than there are readers of short stories. Get back to the writing desk George. Time to back in between the shafts and feel the tug of the harness. You’re now in the cart.
Suppose you find yourself in the mood to read some good short stories. Let’s also say that you have a particular interest in reading the fiction of some of the great Russian masters. However, one thing that has always troubled you when you tried to satisfy such an urge in the past is that, despite enjoying the stories, you could not figure out exactly why they are considered to be so great. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a knowledgeable friend available to help you understand the subtleties of such things as character development, narrative construction, plot escalation, and the like? And wouldn’t also be great if that person was always good-natured, witty, and insightful, without a trace of the hubris that sometimes goes with the territory? If so, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is the perfect book for you. In addition to being a first-rate author himself, Saunders is also a professor in a top MFA program where, among other things, he teaches a course in Russian literature. That is important to understand because his goal with this volume is essentially to transcribe his lectures and classroom discussions onto the written page. The result is a spectacular success which, as a teacher myself, I can attest to being very hard to do. The basic structure of the book is fairly straightforward, being divided into chapters focusing on seven iconic short stories—three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. Along with a translated version of the story, each chapter also includes Saunders’ critical analysis of what makes it work so well, as well as an “Afterthought” in which he discusses crucial aspects of the writer’s process, including his own (Revise! Revise! Revise!). If that sounds too much like a textbook, be assured that it really is not. At the heart of the book, of course, are the seven wonderful stories themselves. Saunders’ analyses, while sometimes more involved than seemed warranted, are always accessible, perceptive, and illuminating. He has thought deeply about this topic and he is clearly a fan of the genre, which shows through on every page. (By the way, I had read three of the stories already—or thought I had until I reread them with Saunders as a guide!) Also, while I am unlikely to ever try producing my own short fiction, I still found the author’s many digressions on the craft of creating compelling stories to be very interesting; if nothing else, knowing how hard to writers have to work to make a tale come to life will make me a better reader in the future. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was a very satisfying experience and it is a volume that should be essential for budding writers and seasoned readers alike.

Short Excerpt Teaser

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 same to her, and what she always, invariably, longed for was to reach her destination as soon as possible.

She felt as though she had been living in these parts for a long, long time, for a hundred years, and it seemed to her that she knew every stone, every tree on the road from the town to her school. Here was her past and her present, and she could imagine no other future than the school, the road to the town and back, and again the school and again the road.

• • •

Now your mind is not so blank.

How has the state of your mind changed?

If we were sitting together in a classroom, which I wish we were, you could tell me. Instead, I'll ask you to sit quietly a bit and compare those two states of mind: the blank, receptive state your mind was in before you started to read and the one it's in now.

Taking your time, answer these questions:

1. Look away from the page and summarize for me what you know so far. Try to do it in one or two sentences.

2. What are you curious about?

3. Where do you think the story is headed?

Whatever you answered, that's what Chekhov now has to work with. He has, already, with this first page, caused certain expectations and questions to arise. You'll feel th...