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

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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.

403 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 12, 2021

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About the author

George Saunders

108 books8,876 followers
George Saunders was born December 2, 1958 and raised on the south side of Chicago. In 1981 he received a B.S. in Geophysical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. He worked at Radian International, an environmental engineering firm in Rochester, NY as a technical writer and geophysical engineer from 1989 to 1996. He has also worked in Sumatra on an oil exploration geophysics crew, as a doorman in Beverly Hills, a roofer in Chicago, a convenience store clerk, a guitarist in a Texas country-and-western band, and a knuckle-puller in a West Texas slaughterhouse.

After reading in People magazine about the Master's program at Syracuse University, he applied. Mr. Saunders received an MA with an emphasis in creative writing in 1988. His thesis advisor was Doug Unger.

He has been an Assistant Professor, Syracuse University Creative Writing Program since 1997. He has also been a Visiting Writer at Vermont Studio Center, University of Georgia MayMester Program, University of Denver, University of Texas at Austin, St. Petersburg Literary Seminar (St. Petersburg, Russia, Summer 2000), Brown University, Dickinson College, Hobart & William Smith Colleges.

He conducted a Guest Workshop at the Eastman School of Music, Fall 1995, and was an Adjunct Professor at Saint John Fisher College, Rochester, New York, 1990-1995; and Adjunct Professor at Siena College, Loudonville, New York in Fall 1989.

He is married and has two children.

His favorite charity is a project to educate Tibetan refugee children in Nepal. Information on this can be found at http://www.tibetan-buddhist.org/index...

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,015 reviews
Profile Image for Marchpane.
296 reviews2,168 followers
January 27, 2021
A book that achieves exactly what it sets out to, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is essentially a writing class in book form. Your instructor is George Saunders, and while his personality shines through, please note that this book could not be further from the experience of reading Saunders’ fiction.

For a start, a good chunk of this book is not by Saunders at all, but a bunch of dead Russians. Seven short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev and Gogol to be precise and no, you can’t skip the homework. I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t always enjoy the homework, but Saunders’ breakdown and analysis of the stories more than made up for that. And while this is specifically a class about the short story form, and specifically about these Russian authors, the insights provided here apply to any kind of fiction.

Forgoing lofty academic concepts, Saunders focuses on just the important stuff: What makes a story work? What makes it good? What makes a reader want to keep reading? What makes the reading experience satisfying (and what doesn’t)? It’s both a practical approach for aspiring writers, and a fascinating exercise for readers who like to think about what they read (hello Goodreads friends!). Take George’s class and come out of it cleverer than you were before.
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews706 followers
December 3, 2021
Reading this book I was acutely aware that I was not the main audience for it. It is written as a result of the course Saunders is teaching for many years to the aspiring young writers as a part of MFA program. I am just a reader. And, if I would want to write a story (unlikely), I would definitely stay away from any formal advice on the matter. Saunders, and presumably the majority of his students do not speak Russian. So they read these stories in translation. I am a native Russian speaker so I can read the original. But I like Saunders’s previous work. And when the one of my wonderful friends here (Hi, Vesna!:-) has nudged me towards reading this book with her, I did not hesitate.

The book has amused me. At the end, it was a very unusual, but fruitful reading experience, though I disagreed with quite a few interpretations of the individual stories. And I ended up writing the longest review ever (sorry for that)! It made me think again about many issues such as the process of translation, the value of professional creative writing programs (MFA) and what is that thing that makes a story special.

The book consists of 3 main parts. Saunders would start with the story. It would be followed by the essay of its closed reading. In the essay, Saunders would underscore the angles of the story which would show some technique or observation useful for an inspiring writer. Then, Saunders would comment in a separate short chapters -“afterthoughts” about his own process of writing. The comments would be inspired by the story in one way or another.

I’ve enjoyed the most when Saunders was talking about himself. Here, the book was becoming alive. His sincere desire to show how he does his craft was evident. Also his thoughts about human nature, ageing, the meaning of life were interesting and fresh.

I struggled more with his analysis, and respectively with his attempt to teach how to write creative fiction based upon those stories. But I admired his passion and love for Russian literature throughout.

The review did not fit into the box. So I've split it in two parts. The first part is the comments on some individual stories. And the second part is my reflections on professionalisation of writing through MFA degrees. This part is in the first comment's box.

Individual stories

Saunders has picked 7 individual stories for his book. He looks at 3 stories by Chekhov, 2 by Tolstoy; Gogol and Turgenev have a story each. I’ve read only 3 of the stories before. It was amusing to see the reactions of a writer from a very different linguistic tradition. Especially, he could only read these stories in translation. Sometimes, it has affected his interpretations. In the case of “The Darling”, the English version got him quite derailed from the original in my opinion. However, it was a fascinating and enjoyable experience to accompany him on his reading journey compare my notes with his.

Singers by Turgenev

This story is a part of ‘Sketches of a hunter”. It is sketchy indeed and very descriptive. Turgenev spends the bigger part of it painting with words his numerous characters for them only to meet once in a village pub to enjoy a signing competition. I thought the story was dull unless you are interested in the anthropology and the ways of the entertainment between the Russian lower classes circa mid 19th century. But Saunders used it rather successfully to show that a writer cannot totally define his style. And even if Turgenev would want to write like someone else, he would very likely come back to write like Turgenev: ie put a lot of descriptions even if he does not need them for his plot. And if he, Saunders, once wanted to write like Hemingway, it did not work until one day he tried to write like Saunders. And it was liberating. That was the lesson. But in terms of Turgenev, there are much better stories to read and enjoy. In his short stories, he is brilliant in creating complex portraits of romantic love. Asya and Faust are good, for example, if someone wants to taste how deep Turgenev could go beyond the sketches.


I do not have much to say about the Tolstoy’s stories. I thought Saunders analysis was quite profound. This is his thought about the first one:

“Master and Man,” we begin living it; the words disappear and we find ourselves thinking not about word choice but about the decisions the characters are making and decisions we have made, or might have to make someday, in our actual lives.”

But the stories he has chosen did not moved me deeply enough to make a wider comment. It is a well known fact that Tolstoy idealised peasants. In the last story, “Alesha the Pot”, he talks about a young lad who subdued his personality to the desires of his superiors. Saunders grapples with this character and tries to find the complexity and double meanings. Also it is the story when Saunders brings some Russian speakers to help him with translation. Well, in terms of the complexity, the only complex thing in that character is his natural simplicity. He is as simple as any part of nature. And he is closer to the natural world than to any modern Western person.

The Darling by Chekhov


In my opinion, Gogol stands out with his unique ability to create distinctive voices in his prose and in his anticipation of the 20s century absurdism. “Nose” is the story for example about the disappearance of a nose from the face of a low level St Petersburg’s official. One can find traces of Gogol in Kafka or Okutagawa. Saunders analysis is quite entertaining. He talks a lot about how Gogol creates a distinctive narrative voice for the story. But I was surprised he calls the genre of Gogol stories a “skaz”. Skaz in a traditional Russian meaning is a story based upon a rural legend or a fairy tale which is often being retold orally. It is soft of an epic tale. Leskov, the another Russian writer of the 19th century is famous for using the element of skaz in his short stories. One could say Gogol used some element of this in his “Mirgorod” stories. But here, in St Petersburg stories, it is hardly a skaz in the definition known to me. Gogol indeed uses unreliable narrator and he is excellent in it. Maybe the term “skaz” was redefined somehow in the Western Canon. I do not know. But I certainly would classify Gogol as early absurdist rather than a “skaz” writer.


This is the one of my favourite Chekov’s stories. So I am quite passionate about it. In its core is a monologue of Ivan, the one of the characters on the possibility of happiness. Among other things Ivan is saying:

‘It is obvious the happy person feels this way only because the unhappy ones carry their burden in silence, and without this silence the happiness would be impossible.”. He continues that it should be someone with a little hammer standing behind and knocking to remind the happy people about this fact. He also appeals to his friends to do good and acknowledges that he is not able of doing it properly which keeps him awake at night. At the same time, Ivan gives the title to the Saunders’s book. He swims in a river under rain and he truly enjoys the moment. He is totally radiant and amazingly full of life.

It seems to me that Saunders thinks that Ivan is a bit of a hypocrite on the basis that he enjoys his swim and is content while preaching the impossibility of happiness. Saunders also picks up the detail of a stinking pipe left by Ivan that disturbs the sleep of his friend. On this basis, he think Ivan is somewhat “narcissistic”. 

