George Saunders won the Booker Prize in 2017 for his first (and so far only) novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but before this he rose to prominence as an author of short fiction, winning numerous awards for individual stories and his (to date) four collections. Although his work frequently appears in the New Yorker, it’s a long way from the stereotype of literary fiction. He often uses science-fictional elements; stories such as “Escape from Spiderhead” or “The Semplica Girl Diaries” could easily have been published in SF genre magazines. Both of those pieces were collected in Tenth of December: Stories (2013), a book I highly recommend.
Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, and in his classes he often discusses Russian literature. His book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (2021) draws upon his many years of teaching this material. The book is advertised as “a literary masterclass on what makes great stories work, how to write them yourself, and what they can tell us about our world today”. It presents seven classic Russian stories from the nineteenth century (three by Chekhov, two by Tolstoy, one each by Turgenev and Gogol), and analyses them in depth. The first story is presented a page at a time, i.e. chunks of the text are interspersed with detailed discussions of each chunk; the remaining stories are presented in full before a more holistic analysis.
Although it’s not a major focus of the book, Saunders does address the limits of translation. The translations themselves, as far as I can tell, look fairly recent: they all seem to be post-war; they’re definitely not out-of-copyright translations from the nineteenth century. Consequently, the stories as presented don’t exhibit the fusty and archaic feel that you sometimes get when reading Victorian literature written in English.
The textual analysis by George Saunders is always interesting. It’s not written in the standard vocabulary of writing advice books. Terms such as characterisation, plot, structure and viewpoint are rarely used, although he does frequently talk about theme. Typically his discussion begins by breaking a story into scenes, or beats, and asking the purpose of each. He often points out that a particular scene doesn’t strictly need to be in the story, and could apparently be cut without seeming to affect the narrative. He then asks why the scene is present, and talks about features such as imagery, theme, patterning, escalation, and so forth. His arguments are illuminating and persuasive. Sometimes he then draws wider lessons, talking about how writers might approach their own fiction. In this vein, Saunders very occasionally uses examples from his own work, but this is not done in a self-aggrandising way, and it’s not necessary to have read any of Saunders’ fiction to understand his points.
In general, Saunders refrains from comparing these Russian stories to other literature. This exercise is something that alert readers must perform for themselves. Personally, when I compare these old stories to modern SFF genre fiction, I find it notable that despite a narrower range of content, the Russian classics exhibit a greater range of technique. Modern SFF very commonly adheres to standard methods such as using limited third-person viewpoint, concentrating on a short span of time, emphasising “character growth”, insisting on concise prose and shunning digression, etc. Writers who only read SFF probably don’t realise how rigidly they conform to a small repertoire of conventions. For any genre writer, reading outside the genre — whether that’s old Russian classics, or whatever else — is a useful way of broadening one’s conception of the possibilities. Of course, one could simply read an anthology of classic stories, without Saunders’ discussion, but his analysis does indirectly help to illuminate some technical aspects of the narrative, even if he doesn’t explicitly use workshop-style jargon.
I shouldn’t give the impression that Saunders never discusses practicalities. Here’s an extract that talks about plot, albeit without using the word:
I’ve worked with so many wildly talented young writers over the years that 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. Making causality doesn’t seem sexy or particularly literary. It’s a workmanlike thing, to make A cause B, the stuff of vaudeville, of Hollywood. But it’s the hardest thing to learn. It doesn’t come naturally, not to most of us. But that’s really all a story is: a series of things that happen in sequence, in which we can discern a pattern of causality. For most of us, the problem is not in making things happen (“A dog barked”, “The house exploded”, “Darren kicked the tire of his car” are all easy enough to type) but in making one thing seem to cause the next. This is important, because causation is what creates the appearance of meaning. “The queen died, and then the king died” (E.M. Forster’s famous formulation) describes two unrelated events occurring in sequence. It doesn’t mean anything. “The queen died, and the king died of grief” puts those events into relation; we understand that one caused the other. The sequence, now infused with causality, means: “That king really loved his queen.” Causality is to the writer what melody is to the songwriter: a superpower that the audience feels as the crux of the matter; the thing the audience actually shows up for; the hardest thing to do; that which distinguishes the competent practitioner from the extraordinary one.
