I borrowed Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo from the library last spring (2022), after a neighbor introduced me to Saunders’s Story Club for writers. I was intrigued by Lincoln’s multiple narrators, speaking in first person, passing off the story from one to another at irregular intervals, sometimes even interrupting one another or finishing each another’s sentences. But at the time the death of a child—Lincoln’s, to be precise—was a subject matter too oppressive to shoulder, and I returned the book after a close skimming of its contents.
But I was sufficiently impressed by Saunders’s innovation and the spiritual vein I thought I detected to queue up for the library’s audio version of Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I finally reached the front in July; thus my association between Saunders’s selected Russian short stories, along with his commentary, and staining our back deck in the mild warmth of a Pacific NW summer.
A Swim in a Pond reprints seven short stories by Chekhov, Golgol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The discussion that follows each highlights essential strengths—or weaknesses—of the nineteenth-century works in question.
Throughout the book a number of themes resurface, such as escalation and organization. Saunders describes the short story as a highly organized system, in which every part must earn its keep. This is nothing new; the famous example of Chekhov’s gun (if a gun is hanging on the wall in scene one it must be fired in scene two) is singularly appropriate to this collection.
But the way—or at least one way—in which Saunders describes the evolution of such organization struck me as singular. He likens the process of writing and revising to that of a new occupant suiting a furnished room to his tastes. Every time the new occupant moves something out or in, provided the choices are conscious and deliberate, the room more closely reflects the occupant’s tastes. Not only that, the room becomes more highly organized; the pieces relate to one another in meaningful ways because they were all chosen by the same occupant for their purpose or appearance.
In order to move readers, he says, writers must pour themselves into their stories—get lost in them. That doesn’t mean losing track of the readers; nor does it mean pandering to a “market.” If we respect our audience and imagine them to be interested in the things that interest us, we will anticipate and respond to their expectations. “A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals,” Saunders writes (p. 117).
Saunders’s coaching suggests he is a writer for whom the destination is obscure when he sets forth on the journey of composition; what ensues is a combination of discovery, craftsmanship, and conversation. Like the slow, deliberate overhaul of the aforementioned room, writing is an incremental, repetitive process of writing and rewriting. The revision process brings the work more and more in line with the individual writer’s unique vision.
Every time I open A Swim in a Pond (which I subsequently bought in hard copy and took copious notes on), quotable passages leap out at me. Perhaps my favorite discussion is the closing examination of Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot.” Saunders ably demonstrates how the allure of this unfinished story lies in its ambiguity. Readers can interpret according to their own preferences or speculate at length on Tolstoy’s ultimate intentions. Or maybe the ending is, in actuality, exactly what Tolstoy envisioned, reflecting the mystery of life.
L.A. Times reviewer Charles Finch said Saunders is “probably as close to a living candidate for canonization as American literature has” (Oct. 13, 2022). Having not read Saunders’s short stories, which compose the bulk of his output, I’m probably not qualified to speculate. I will, nevertheless, based on Saunders’s own premise that the writer makes the work. Three salient qualities of Saunders the man emerge from my reading of his book on writing and my perusal of Lincoln in the Bardo.
Integrity in a writer is hard to substantiate through his work alone, as Saunders’s sketch of Tolstoy’s personal life demonstrates. But my impression is based on the apparent predominance of authenticity over allure, truth over technique in Saunders’s work.
Empathy, likewise is difficult to support definitively, apart from personal interaction. But the fact that Saunders perceives writing as a conversation supports the notion that he values readers as individuals. The popularity of his stories suggests the acuity of his perceptions and his success in connecting to readers’ concerns.
Finally, A Swim in a Pond abounds with humility, nowhere more so than in the conclusion. Saunders acknowledges that aspiring writers will likely take from his book the advice that confirms their foregoing predispositions and throw out the rest; which, Saunders says, is just as it should be.
Saunders wards off any notion that he has written a “how to” manual. He offers a few principles and insightful observations on the structure of the Russian stories under examination. But for the most part, he says, reader-writers will and should do as they please; the important thing is that they do it. Saunders quotes Robert Frost as saying, “Don’t worry, work!” As we do so, the sort of writer we are and the sort of writing we do will work themselves out. It comes back to that slow, steady, painstaking process of craftsmanship and discovery.
In his concluding rambles, Saunders raises a question that has troubled me. The many grand claims made for the efficacy of reading fiction (more on that in an upcoming review of Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well) naturally appeal to us lovers of literature. But the doubter in me objects: What about all the good and noble people throughout history who weren’t and aren’t consumers of literature? (I know—there have always been stories and oral tradition. But still, it seems a tenuous claim.)
Saunders points out that the society that revered Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy was the same society that gave rise to the bloody Bolshevik revolution and the horrors of Stalinism. He declines—as do I—to speculate at length on this conundrum. He observes merely that “whatever fiction does to or for us, it’s not simple.”
It brought me something like relief to know that a reader, writer, and thinker like Saunders can acknowledge the ambiguous role of fiction in the modern world while continuing to pursue his profession with ardor. What he does believe is that writing can connect readers—with writers, with characters, with others. Writing is what he loves and writing is what he does, in the way that only he can do it. And that is what Saunders’s master classes empowers and spurs his reader-writers on to do.