I am simplifying a bit his argument, but this interpretation made me smile. No Russian I know would assign the stink from the pipe to any egoistic impulses of Ivan. In fact, no Russian would find this detail so significant in terms of Ivan/s character. ‘Swimming in the pond”, is more complicated though. It is not about happiness for Ivan and it is definitely not about being content in spite of believing that it is no-one should be happy. No. It is about feeling alive. As simple as that. It is about knowing that life is full of tragedy, but feeling that a person cannot do much but live in full swing.

“There is no strengths to continue living, but in any case one needs to live and one really wants to live!” - says Ivan later.

He is a contradictory character. But he is not a hypocrite. He does not allow himself being happy in spite of what he says. He just lives. That is why he is in the pond under rain.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,798 reviews2,389 followers
January 12, 2021

If you’ve never had the pleasure of taking a course in creative writing from George Saunders, this is your chance to take advantage of what he has to share without spending a semester in Syracuse, New York. This time of year, especially, it makes sense to opt out of the chillier weather and sit in on some of the lessons, virtually, as Saunders’ shares with his Syracuse students, in a master class on the Russian short story.

He includes two stories by Tolstoy: Master and Man and Alyosha the Pot, three stories by Anton Chekhov: In the Cart, The Darling and Gooseberries, one by Ivan Turgenev: The Singers and one by Nikolai Gogol: The Nose.

Each story includes Saunders thoughts, musings on these stories, which are, for the most part, quiet, domestic, and apolitical...resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture... The resistance in the stories is quiet...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. Following each story, are his Afterthoughts.

His enthusiasm sharing this is palpable, and more than a bit contagious. Those unfamiliar with these authors and or Russian literature needn’t feel overwhelmed, Saunders breaks it all down, sharing his thoughts and showing what makes a story worth reading with undisguised joy. I enjoyed reading the stories themselves, but even more than that, I enjoyed reading Saunders break it all down and share his thoughts on what makes each story work, and how variations from the story would alter it. His love of teaching really made this an absolute joy to read.

Published: 12 Jan 2021

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Random House Publishing Group - Random House
Profile Image for carol..
1,572 reviews8,224 followers
February 4, 2023
Suffice it to say that I have 177 highlights on this book.

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship… The resistance in the stories 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.”

I have almost no interest in literary fiction. But this attracted me in a friend’s feed because of it being short stories; the stories are from the greats in Russian fiction; Russia being what it is, I thought her literature might give me more insight into her people; and while I seem to do a lot of reviewing, sometimes I feel like I lack the tools to be as specific as I would like. Saunders has even more insight on why we (I) study the way we (I) read:

“To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time.”

There are seven short stories here: In the Cart by Anton Chekov, The Darling by Chekov, Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy, Nose by Nikolai Gogol, Gooseberries by Chekov, Alyosha the Pot by Tolstoy and Singers by Ivan Turgenev.

‘In the Cart’ is the only that he walks through like a professor, page by page. Saunders acknowledges the reader must be fretting with impatience, and notes that the better the story, the more annoying the exercise is. I’ll be honest; this part was the most tedious and was one of my stopping points before the library recalled the ebook. But the value of what he does here is makes the reader think what words have been chosen that carry the reader forward? What has been written that makes us want to continue reading?

“We might imagine structure as a form of call-and-response. A question arises organically from the story and then the story, very considerately, answers it. If we want to make good structure, we just have to be aware of what question we are causing reader to ask, then answer that question.”

In contrast to the stories, he speaks very colloquially and, at times, playfully. He knows his audience is not just students of literary fiction, but also writers and ordinary readers. Throughout the analyses, he will drop various bon mots; one of the lessons in the first is:

“Earlier, we asked if there might exist certain “laws” in fiction. Are there things that our reading mind just responds to? Physical descriptions seem to be one such thing. Who knows why? We like hearing our world described. And we like hearing it described specifically.”

'The Darling' proceeds faster, but along similar analysis, showing a more dialed-out view of the rhythm of a story. Saunders notes callbacks and parallels, and the way reader expectations are set up from this structure and then changed to create greater interest.

“This complicates things; our first-order inclination to want to understand a character as “good” or “bad” gets challenged. The result is an uptick in our attentiveness; subtly rebuffed by the story, we get, we might say, a new respect for its truthfulness.”

Saunders continues through the stories, vacillating from a literary-analysis viewpoint of ‘what could this mean.’ But he understands that some of his audience are writers and so he speaks often to this aspect as well:

“I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t. First, a willingness to revise. Second, the extent to which the writer has learned to make causality.”

‘The Nose’ is the story that feels most uncharacteristic in the collection, perhaps because as satire, it takes everything less seriously. In a book of Very Serious Narrators, it allows Saunders to introduce the dual ideas of consensual reality and narrative bias–important concepts, to be sure, but interestingly at odds with what I’d call the social realism of the other six stories. However, it also allows Saunders to digress a bit on following one’s own inner style/voice for trueness.

“Every story is narrated by someone, and since everyone has a viewpoint, every story is misnarrated (is narrated subjectively). Since all narration is misnarration, Gogol says, let us misnarrate joyfully.”

The stories themselves were… curious. Since I haven’t read literary fiction since high school, I can’t speak to their representation for their class or culture, but Saunders does share some of his thoughts on each as well. He’ll note what Chekov may have thought about his own works, particularly comparing them to Tolstoy, or how Tolstoy’s changing religious beliefs, as documented in personal journals, came to impact how Saunders interpreted 'Alyosha the Pot.' That story actually is the one that undergoes the most detailed literary analysis, as he shares different translations of phrases from the original Russian.

What I ended up doing after laboriously working through the first three stories, is reading Saunder’s analysis and then going back and reading the stories. Somehow it worked much better for me. Unfortunately, it gave me a bit of bias to interpretation, but I think it allowed me to actually finish the book in a more timely manner when there was so much I wanted to ponder (ebooks being subject to a two-week loan).

Did I read it for a class? No. But it was an excellent exercise in both thinking and reading.

For an excellent review discussing more about the individual stories and Saunder's approach, read Katia's thoughts: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,642 followers
February 13, 2021
I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to attend a Saunders masterclass on"Gooseberries" - he was an unforgettably good lecturer, and conjured a warmth in the room that I recall happily, often. I've seen him talk a couple of times since, and both times radically amazed me, though slightly less so than the "Gooseberries" lecture. There is something about those sparking experiences, perhaps, that led to me feeling a slight disconnect from this charming, smart writerly analysis of stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Gogol, and Turgenev, which are provided, and which make for wonderful reading. The Saunders analytic style, so quippy and likable, somehow works perfectly out loud, and slightly less so on the page - but here comes a second confession: I think people who have taken an MFA, or a college writing class, may find less here, just because many of the reveals will be familiar to them. As a peek behind the veil, it could very well be fascinating; for a dweller behind the veil, the revelations are in the stories themselves.
Profile Image for Anne Bogel.
Author 6 books59.7k followers
March 23, 2021
Though I've enjoyed Saunders' work in the past, I wasn't eager to pick up anyone's hefty analysis of Russian short stories. I'm so pleased that I listened to my writerly friends who said "this is fascinating, you have to read it!"

In this workbook-like book (Saunders's phrase), Saunders explores the craft of writing through the lens of four Russian short stories. It's surprisingly engaging, especially on audio, with narrators like Nick Offerman, Rainn Wilson, Glenn Close, and Renee Elise Goldberry to read you the old stories. Listening felt like sitting in a fantastic lecture hall with my favorite literature professor, and now I want a physical copy for making notes.

You don't need an English degree or any interest in Russian lit in order to pick this one up—a healthy dose of nerdy curiosity will do.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
April 8, 2021
I've taken several literature courses through the year, but never one just centering on the short story. Now I have and though of course there is no feedback I do actually feel like I've taken a class on deconstructing a short story.

The first story the author chooses is, In the cart, by Chekhov. This is the only story out if seven he takes us through page by page. His thoughts on reading, and he does teach this class in person, and what and why the author uses the words he does. What do they mean, why is this or that scene included? What makes a short story? So we also learn about what it takes to write a successful short.

The other stories are by Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenev and another by Chekhov, all able story tellers. I'm looking forward to my next book on short stories. Will be a good test to see if I learned anything. I think I have but we'll see.
Profile Image for Melissa.
Author 10 books4,399 followers
January 27, 2022
This might be my all-time favorite book on craft. It's just so generous and gentle, so easy to get your arms around George Saunders' ideas of what makes good writing. This book will ACTUALLY convince you it's okay to write a sh*tty first draft, and why, and will take away any lingering sense of shame you might have around "bad" writing (which is just writing that hasn't yet been revised to express the fullness and specificity of your writer self! Thank you, George!).

