George Saunders is almost certainly my favorite short-story writer today, and I've enjoyed his other works over the years as well: essays, profiles, a novel. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't pick up A Swim in a Pond in the Rain when it was released earlier this year, but I'm glad that I didn't, because my brother (no, my other brother) gave it to me as a long-term-loan-slash-birthday-present a couple of weeks ago.
In addition to writing fiction, Saunders also teaches writing at Syracuse University, and has done so for decades. This book is an attempt to capture some of what he teaches in a seminar built around nineteenth-century Russian authors, where he and his students will read those stories, analyze and discuss what the authors are doing and how they're doing it, and use some of those techniques in works of their own.
This book includes the full (translated) text of a half-dozen stories from Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Each story is then followed by a friendly, conversational essay and analysis. Saunders will ask questions of the reader, then offer his own answers. What is this part doing in the story? What would be lost if it was cut? Why did the author spend so much time describing this character who doesn't do much? After reading the last paragraph, did you also go back and re-scan the story to see if that message can be applied anywhere else?
It's all great stuff from a literary criticism perspective, but Saunders is doing something different, trying to figure out why these stories are so great and how we could apply those lessons to our own fiction. Of course, his words carry a lot of weight coming from someone who has been so widely read and admired over the years.
I personally hadn't read any of these stories before. They're different from one another, despite some repeated authors, and all great. I think I might have enjoyed Tolstoy's "Master and Man" the most, in large part because of the strong moral convictions of the author that suffuse the whole story; but Gogol's "The Nose" was terrific and might have been the most fun to read. (And I liked "The Nose" even better after reading the analysis, which repeatedly drove home just what a terrible job the narrator of that story is doing, and why Gogol is choosing to make the narrator that inept.)
There's a lot of terrific insight in this book, but a few specific things really stick with me. One is his focus on what he calls "meaningful action" (as a sort of substitute for the more nebulous term "plot"). A short story should frequently escalate as it continues. We want to grab a reader's attention, and be respectful of their time. Whenever things escalate, it re-acquires our focus and makes us ask questions that we'll need to continue reading to answer. ("How will Sam get out of this jam?" "Wait, why is Susan mad at Frank now?")
He says that he's observed that, when he compares his students who have gone on to be published authors with those who do not, the former have two consistent traits. First of all, they're willing to continually revise and rewrite their work. Secondly, they're able to convey causality within their stories. Things don't just happen: they show how event A causes event B which leads to emotion C which results in catastrophe D. Without that tight sense of causality, you can have a collection of interesting well-written scenes, but you don't really have a story.
Saunders talks pretty much exclusively about short stories in this book. I'm actually not a huge connoisseur of the form, reading way more novels than short stories. My unexamined prejudice has tended to be that short stories are easier to write than novels: they're shorter, have fewer words to write, and only need to be about one or two things. After reading this, though, I'm rethinking that assessment. Saunders repeatedly points out that the economy of the short story isn't a handicap, it's the whole purpose. Everything that's in a short story should be doing something. Not because it's an interesting idea the author thought about and wanted to write down, not because she liked the sound of a certain phrase. Every sentence in a short story should be crucial, such that the story would be worse if it were removed. There's a lot of discipline and focus that goes into each story, without the flexibility for minor digressions that a longer form like the novel can support.
It's probably a sign of a well-written book that during and after my time reading it I thought "Wow, I should write some short stories!" It brought me back to my own fiction writing course way back in college, which was a lot of fun, but I haven't done anything with that since then. But of course I have done a lot of other writing, both writing technical books for professionals and writing video game dialogue for fun. Those are very different things than short stories, but some stuff in this book really resonated with me. One thing in particular was George's focus on the importance of revision and re-writing. I've always felt and often said that I enjoy editing more than writing, and that I feel like I mostly write so I can get material to edit. I've thought of that as a limitation on my skills as a writer (if I really was a writer I'd love writing more than editing), but I'm now feeling better about my heart being more oriented towards making things better. (For the hundredth time, I'll note that I don't edit my blog posts, much to their detriment.)
The term I personally have used in the past when doing this sort of editing work is "tightening up." I've already gotten down the overall content I want to share, but it's often meandering and inartful. There are some technical things I do to it, like eliminating passive voice and chopping up longer sentences into shorter ones, but I'm also paying attention to how the words sound, and whether they make sense, whether they are engaging, something I'd enjoy reading. They usually get shorter and shorter the more I rewrite them, and I'll also tinker with them to try and heighten the content, make my voice more forceful and bold, or sometimes just toss out a whole sentence or paragraph and start fresh. The end result feels a lot like the writing exercises Saunders includes at the end of this book. I'm amazed at how much better a piece of writing becomes when you cut it.
I thought a lot about video-game writing and which of Saunders' lessons might apply there. His comments on voice really resonate with me: one of my favorite aspects of writing campaigns is coming up with a distinctive voice for major NPCs, and once I have that voice in my head that generates many natural ideas about things that character would do and what opinions they would hold. I don't think video games need as laser-sharp of a focus as short stories: it depends on the game, of course, but particularly for RPGs it can be really fun to have little slice-of-life vignettes that help make the world seem bigger and more real. (Shadowrun Hong Kong would be a much lesser game without Gobbet's noodle obsession.) I think his ideas on causality are extremely important for video games, though maybe through a slightly different lens. It's important for the player to understand how and why things are happening. And, in a video game, it's usually most effective if the causality is caused by the player, if their earlier decisions lead to the later consequences. Of course this is where the art forms significantly diverge, with the player being a participant in the game while the reader remains an observer of the story.
Besides chatting about these Russian stories he loves so much, Saunders also includes "Afterthoughts" as well, which talk about his own personal experiences as a writer: how an especially bad sentence in a student's paper inspired one of his best characters, or some feedback a New Yorker editor gave him, or how a certain story surprised him as he was writing it. I recognized a few of these anecdotes from a talk he gave in San Francisco back in 2013, especially a fantastic recounting of his early desire to be Hemingway and how he eventually realized that he needed to find his own voice. The George writing this book seems exactly like the George I met in real life: humble, kind, generous, funny without ever being mean.
I doubt that there are all that many aspiring short-fiction authors out there, but I think the rest of us can still find a lot to enjoy in this book. The Russian stories alone are worth the price of admission, and the overall experience feels like a return to college in the best possible way: sitting in an interesting seminar with a great teacher, thinking critically about great writing and discussing our various opinions about it. That's a feeling I've missed over the years (and honestly a big part of why I blog about books I've read), and it felt great to recapture a part of that here.