More often, he discusses patterns and themes. In his commentary on “The Darling” by Anton Chekhov — a story in which a woman repeatedly adopts the enthusiasms of the latest person she loves — Saunders says:
Suddenly questions arise about the nature of love…. We want to believe that love is singular and exclusive, and it unnerves us to think that it might actually be renewable and somewhat repetitive in its habits. Would your current partner ever call his or her new partner by the same pet name he/she uses for you, once you are dead and buried? Well, why not? There are only so many pet names. Why should that bother you? Well, because you believe it is you, in particular, who is loved (that is why dear Ed calls you “honey-bunny”), but no: love just is, and you happened to be in the path of it. When, dead and hovering above Ed, you hear him call that rat Beth, your former friend, “honey-bunny” … you, in spirit form, are going to think somewhat less of Ed, and of Beth, and maybe of love itself. Or will you? Maybe you won’t. Because don’t we all do some version of this, when in love? When your lover dies or leaves you, there you are, still yourself, with your particular way of loving. And there is the world, still full of people to love.
There’s a lot of good material in the book, but nevertheless I have a couple of quibbles. One is that the book lacks an index, and hence will be hard to refer to. If, a couple of years down the line, you find yourself thinking that Saunders said something useful about patterning, but you can’t remember exactly what it was — well, good luck finding it without re-reading the entire book! This points to a wider issue with books about writing: it’s easy to assume they’re helpful, but harder to prove it. The problem is that while you’re reading Saunders’ wise words and nodding along, you might think you’re learning something, and you might believe that all your future stories will benefit from this masterful exposition of craft — but is that really true, or is it all just (as my old Granny used to say) “in one ear, and out the other”? How do you translate a feeling of insight into an actual improvement in your work?
Another issue is the question of whether nineteenth-century techniques will actually fly in a twenty-first century marketplace. I commented above that modern SFF mostly uses a narrow range of techniques. If a writer deviates from the Standard Workshop Template and submits something different, e.g. a story using omniscient viewpoint that encompasses two decades in ten pages, will this be greeted rapturously by editors and lauded for its freshness, or receive form rejections sent by twenty-something slush readers who only ever read contemporary genre fiction and don’t understand that other approaches are possible? Of course, the SFF genre’s paucity of imagination is not Saunders’ fault, so I don’t mean this as a criticism of his book; I mean it more as a caveat about the book’s utility for modern genre writers.
As it happens, there is an SFF equivalent of George Saunders’ book. It’s Science Fiction 101 by Robert Silverberg (also published as Robert Silverberg’s Worlds of Wonder). In this book, Silverberg reprints thirteen classic SF stories and adds his own commentaries upon them. He doesn’t go into as much depth as Saunders — the ratio of analysis to original text is lower — but it’s a similar approach, albeit with a different emphasis. While Saunders frequently examines the narrative at the level of scenes, paragraphs and sentences, Silverberg more often delivers an overview that focuses on how the science-fictional premise is handled, and how the story is structured. Sometimes he will frankly admit that the prose is plain and the characterisation is nonexistent, but he then explains that the narrative is doing different things that don’t require fancy imagery or distinguishable characters. Even though Silverberg’s analysis is more superficial than Saunders’ deep dives, it’s still an interesting book that new SFF writers might find helpful. However, the stories that Silverberg examines mostly date from the 1950s, and may fall foul of contemporary progressive sensibilities, so perhaps the time is ripe for someone to publish a similar book analysing modern SFF stories.
Ian Creasey lives in Yorkshire, England. He has published numerous SF and Fantasy short stories, including the collection The Shapes of Strangers (NewCon Press, 2019).