My personal writing approach, which I've suspected might be a little low-rent, is to say, "You know what would be cool?" and go from there, continually trying to figure out what I, personally, think would be "cool." Seeing Saunders confirm (in smarter, more illuminating words) that he basically approaches his work the same way really made me happy. Maybe one day I, too, will stumble into writing Lincoln in the Bardo. (Just kidding.)

Reading short stories with George Saunders over my shoulder helping me to appreciate and unpack them is now the only way I want to read short stories? Dammit.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,550 reviews602 followers
December 29, 2021
[4.5] More Professor Saunders, more! Saunders heightened my appreciation and understanding of each of the 7 stories (by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol) contained within this volume. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is geared towards writers but is perfect for readers who wish to look deeper. Saunders' commentary is NOT "literary criticism" but is everything literary criticism should be - readable, witty, useful and very enjoyable. How wonderful it would be to have a selection of other classic stories with Saunders' conversational analysis. I am craving more...

(I listened to the audiobook, very well narrated, but also referred to the print copy)
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews141 followers
January 18, 2021
This was exactly the book about how to write and think about short stories that I'd been looking for, like the MFA class I've always wished I could take.

There's a mix of classic Russian stories, commentary that helped me think about what about the stories is working and how, and larger thoughts on writing fiction that always felt generous and helpful without getting pushy. That's a tough balance, and this book nailed it.

I listened to the audiobook and was pleasantly surprised. The author reads his essays with an easy, listenable voice, like being in a good class. For me, there was something truly special about hearing smart inspirational advice in the writer's own voice. As for the stories, famous actors read those and do a great job. It's a great combination.

This is one of the very few writing books that I've finished feeling like I learned a lot but also inspired to write on my own terms. I'll be listening again and again.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.5k followers
July 22, 2023
I finally finished this book in the summer of 2023, taking Saunders's "Master class" on writing, reading and life, making use of four Russian Master short story writers from the nineteenth century. He's been teaching this class for many years, and he finally decided to make the class public through this book. I read all seven short stories, reviewing them separately and then enjoying Saunders teaching me about the way he sees each story works, each one of them a masterpiece to Saunders.

The stories in the Russian short story master class:

Chekhov's "In the Cart"
Turgenev's "The Singers"
Chekhov's "The Darling"
Tolstoy's "Master and Man"
Gogol's "The Nose"
Chekhov's "Gooseberries"
Tolstoy's "Alyosha the Pot"

I also found each one of them masterpieces, unforgettable. i reviewed each story on Goodreads separately, then added comments after reading Saunders's essay on each story. He also has some writing exercises at the end, and a reflection on fiction for making your life and the world (slightly) better. He admits that Stalin murdered more than 20 million after the greatest literary period in Russian history in which these writers lived and were lauded by Russian society, so he realizes he can't claim that literature will automatically change the political landscape, or make all people better. Nor did it make Hitler and his boys--murders of millions as well, and lovers of literature and music and art--more humane.

But those of who love reading deeply, those of us who write feelingly and complexly, those of us who teach reading and writing and passionately share books with others, parents and friends and teachers and librarians, know very well that stories can sometimes change lives, even in small ways. It can make you see things from a range of perspectives. It can make you read carefully for "truths" and complexity and and gray areas and lies.

PS: I am doing all this reading and learning about stories in part in conjunction with a project: To collect, edit/revise all of my own short stories (in part with the help of my trusty assistant and fine young writer in her own right, [and daughter] L). I am retyping each story, revising/editing as I/we go. Several of these stories were published, some of them decades ago, so will eventually make them available on a website to be named later. I am also commenting on what I can recall about the construction of each story--including origins, influences--as I recall them. I received an MFA (my advisor was short story master Stu Dybek of Chicago), featuring four of these stories, long ago. My daughter and I are also both writing (parallel) stories this summer based on our trip to the Southland to complete our having visited all fifty US States! The stories touch on our encounters with bears, alligators and sharks, among other potentially scary things.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews592 followers
November 30, 2020
A story is a series of incremental pulses, each of which does something to us. Each puts us in a new place, relative to where we just were. Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of: (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art (where we were before we read it and where we were after) and (2) getting better at articulating that response. What I stress to my students is how empowering this process is. The world is full of people with agendas, trying to persuade us to act on their behalf (spend on their behalf, fight and die on their behalf, oppress others on their behalf). But inside us is what Hemingway called a “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” How do we know something is shit? We watch the way the deep, honest part of our mind reacts to it. And that part of the mind is the one reading and writing refine into sharpness.

Apparently, in addition to writing some of my favourite long and short fiction, George Saunders is an Assistant Professor in Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program, and one of the classes he teaches to the MFA students is on the Russian short story. Reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is like sitting in on this class as Saunders dissects seven of his favourite (or, at any rate, illustrative of some point) 19th century stories from Russian authors (three from Chekhov, two from Tolstoy, one each from Gogol and Turgenev), and not only does he explain the methods behind the writing of such precisely-constructed stories, but Saunders also illustrates how to read and recognise the craft in them. The tone is knowledgeable but casual — Saunders invites his students and readers to disagree with him (to employ their own “shit detectors” and trust their own tastes) — and I ended this book feeling both educated and entertained; it receives my highest recommendation. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs — or doesn’t — in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though beyond language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.

If I had one complaint it would be about the formatting of the analysis of the first story, Anton Chekhov’s In the Cart: For this story only (and Saunders does warn that he’ll be treating the first story uniquely, but I didn’t pick up on his meaning at the time), Saunders shares the story one or two pages at a time and then asks questions about what, as readers or writers, we assume will happen next or how we feel about the latest development or what we think Chekhov intends for us to learn. This process would certainly help writing students to understand the mechanics of the story and its construction, but it didn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience and I was happy to discover that each of the ensuing stories is included in full before Saunders begins to analyse them (this seems a peevish complaint but I’m including it merely as a warning for anyone else who may be turned off at that point; do carry on.)

But to the good: Saunders has studied and taught these stories for decades, in various translations, and knows them intimately. His analyses include historical and biographical information that bring Russia and these authors to life, and by including details about his own life and writing process, Saunders invites us into the mysteries through which art is created — showing how it's done and why it matters. Again, while specific information (on how to write a sentence, for instance, and how to then revise it into a better sentence) seems essential learning for his writing students, Saunders makes it also feel like essential information for those of us who simply want to read and appreciate well-written fiction. And as someone who hasn’t read a lot of Russian short fiction — and also as someone who doesn’t feel like I always understood what I did read — this book entertainingly filled voids in my education of which I was only vaguely aware. I closed this book feeling enriched; enlarged.

To get to a few specifics, Saunders discusses the Russian trope of “the Holy Fool” and debates whether Leo Tolstoy was employing it in Alyosha the Pot (or whether, as a devout Christian, Tolstoy was unironically writing about a character who perfectly displays Christian virtues; the genius of the story being in that unconscious debate in the reader’s mind). Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose was one of the stories included here that I had read before — without really understanding — and I appreciated Saunders’ discussion of the Russian literary technique of skaz that Gogol was employing:

Every soul is vast and wants to express itself fully. If it’s denied an adequate instrument (and we’re all denied that, at birth, some more than others), out`comes...poetry, ie., truth forced out through a restricted opening. That’s all poetry is, really: something odd, coming out. Normal speech, overflowed. A failed attempt to do justice to the world. The poet proves that language is inadequate by throwing herself at the fence of language and being bound by it. Poetry is the resultant bulging of the fence. Gogol’s contribution was to perform this throwing of himself against the fence in the part of town where the little men live, the sputtering, inarticulate men whose language can’t rise to the occasions but who still feel everything the big men (articulate, educated, at ease) feel.

Saunders explains the ambivalent appeal of Ivan Turgenev’s journalistic approach to short fiction (Henry James was a fan; Nabakov, not so much), and concludes of The Singers:

I’m moved by this clumsy work of art that seems to want to make the case that art may be clumsy if only it moves us. I’ve sometimes wondered if this effect was intentional: a sort of apologia from Turgenev for his own lack of craft. If we are moved, Turgenev has, via this story that claims that emotional power is the highest aim of art and can be obtained even in the face of clumsy craft, demonstrated that very thing. Which would be, you know — pretty great craft.

