Dialogs: We Examine the Short Story with George Saunders and Four Russian Masters in CHF Event

As if to prove his versatility as a writer and creator, George Saunders’ latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is not a work of his own creation but a creative writing textbook on the structure of short stories. His source material is seven stories by four famous Russian writers that enable him to illustrate examples of plot, setting, characters and their consciousness. The book is subtitled: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life.

For Saunders’ own funny, sad, madly dystopian short stories, see the collections The Tenth of December or CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. His experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), won the Booker Prize.

Saunders described the approach he uses in the book, modeled after his teaching method in Syracuse University’s MFA creative writing program, in a Chicago Humanities Festival members-only book club event this week. His conversation partner was Alison Cuddy, CHF artistic director. The event was conducted on Zoom and YouTube.

Saunders opens his book with an introduction titled “We Begin,” in which he describes his teaching process as a model for what will follow in the book. The simple question is: Why do we keep on reading a story? We read a line and get enough of a jolt to read the next line. And the next. Or not. Then he provides Anton Chekhov’s story, “In the Cart,” a page or two at a time. At each break, he asks the reader (as he would writing students) to  consider what Marya, the lonely village schoolteacher, is feeling now? Or why did Chekhov choose to narrate this day in Marya’s life—and is this a story yet? He includes an Afterthought after each story.

The other six stories are presented in full (without what he acknowledges is the “annoying, one-page-at-a-time exercise”) and then Saunders asks readers/students questions about the author’s intent and the character’s frame of mind in the Afterthought section. He suggests as we read a story, let’s imagine “we’re dragging along a cart labeled ‘Things I Couldn’t Help Noticing’ (TICHN).” They might be surface-level, plot-related things or quieter things like aspects of the language or structural features—and we might not even be consciously noticing them. They are “non-normative” things that call attention to themselves and that the writer has included for a reason, which will become clear later.

The six other stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain are: “The Darling” and “Gooseberries” by Chekhov; “The Singers” by Ivan Turgenev; “Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” by Leo Tolstoy; and “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol. (The book title is inspired by a scene in “Gooseberries.”)

Cuddy asked why Saunders always started his class (and the book) with the page-at-a-time exercise in “In the Cart.” “I want to get the  students to pay attention to the writing… I don’t do a lot of academic articulation,” he said, and observed he wants them to get the pleasures of reading and see where the connections are happening. “It’s a gentle touch,” he said, writing is “way too hard to be reduced to rules.”

Syracuse University professor George Saunders at his home. Photo by Dennis Nett, courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Is there a spiritual dimension to your love of these stories and these writers? Cuddy asked. “There is for me,” he said, literature and spirituality are closely connected. “I think it’s because I was raised Catholic on the south side of Chicago…. We spent a lot of time going to mass. You could say the mass is a novel … or a series of short stories… the vestments, the color, the art … The peak of the mass is the reading from the Gospel, which is a story, and they’re quite beautiful and humanist.”

These Russian stories, Saunders observed, allow us a little sojourn in someone else’s consciousness. For a while, we’re a lonely, depressed schoolteacher and we feel what it’s like to be that person. One important dimension of these stories is that they enable us to become someone else for a while.

Over the years, he said, reading and writing these stories has helped me to live life and be a little more present in my actual day.

An audience member asked if short stories were better for teaching because they are more amenable to rereading and testing your perceptions of the character—more so than a novel, for instance. Saunders said he thought that a novel is a “little baggier“ in its construction and that’s why short stories get so much attention in the current workshop teaching system. He used the analogy of music as a parallel. “You could choose seven Beatles’ songs,” he said, “and learn about melody, harmony, and lyrical cleverness. You could of course do the same thing with an opera and the same principles apply, but it would be a little cumbersome for the classroom.”

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is available from the CHF bookstore partner, Seminary Co-op and other booksellers.

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