I appreciated that Saunders mentioned that Master and Man was Tolstoy’s effort, twenty years later, to make something more artful out of his experience of getting lost in a storm than his initial effort in The Snowstorm (which I then needed to find and read; also adding Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain — to learn how a story’s action can be urgently propelled a paragraph at a time — and revisiting Saunders’ own Victory Lap — to experience how a story’s action can go in directions that surprise even its author; I do love a book that leads me to do further reading off the page.)

There are many versions of you, in you. To which one am I speaking, when I write? The best one. The one most like my best one. Those two best versions of us, in a moment of reading, exit our usual selves and, at a location created by mutual respect, become one. That’s a pretty hopeful model of human interaction: two people, mutually respectful, leaning in, one speaking so as to compel, the other listening, willing to be charmed. That, a person can work with.

I highlighted far more passages in this book than I could reasonably share — there are so many directions this review could have taken — but this last one hit me personally: My very favourite books have always compelled me to say that they “charmed” me and I have to pay respect to an author who understands that, as a reader, I approach every book with this willingness to be charmed; that my least favourite reads are those that — through sloppy, illogical, lazy writing — make me feel disrespected instead. I love that Saunders’ approach to teaching is to highlight this imperative; that’s where art gets made.

Trying to stay perfectly honest, let’s go ahead and ask, diagnostically: What is it, exactly, that fiction does? Well, that’s the question we’ve been asking all along, as we’ve been watching our minds read these Russian stories. We’ve been comparing the pre-reading state of our minds to the post-reading state. And that’s what fiction does: it causes an incremental change in the state of a mind. That’s it. But, you know — it really does it. The change is finite but real. And that’s not nothing. It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.

So, that’s what it’s all about: Through the analysis of seven short stories from 19th century Russian authors (also included are two more from Chekhov: The Darling and Gooseberries), Saunders explains how to write, how to read, and why both matter — and that’s not nothing. I loved every bit of this.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
February 8, 2021
In teaching circles, the word "lecture" has a bad name. Many would call it well-deserved -- often those who sat in huge lecture halls at college listening to professors drone on (vs. talk).

It could happen in more intimate settings, too, as in a small class of 20 boxed off in a room looking remarkably like high school classrooms (only with a few tendrils of ivy curling in from the bricks outside the window).

Reading "Professor" Saunders' thoughts on seven Russian short stories, and what they mean to writers leaning into that trying genre today, reminds me of the importance of qualifying things. Yes, lecturing is, overall, bad educational practice, but sometimes that bromide doesn't hold water.

What if, for instance, the lecturer is incredibly knowledgeable? What if, to complement that, he is engaging and personable, too? And while we have our Literary Fairy Godmother around (I see her feeling taxed and eyeing the exits), what if he is humorous (of all things) at times as well?

I'm sorry to disagree with common knowledge regarding educators who talk on and on, but in this case I'll happily listen to a lecturer every time. Or, to be more specific, I'll read a Syracuse writing course's lecturer's book cover to cover.

What review would be good without a few caveats up front? All seven stories Saunders uses are from the Golden Age of Russian Literature in the 19th century. There are three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol. If you don't care for the Russkies or, specifically, those Chekhovian wonders where "nothing" seems to happen (but does so eloquently), you might not like this book.

Also, if you have no interest in writing, you might not think it's a big deal. But that caveat is questionable, really, because there is such a thin line between the interests of a writer and the interests of a reader. Thus, Saunders' analysis of "how it's built" or "how the story works" could as easily fascinate a student of reading as a student of writing.

So, yes. Guilty as charged. The book hits my sweet spots as a fan of Russian literature, as a fan of writing, and as a fan of good senses of humor. Others might get bogged down in certain stories or be tempted to skip over them (and if so, why bother?). Or maybe they don't care about literary criticism (it's a free country, they say). Or maybe they're just not fans of George Saunders ever since he dragged poor Lincoln into the damn Bardo (which we had to look up to discover "in some schools of Buddhism, bardo, antarābhava, or chūu is an intermediate, transitional, or liminal state between death and rebirth.") That's Wikipedia for Purgatory in the Eastern Hemisphere.

Be this as it may, I'm giving my personal response here: Fun to read. Fun to mark up. Fun to read something that encourages a revisiting of the Russkies (or maybe a visiting for the first time of Saunders' short story collections).

As is true with lecturing, long books like this can be off-putting at first, but cordial given time and patience. My advice? If you're going to read it, you owe this book both.

Nota Bene: Saunders considers Chekhov's best short stories to be the three in this book ("In the Cart," "The Darling," and "Gooseberries") as well as "The Lady with the Pet Dog," "In the Ravine," "Enemies," "About Love," and "The Bishop."
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews585 followers
May 2, 2021
This is easily going to make it into my best reads of 2021 list.

I admit, at first I was dubious. I am not a writer nor a willing student of Russian literature. George, here with his teacher's hat on, is asking me to turn my attention to Chekov's muddy cart ride and Tolstoy's endless night lost on a sledge, frozen washing portending doom. No Mr Vollman bearing his tremendous member in his hands, to be found in these stories.
Saunders is a patient, brilliant, funny teacher who at the end of the day says “well that’s just what I think, you don’t have to approach things as I do, jettison everything you don’t need” and I appreciate that non-didactic approach to life. Somewhere in here beyond the writer's workshop class notes is a warm-hearted and non-polemical suggestion on how to approach life and its big questions, (basically to summarise George, don’t be a selfish turd, find your own voice and read, read, read!).

Slowly the reluctant student was charmed then educated, learning to read more adroitly by poking around inside George's head as he dissects the mysteries of Gogol's nose fixation.

Now to discover more Chekov without George there to hold my hand.
Profile Image for marta the book slayer.
427 reviews1,062 followers
November 24, 2021
The author of this book presents us with these three facts about him in the beginning:
‣grew up in Chicago
‣becomes an engineer
‣loves Russian literature

I could place these facts in the "about me" section of my GR profile and there would be no lie. I was internally screaming and fangirling to find a book that was written by someone like me, for me. Isn't that the best feeling in the world? A book that speaks to you as if it had your own voice.

5 million stars / 5

These random tidbits aside, this book is for writers and readers. Trust me when I say you do not have to be a huge fan of Russian literature to enjoy this book. If you have been wondering how to be a better reader, this book is for you. If you are in a writer's block and want different techniques for writing, this book has three exercises to get those creative juices flowing. I thought I was only going to be reading a critique of 7 Russian short stories, but there is so much more depth and personality in this book.

The short stories that the author goes over (and they are included in the book) are:
‣"In the Cart" by Anton Chekhov
‣"The Singers" by Ivan Turgenev
‣"The Darling" by Anton Chekhov
Master and Man
The Nose
Alyosha the Pot
Following each short story there is a discussion in which the author addresses one of the biggest lessons he took away from each short story about how to write. There's also additional afterthoughts sometimes.

The feeling this book evokes is familiarity and calm in a classroom about a subject you are passionate about. No longer do you need to be worried or stressed about participating/taking notes/preparing for an exam; all you are doing is listening and enjoying. From the very first page to the last I felt like an eager student, learning for the sake of learning.

I want to thank you for allowing me to guide you rather bossily through these stories, for letting me show you how I read them, why I love them. I've tried to be as clear and persuasive as possible, telling you what you should be noticing, pointing out certain technical features, offering my best explanation of why "we" were moved in this place or that, and so on.

Thank you, George Saunders. I expected a collection of Russian literature stories with some analysis, but instead I received a re-awakening in how to best interpret what I read from now on. I am so saddened that I have to return my copy to the library because this is a book I can find myself going back to.

part of race against time challenge (aka read all 2021 releases before the year ends.)
Profile Image for Javier.
217 reviews153 followers
August 30, 2021

Uno pensaría que cualquier lector empedernido, como es mi caso, es, en mayor o menor medida, un aspirante a escritor. Quizá yo sea la excepción que confirma la regla, pero la verdad es que nunca he sentido la menor inclinación por la escritura, del mismo modo en que disfruto comiendo, pero huyo de la cocina siempre que puedo. En ambos casos, puede que sea un tema de salud pública; poca gente sería capaz de digerir mis escritos o mis guisos.
Mi única experiencia literaria son estas reseñas, y es suficientemente reveladora. Son como los hijos: antes de que nazcan uno sabe exactamente cómo van a ser —perfectos, adorables, inteligentes, ¿cómo podrían ser de otra forma? Casi puedes verlos delante de ti. A medida que empiezan a crecer se revelan… un poquito menos perfectos, pero no importa, los quieres igual, así, con sus defectillos que a fin de cuenta han heredado de ti. Además, ya mejoraran. Inviertes tiempo y esfuerzo en su desarrollo, pero cada vez son más diferentes de aquellos que imaginaste al principio, cada vez menos tuyos y más de ellos mismos. Un día, convertidos en adolescentes llenos de granos e ideas propias, se van de casa no porque hayan alcanzado el grado de perfección que anticipaste, o porque tengan tanto de ti que ya no puedes darles más, sino por todo lo contrario y porque, sencillamente, ya toca.
Si eso es una reseña, no quiero ni pensar lo que debe ser escribir una novela. No, no es para mí.

Pues bien, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain es, en teoría, un libro para escritores.
George Saunders, conocido sobre todo como escritor de relatos cortos, ha sido profesor de escritura creativa en la Universidad de Syracuse durante los últimos 20 años, un programa que incluye un “popular” curso sobre relatos breves rusos del siglo XIX. “Hace unos pocos años, después de terminar una de las clases (digamos que con polvo de tiza flotando en el aire otoñal, un radiador anticuado rechinando en la esquina, el sonido de la banda de música desfilando lejos, en alguna parte),” afirma Saunders “me di cuenta de algunos de los mejores momentos de mi vida, aquellos momentos durante lo cuales he sentido que tenía algo de valor que ofrecer al mundo, habían sucedido en aquella clase sobre literatura rusa.” De modo que Saunders decidió transformar esos momentos en un libro.
La cita dice mucho acerca del tono en el que se desarrollan esas clases de escritura para jóvenes que, antes de empezar el curso, ya se encuentran entre los talentos más prometedores de su generación y que, por descontado ya saben escribir, aunque aún no hayan encontrado su voz. También dice mucho sobre el libro y sobre lo lejos que está de un manual académico: es, como las clases, una conversación entre un escritor experimentado y aquellos que empiezan acerca de cómo “ofrecer valor al mundo.”

Cada parte de A Swim in a Pond in the Rain se desarrolla, siguiendo una dinámica similar a las clases, alrededor de la lectura de un cuento. En total, siete relatos — Chéjov, Tolstói, Turgenev, Gógol — extraordinarios, como no podía ser menos en aquella época dorada del relato breve. Extraordinario no significa, advierte Saunders, perfecto. Algunos de los relatos son extraordinarios pese a sus defectos (hablando desde un punto de vista académico); otros los son precisamente por sus defectos. En todo caso, cada uno sirve a Saunders para ilustrar un aspecto específico de la creación de este tipo de obras.
Tienen muchas cosas en común: son historias sencillas, claras, domésticas, con un propósito —que no es otro que plantear las grandes preguntas: ¿Cómo se supone que debemos vivir la vida? ¿Cómo vivir en paz cuando hay gente que no tienen nada? ¿Qué debemos valorar por encima de lo demás? ¿Cómo lo reconoceremos cuando lo encontremos? Historias sencillas, pero no simples; todas son —en distintas formas— conmovedoras, consiguen que nos interese lo que les sucede a los personajes, nos hacen pensar, dudar, indignarnos a veces. En definitiva, nos obligan a hacernos a nosotros mismo esas grandes preguntas.
También son relatos “revolucionarios”, aunque no en el sentido de literatura política sino de una cierta resistencia silenciosa contra un sistema represivo y clasista. No llaman a tomar las armas ni a cambiar la organización política, pero cogen gente humilde —campesinos, viudas, criados—, hasta entonces invisibles no solo en la literatura sino en la sociedad, y les dan voz. El mensaje es tan simple como poderoso: todo el mundo merece atención, todas las personas son igualmente dignas de respeto.

Desde un punto de vista de la creación literaria, los fundamentos de la escritura de relatos breves están presentes en estos cuentos, claramente expuestos. Para un estudiante, para un escritor que comienza, son el manual de instrucciones, la guía básica.
Saunders nunca ha encontrado especialmente útiles conceptos como “tema”, “argumento”, “desarrollo de personajes” o “estructura”, tan comunes en los cursos de escritura creativa. Para él, un relato es un flujo continuo que debe atrapar al lector línea a línea: uno lee la primera frase y se pregunta ¿por qué leer la siguiente? Es una conversación franca e íntima entre iguales: el lector sigue leyendo porque se siente respetado por el escritor.
A pesar de todo, Saunders sí ofrece algunas pautas. Por ejemplo, las expectativas. Una buena historia crea expectativas en el lector (si comienza con un hombre en lo alto de un edificio, ¿acaso no esperamos que salte, o que alguien le empuje?). Una gran historia cumple con las expectativas creadas, pero nunca de la manera más directa y previsible; eso defraudaría al lector. Saunders compara el comienzo de un relato con un malabarista lanzando pelotas en el aire; el resto del relato es cómo las va recogiendo.
Por otra parte, si todas las pelotas son atrapadas de la misma manera, la tensión inicial se va perdiendo; el lector espera que cada malabar sea más emocionante, menos previsible que el anterior. Es lo que él llama escalar los acontecimientos: cada frase añade algo más a lo anterior, el relato nunca se está quieto.
Otra de las observaciones es que todo lo que aparece en un cuento debe estar ahí para algo. El lector puede que tenga la paciencia de esperar hasta la última línea si el relato consigue mantener el interés, pero al terminar va a tomar cada uno de los elementos del relato y les va a preguntar, inconscientemente, ¿y tú, para que estabas aquí?
El libro toca muchos más temas: causalidad, descripciones, omisiones… pero Saunders nunca ofrece recetas ni reglas de oro, a veces incluso parece contradecirse: comentando un relato te habla de la economía inherente a esta forma literaria (todo lo que está tiene que estar por algo) y en el siguiente de las descripciones y digresiones que dan textura a la narración. La única regla es que no hay reglas.
A plan is nice. With a plan, we get to stop thinking. We can just execute. But a conversation doesn’t work that way, and neither does a work of art. Having an intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme, “The writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.”

Sin reglas, sin planes, el arte empieza con algo tan subjetivo como una preferencia, un instante de intuición:
We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs —or doesn’t— in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.

Sí, el relato es un formato literario exigente —incluso cruel, despiadado— como lo pueda ser un chiste, una canción, una nota de suicido: el autor se lo juega todo a una tirada.

En realidad, yo también me voy a contradecir; para Saunders sí hay una regla: leer lo que has escrito, leerlo y releerlo, cada vez como si no lo hubieras escrito tú, o tratando de sentir lo que sentiría otra persona al leerlo por primera vez. Leer mil veces, cuestionando cada decisión —un giro de la trama, una característica de un personaje, la mera elección de una palabra— y cambiándola por otra mejor que es, en definitiva, la que como escritor te guste más. Y con cada cambio, reevaluar las consecuencias en la historia de esa palabra que ha aparecido o desaparecido.
Eso es en lo que la escritura de relatos se resume para Saunders: inspiración e iteración.

¿Y para quien, como yo, solo está interesado en leer? ¿Qué me ofrece a mí, simple lector —además de descubrir esos siete cuentos escritos por los maestros del género—, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain? Lo que Saunders propone, a fin de cuentas, es: escribe lo que te gusta y después léelo mil veces. Si este libro fuera un manual —que no lo es— no lo sería de escritura sino de lectura. Lo que hace Saunders con sus alumnos y con los lectores de A Swim in a Pond in the Rain es mantener una conversación abierta y honesta sobre lectura.
Pero volviendo a la cita del principio, Saunders no se decidió a escribir A Swim in a Pond in the Rain porque sentía que podía ayudar a los escritores que empiezan, sino para capturar la magia de aquellas clases en las que, además de leer y comentar lo leído, una pregunta flotaba constantemente en el aire: ¿qué pueden hacer estos relatos por nosotros?
En estos días, en los que a pesar de estar tan interconectados gracias a la tecnología es tan fácil sentir que perdemos el vínculo con lo que realmente importa, la lectura ayuda a conectar de nuevo o, al menos, a creer que esa conexión sigue siendo posible.
Estos relatos fueron escritos durante una de esas increíbles edades doradas ��la Rusia de Gógol, Tolstói, Turgenev y Chéjov, pero también de Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky y tantos otros— que en apenas setenta años produjeron algunas de las obras más memorables de la historia del arte.
Pero lo que vino después fue uno de los periodos más sangrientos de la Historia, así que es razonable concluir que no importan las cimas que la creación artística y el pensamiento puedan alcanzar, nunca es suficiente para evitar la barbarie.
Saunders admite, y yo estoy de acuerdo, que a medida que envejecemos nuestras expectativas sobre lo que puede conseguir el arte se van haciendo más humildes: no, el arte y el pensamiento no van a parar las guerras ni a acabar con las injusticias.
Pero eso no significa que no tenga una función. Un efecto íntimo, probablemente diferente para cada uno de nosotros, escritores y lectores, que nos ayuda a ser un poquito mejores después de cada lectura.
Essentially, before I read a story, I’m in a state of knowing, of being fairly sure. My life has led me to a certain place and I’m contentedly resting there. Then, here comes the story, and I am slightly undone, in a good way. Not so sure anymore, of my views, and reminded that my view-maker is always a little bit off: it’s limited, it’s too easily satisfied, with too little data.

La literatura nos recuerda que todo está aún por descubrir, por ser contado y leído.
Profile Image for Janet.
Author 24 books87.8k followers
April 6, 2021
This was a solid 'read to write' book, from a course the eminent short story writer George Saunders has taught for 20 years in the MFA program at Syracuse. We examine seven short stories of varying lengths and levels of realism or surrealism from the great 19th century Russians--Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol (all but Doestoyevesky who never wrote anything short enough to use in such an exemplar-driven writing class.)

It was a pleasure-- first, just to read these stories and savor the various flavors, voices and styles. Each story--except the first--is read in its entirety and then Saunders walks us through the story pointing out the underlying structural elements which which I for one would have missed. In the first story he walks us through a page at a time, watching for the moves the author is making on the ultra-micro level, which I really loved. In the others, you read the story in its entirety, watching and wondering what element he will pick out for examination. it really is a class in active reading.

Each story becomes an exemplar of a certain issue that Saunders feels is essential in short story writing--looking at patterns in storytelling, finding the 'heart of the story', and so on. At the end, there are three exercises the reader can try, in cutting, escalation and translation. One doesnt have to agree with him to find the book useful, and I like the way he modestly says 'this is not "the right way," but only a way to see these stories.

I found the examination of endings particularly useful--he has us imagining the story ending somewhat sooner than it does, and picturing how that would change the story. I've already put that to use. Also what seeming digressions can add to the story--sometimes the digression is where the story really is.

An excellent addition to the writers' library, helping to understand how short stories work, these classic stories , and one's own.. Can you trace the escalation in your own story, the patterning and so forth?

Personally, I have never really gotten my mind around Chekhov's subtle stories--they've always been a head-scratcher for me, so it was such a joy to see Saunders analyze the three Chekhov stories, "In the Cart," "The Darling" and "Gooseberries", from which the book's title comes--and based on a swim Chekhov took with Tolstoy. Now I would like to see someone as acute and generous and plain-spoken as Saunders write a book about seven contemporary stories with this same love and appreciation.
Profile Image for Tom Stewart.
Author 4 books140 followers
September 12, 2022
Upon first read of Saunders’ selection of stories, I actually did not see their merit. I didn’t feel much for them and I didn’t read them as “masterpieces.” Art is subjective, but also, for certain Saunders is a more astute reader than I. But I enjoyed it that way, exploring what Saunders loves about them as he champions their storycraft and beauty. If the stories’ depth that he argues for were so prima-facie obvious it could preclude the greater value of this book.

Saunders argues that the chief attribute of storycraft is causation. Later he praises the “happy confidence” (I utterly love that) of Gogol to beautifully write something extraneous to the plot. So, Saunders contradicts himself. However, he also quotes Nabokov saying that great writers routinely contradict themselves. Kinda funny, and I wonder if that all was intentional. Can’t help thinking of Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The Chekhov chapter Gooseberries alone is worth the book. It’s full of interesting literary insight, but even better is all the humanistic warmth. And that’s the best stuff of writing anyways.

I improve as a writer by improving as a human; I can improve as a human by improving as a reader. This book does that. I plan on revisiting A Swim in a Pond in the Rain soon.


Friends, on the first Tuesday of the month I send out a short newsletter with updates on my current novel-in-progress, thoughts on any standout books I’ve recently read, a literary thought or two, and a glimpse of this writer's life in small town, coastal Tofino, Canada. Staying connected with those who appreciate my work greatly motivates me. If interested, please sign up here https://www.luckydollarmedia.com/
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,738 reviews476 followers
February 3, 2021
Writer George Saunders has been teaching creative writing for years, including a course about 19th Century Russian short story writers. Reading this book feels like attending a mini college class with the professor you wish you had as a teacher. Saunders is enthusiastic, warm, and humorous with a conversational tone.

The book consists of the texts of seven short stories, discussions of techniques used by the Russian writers, and an afterthought about how it relates to Saunders' own writing. The seven stories are "In the Cart," "The Darling," and "Gooseberries" by Anton Chekhov; "Master and Man" and "Alyosha the Pot" by Leo Tolstoy; "The Singers" by Ivan Turgenev; and "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol. Saunders also discusses issues with translation from Russian to English. He shows how ambiguous endings keep us wondering, and sometimes have different meanings depending on the translator. Gogol used lots of plays on words in his writing, but we miss some of his humor because it doesn't come through when the words are translated. My favorite story was Tolstoy's "Master and Man" where characters make repetitive bad choices, and that makes the story work. In several stories Saunders shows how a writer keeps escalating the action to keep the reader's interest. "A Swim in the Pond in the Rain" can be enjoyed by both writers and readers to make their interactions with short stories more meaningful.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,871 reviews292 followers
February 13, 2021
As I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I found I am taking a class on the Russian short story, a class on how to write, a class on close reading; a class on the meaning of life. I am in the hands of a master.

George Saunders has been teaching a class at Syracuse University about the Russian short story, and this book, this very unique book, is his class. He shares seven classic Russian short stories by four different Russian authors: In the Cart by Anton Chekhov; The Singers by Ivan Turgenev; The Darling by Anton Chekhov; Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy; The Nose by Nikolai Gogol; Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov; and Alyosha the Pot by Leo Tolstoy. Saunders begins by sharing a page of the first story, In the Cart, and then commenting upon it, sharing a page, commenting, and so on. Does that sound tedious? Yes, it sounds like it would be tedious, banal, tiresome, irksome, but, no, it's the complete opposite of that. Instead, you cannot wait to read on and see what else Saunders has to say. I come away from this book delighted with having had this time spent with close reading of this brilliant text, shared with a magnificent mind that is Saunders. I wish Saunders would move in next door and join our local book club and teach seniors at our local junior college. Would you do that, Mr. Saunders? Please?

I marked lots of passages of text that I want to save and reflect upon. Here a few of these:

"The basic drill I'm proposing here is: read the story, then turn your mind to the experience you've just had. Was there a place you found particularly moving? Something you resisted or that confused you? A moment when you found yourself tearing up, getting annoyed, thinking anew? Any lingering questions about the story? Any answer is acceptable. If you (my good-hearted trooper of a reader) felt it, it's valid."

Wow. Imagine that. What confidence he has in us as readers. How delightfully refreshing.

"Over the last ten years I've had a chance to give readings and talks all over the world and meet thousands of dedicated readers. Their passion for literature (evident in their questions from the floor, our talks at the signing table, the conversations I've had with book clubs) has convinced me that there's a vast underground network for goodness at work in the world---a web of people who've put reading at the center of their lives because they know from experience that reading makes them more expansive, generous people and makes their lives more interesting."

I had to include that quote. A lovely little pat on all of our reader backs. Thank you, George Saunders.

'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."'

Brilliant, isn't it? A wonderful way to evaluate a text.

And how about this, for writers:

'We're always asking, of a work we're reading (even if it's one of our own): "Is it a story yet?" That's the moment we're seeking as we write. We're revising and revising until we write the text up, so to speak, and it produces that "now it's a story" feeling.'

Another for writers:
'If you gather ten writers in a room, ranging from the great to the bad, and ask them to put together a list of the prime virtues of fiction, you won't get much disagreement. It turns out, there is such a list of prime virtues, one we've been casually compiling as we've worked our way through these Russian stories: Be specific and efficient. Use a lot of details. Always be escalating. Show, don't tell. And so on....But anyone can google "how to hit a curveball" and be informed that a hitter must "identify the spin" and "hit the bad ones but let the good ones go by" and so on, and we can all be happing about that on our way to the batting cage, but once we get there, we'll find that, nevertheless, some of us can hit a curveball and some of us can't.'

A little more, for writers:
"The difference between a great writer and a good one (or a good one and a bad one) is in the quality of the instantaneous decisions she makes as she works. A line pops into her head. She deletes a phrase. She cuts this section....We can reduce all of writing to this: we read a line, have a reaction to it, trust (accept) that reaction, and do something in response, instantaneously, by intuition. That's it. Over and over."

And for those of us who do little more than share our thoughts about the writing of others:
'"There is something essential ridiculous about critics, anyway," said Randal Jarrell, a pretty good critic himself. "What is good is good without our saying so, and beneath all our majesty we know this."'

(And the next is a few parts that I took away that completely meshes with my views of the meaning of life. You can skip these if you wish. Saunders isn't sharing these for any didactic reasons. I am, however.)
'"I have decided to stick with love," Martin Luther King, Jr. said. "Hate is too great a burden to bear."'

'...Tolstoy wrote, "If once we admit---be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case---that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds...Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances...If you feel no love, sit still. Occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men...Only let yourself deal with a man without love...and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself."'
(End of lecture)

Writing advice:
'"The secret of boring people," Chekhov said, "lies in telling them everything."'

Caution in attributing too much credit to literature:
"These stories we've just read were written during an incredible seventy-year artistic renaissance in Russia...that was followed by one of the bloodiest, most irrational periods in human history....So, the artistic bounty of this period wasn't enough to avert that disaster....whatever fiction does to or for us, it's not simple."

"And let's be even more honest: those of us who read and write do it because we love it and because doing it makes us feel more alive and we would likely keep doing it even if it could be demonstrated that its overall net effect was zero, and I, for one, have a feeling that I would keep doing it even if it could be demonstrated that its overall net effect was negative."

Well. There's that. Takes me aback. But true, nevertheless.

George Saunders offers a list of all the ways we are, as we acknowledge, changed at least in the short run: "I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind...I find myself liking the world more....I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won't be...." He has many more ways listed, and they are all lovely, what he calls 'an enviable state to be in, if only for a few minutes."
Profile Image for W.D. Clarke.
Author 3 books272 followers
February 24, 2021
I could "listen" to George Saunders "lecture" me about literature all day. He's a hero of mine, and so a book such as this one is tailor-made for a reader like me. And, honestly, I often found his analyses of these classic Russian stories more interesting than some of the stories themselves. Or, rather, the incredible closeness of his attention to them makes them more interesting than my all-too-cursory first-reading ever could—what Saunders showed me is just how lame-arsed a reader I can be. For he does just the opposite of what many students feel teachers and professors do when they perform an analysis (or a "close reading") of a text: rather than "kill it", or "kill the enjoyment" of the work, he brings it to life, perhaps makes it even better than the author himself intended. Or so this reader felt, anyway.

That said, I do wonder why the seven stories he chose were by Russian, male, 19th century writers (though I do get it that the period was the heyday of the short story form there). I think I would have actually preferred to see how he would have handled seven stories from different time periods, written with different types of readers in mind. Or seven stories from the past few decades (post-postmodernism or whatever). Or seven of his own stories (though he's too humble for that).

But, though I eagerly await (or would commission) those other volumes, I nitpick here. I don't know of any other writer who has written a book such as this one, in which we learn to read the stories as if having written them—not so much in the somewhat grandiose (yet banal) sense of "How to Write" (plot, character development, blahblahblah), but in a humbler, yet more inspired (and inspiring) sense of following the writer line by line as he explores a previously-uncreated world in the dark, armed with only the flashlight of his patience and care for how a line of text feels and sounds—with what "creativity" in fiction actually looks like in practice, in other words.

Really, though, you should just read KatiaN's review, peeps:
Profile Image for Vesna.
218 reviews128 followers
November 17, 2022
For over 20 years, Saunders has been teaching in the MFA program at Syracuse University, especially on how to write a short story by learning from the masters or, rather, from what we believe went into their craftsmanship. In this book, Saunders samples 7 out of ca. 40 stories from the Russian masters he and his students discuss throughout the semester, distilling the most important elements in his approach to short story writing. If anyone is interested in what other stories he includes in his seminar, here is his syllabus:

What guided him to select these 7 stories is that they are “eminently teachable.” “The stories I’ve chosen aren’t meant to represent a diverse cast of Russian writers (just Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol) or even necessarily the best stories by these writers.” So the first heads-up to future readers is not to expect this to be a collection of “best” or “favorite” Russian classic stories, accompanied by a “how-to-read/interpret” commentary.

All the same, it’s not an MFA textbook (though highly useful for those who would like to attend or teach in MFA programs), because it’s also intended for a general reader and Saunders skillfully makes his teaching adaptable into the discussion about many aspects in reading this literary form. I must say that some of the “writing technique processes” he illustrates in these stories were revelatory for me as a reader and made the story more interesting than what I felt about it in my initial reaction (Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and Tolstoy’s “Master and Man” would be prime examples). At other times, the commentary sometimes felt a bit tedious in technical details, reminding us that it’s foremost a workshop primer on the process of writing. But Saunders’ whimsical and conversational style, compassionate personality, and brilliant mind shone through those parts as well, making them lively even for those who do not aspire to write in this form.

One of the common traits of all the selected stories is their ambiguity in presenting either a character or plot. It allowed for a great range of interpretations and, while mine were not always the same as those by Saunders, I found his approach and angles fascinating. Sometimes I had an entirely different take on the story because I brought in my own experience and inclinations. I, for example, very much disagreed that Turgenev’s “The Singers” was about the contrast between the manipulative pragmatism of technical proficiency and raw emotional expressions. Turgenev spent a good part of his life in the household of Pauline Viardot, one of the greatest opera singers at the time, and her husband. His description of the singing contest in a provincial inn was brilliant and quite learned in contrasting the Kunst vs. Stimme approach to singing, emotional/character expressiveness (art) vs. beautiful sound (voice), a well-known debate to this day among opera lovers. What I appreciated is how Turgenev showed that the passion for vocal art is universal and that these two schools of thought about vocalism can be instinctively felt by anyone, including the impoverished peasants in the remote and isolated lands. And my take on the two boys ending the story is consequently radically different from Saunders' view. Still, there is sufficient ambivalence in Turgenev’s construction of the story to be open to his approach as perfectly valid too.

There is one exception, though, when the validity of interpretation can be questioned because it’s based on the utterly inadequate translation of one of the crucial sentences in the story. This is what happened with Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Had it not been for a GR friend, who alerted us that the last line missed on an important expression that is quite clear in Russian but misleading and hinting the opposite meaning in translation, I would have interpreted the main character in the same way as Saunders did. I looked at several other translations, from Garnett to the leading translators in the 1960s such as Magarshack and Dunnigan, and the much-hyped translating couple today, Pevear & Volokhonsky, and all of them failed to do it right (!). I am not sure if all elements in Saunders’ interpretation would have to be radically revised, but his understanding of Olenka’s love as ultimately suffocating for others would stand on very thin grounds. This is not Saunders’ fault by any means but rather indicates how translations can sometimes grossly diverge from the original, fundamentally changing its meaning. It is to Saunders’ credit and his innate intelligence that, despite all, he sensed that something would not be quite right in abandoning the warm feelings about Olenka (“the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment.”) He acknowledges that translations often lose on the music and nuances. Nonetheless, as he points out, “even in English, shorn of those delights, they have worlds to teach us.” And if that’s the only way we can read foreign literature, short of learning just about every language in which the originals we’d love to read were written, it’s still better than not reading them at all.

Some may have caveats about MFA programs which have generated much controversies and debates (both pros and cons), there is certainly a caveat about a few translating blunders, which fortunately were not many except for one critical example, but I have absolutely no caveat about the brilliance of Saunders as a writer, teacher, and human being with an enormous intellect, irresistible humor, and compassionate heart. There is so much here that teaches us about the art of the short story form, the marvel of the Russian literary tradition (and Saunders' unquestionable love for it), as well as about living with a genuinely generous heart and open mind. All of it.
Profile Image for Anu.
365 reviews889 followers
August 9, 2021
I want to state for the record, that I would like George Saunders to narrate my life (on paper, not in audio).

I have a complicated relationship with Russian literature. I love it, for sure, but I also find it tedious, more often than not. My mother, on the other hand, has a singular, almost undying love for Russian short stories. I think she's read them all, and she'll read them all again. A creative writing class, taught through the lens of understanding and appreciating Russian literature, therefore, was a little up my alley. And not surprisingly, I have a complicated relationship with this book as well. To begin with, how do I review a "review" (or a series of them, if we're being pedantic)? Because, in this book, Saunders goes through short stories by the Russian greats, and teaches us the elements of reading, understanding, and writing.

I should say, before I start, that in spite of what my rambling, expletive-laden reviews would have you believe, I actually do know how to write. I've taken some creative writing classes in my day, and I used to be a journalist. In many ways, thus, a lot of Saunders' analysis and writing was a bit of a repetition of what I've already learnt (like the process of revision - Who cares if the first draft is good? It doesn't need to be good, it just needs to be, so you can revise it. ). Re-reading and revising your first draft is the single most important lesson you'll probably learn from most creative writing classes. However, there was so much of it that was not. For one, it was incredibly interesting to read Saunders' own perspectives on these oft-analysed stories. For another, he goes into detail about his own writing process, which was probably my favourite part to read.

It is also humbling and a little bit incredible to read about Saunders' reverence to the craft. When he talks about it, about the act of writing, as opposed to the art, you get the sense that he's given himself to it. And that many times, he lets it lead him to where he's meant to go, as opposed to the other way around. This was a profound lesson for me. At this exact time and space for me, now, I've been grappling with not having control over things-the tiny, mundane things, and the big, life-altering things. Perhaps that was my life lesson from this masterclass - to let the things take me where I have to go. Or perhaps, it's not really a metaphor for life at all (but look at the title). Either way, reading this book gave me a bit of hope during some really trying times, and if for no other reason than that, I highly recommend this.
Profile Image for David.
619 reviews140 followers
July 6, 2021
I can't say that I like classic Russian short stories any more now than I did before reading this book, but my appreciation for them has definitely grown. And my admiration for George Saunders - the writer as well as the teacher - has reached a new high.

Mostly we walk around identifying with one set of opinions and assessing the world from that position. Our inner orchestra has been instructed that certain instruments are to dominate, others to play softly or not at all. Writing, we get a chance to change that mix. Quieter instruments are allowed to come to the fore; our usual blaring beliefs are asked to sit quietly, horns in their laps. This is good; it reminds us that those other, quieter instruments were there all the time. And that, by extrapolation, every person in the world has his or her inner orchestra, and the instruments present in their orchestras are, roughly speaking, the same as the ones in ours.

And this is why literature works.

Yes it is.

Strongly recommended for all writers, and any reader with an analytical bent.
Profile Image for Albert.
386 reviews26 followers
September 26, 2022
This book has been on my list ever since it was published. I was intrigued from the point I first learned about it. George Saunders, an author whose short stories I have thoroughly enjoyed, uses material from the creative writing program in which he teaches to provide us insight into the short story writing process. Reading this met all my expectations. I enjoyed the stories that were used, several of which I had read previously. I am feeling very humble, because much of the insight that George Saunders provides were not realizations I came to on my own. But George Saunders in no way speaks down to his audience. Instead, it was if we were just having a conversation between peers or between student and teacher, respectful, casual, comfortable, desirous of learning from one another.

In helping me to understand the stories, I did not feel I was reading a review of a story written by a critic. These are stories that Mr. Saunders greatly admires and loves, and he was helping me to see what he felt the author had accomplished and how the author had accomplished it. He was trying to show me the techniques used and choices made through which the author had produced something truly great in his opinion. On several occasions throughout he reiterates that this is just his opinion. Interspersed throughout, Mr. Saunders explains his own writing process, which is quite eye-opening as well.

I enjoyed this. I learned from it. But not as much as I could have. There is a lot there, despite the simplicity with which it is presented. I most enjoyed the attempt to explain the stories from the craftsman’s perspective.
Profile Image for Anita Pomerantz.
661 reviews123 followers
April 10, 2021
Can I please go to Syracuse University and have Mr. Saunders as my professor? No? Well, this book is the next best thing, and I loved it.

The book includes seven Russian short stories (3 from Chekhov, 2 from Tolstoy, 1 from Gogol, and 1 from Turgenev). After each story, Saunders helps us understand technically what the author might have been trying to do and what makes the story resonate with the reader. And then, he adds some personal thoughts.

Self-effacing, entertaining, educational, and witty, Saunders is just the best kind of teacher. One that confesses to his own limitations and encourages students to stretch their own wings. And because he is such an accomplished short story writer, he adds useful personal insight into his own writing methods.

While the Russian short stories didn't personally thrill me, Saunders' enthusiasm for them did. I really, really hope he writes a sequel about another seven stories that move him. And if you are actually a writer, the final chapter is pure gold.
Profile Image for Truman32.
350 reviews103 followers
March 1, 2021
It is inconceivable to me how George Saunders can get away with spilling all his writing secrets. Does McDonald’s give away the recipe for their “special sauce? Does Outback educate their diners on how to make a Bloomin Onion at home? Does Drakkar Noir tell you what combination of smells one needs to smear all over themselves to make themselves irresistible to women everywhere? Of course not, they want to stay in business. I can only imagine the caterwauling trembling wreck of Mr. Saunders’s agent as he thinks of all those dollars floating away. Soon everyone will be winning O. Henry Awards and Guggenheim Fellowships. Right now I am cleaning off the mantel above my fireplace to display the slightly ostentatious Booker Prize statue I will soon be winning now I know Ole George’s writing secrets.
With his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders pretty much publishes the MFA class on writing that he has taught at Syracuse for over twenty years. In other words, we are going back to college, baby! Now it has been a while since I had last stepped foot on a campus so I felt I needed to prepare for this book. I started by drinking a bucket of watery domestic beer in a dank dark room, I followed this up by eating an entire pizza by myself at 3 in the morning. I tried to move into a nearby dorm but they were oddly unreceptive to this and I had to leave before the police arrived. And alas, the Summer I was planning traveling abroad through Europe seems to be falling through as every time I mention it to my dear wife steam shoots out of both her ears and her face turns an alarming shade of red. So I decided to just drink another bucket of watery domestic beer and crack open this book. It was going to be an all-nighter!
Using short story examples from his dear Friends: Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol (a rowdy group if I have ever seen one –no doubt pledges of the Delta Tau Chi House) Saunders dissects what works in these stories and how this applies to writers who want to create similar art themselves, or readers interested in discovering what makes a successful short story so great.
To be honest, I had never read any of these Russian authors before. I’ll admit it. I was intimidated, not unlike that time Cindy Crawford hit on me at my neighborhood bar. Once I extracted my earlobe from her teeth I ran away and I hid in the coat check room underneath an immense puffer jacket until she left.
But these stories were surprisingly accessible. They were nowhere near as scary as I thought they would be (nor as scary as Miss Crawford’s probing tongue). Actually they were quit enjoyable. Saunders’s insights into what makes them work and why they are considered great pieces of art were also interesting—and often very funny. Reading a short story can be like solving a puzzle.
Profile Image for Lucas Enne.
18 reviews8 followers
July 23, 2022
You probably couldn't ask for a better teacher of writing than George Saunders.
He's largely considered the modern master of the short story and his prose is at once gorgeous and experimental. He won the Booker Prize with his first novel in 2017. His collection Tenth of December is astonishingly well-crafted. He's also a teacher at the distinguished Syracuse MFA program.

Even knowing all of these things, I wasn't prepared for how good of a book this was. Every chapter articulated a truth a book that, as an avid reader, I had felt before and never knew for sure that anyone else shared. And here's Saunders giving clear and matter-of-fact lessons on seven incredible short stories and explaining exactly why they are so great without diminishing the inexplicable aspects of story. His points are so well-put that I can remember each chapter's point off the top of my head. He links each story to a specific aspect of writing and this gives structural reality to his ideas in a way that I've never seen a writing book do before.

The Singers by Turgenev. Saunders's exposition of this story is amazing. He talks about the difference between technical skill and true beauty in art and the way this collides in Turgenev's story. Saunders at once devalues technical skill while also demanding excellence from writers. He talks about how inserting that truly beautiful thing into a story is so much more difficult than mere technical skill, and that this beauty is what truly wins over the reader in the end.

A must read for writers.
Profile Image for Alex.
688 reviews97 followers
February 25, 2021
I'm happy I read (listened to this). I felt like I grew as a reader. I only took one English course in University so it was fun to in effect take a master class with George Saunders exploring these Russian short story classics. If you are a serious reader, it is a worthwhile book to pick up.
Profile Image for Claire.
858 reviews191 followers
July 30, 2022
Like being in lit class with George Saunders when you can’t be in lit class with George Saunders. I love fiction with every fibre of my existence, and this book reminded me of many of the reasons why I love it so much. Even better that Saunders unpacks short stories from my first real lit love, the Russians. Whether short stories, or Russian literature is your jam, if you are a reader this is a book for you. Exquisite.
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