Mastering the Genre: Figuring Out Fiction with George Saunders

I’ve read a fair cross section of writing advice books, from John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction,” to Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” Inevitably, these kinds of books come around to a singlepoint, their climax, where they grapple with the beauty of fiction. They try to get their hands around it, grasp it and tame the beast they’ve dedicated their lives to. George Saunders’ “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” is in many respects no different. It, too, is trying to hunt down that beast called fiction.

“A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” is not explicitly a book of writing tips, however. Rather, it is a masterclass on short stories, an analysis of seven different tales from four Russian authors, three from Anton Chekhov, two from Leo Tolstoy and one from Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol each. They are beautiful stories, each reprinted in the book with accompanying essays by Saunders, wherein he tries to tease out what makes each story individually beautiful, trying to find the beating, messy soul: the art. In this way, it shares that same goal of all other writing advice books. It tries to find the core of fiction, and compress that ephemeral feeling of being moved and elevated into a comprehensible whole, into a philosophy of writing. For Saunders, this philosophy focuses on the emotional impact and honesty of a story. But, Saunders is also trying to make sense of himself, as a writer and reader, throughout the book.

And, as a teacher too. “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” is based on a class Saunders has taught for twenty years at Syracuse University’s MFA fiction program. The book grapples with all of that time spent with these seven stories, and with the stories themselves, which Saunders feels immensely for. After all, trying to discover the heart of fiction is a deeply personal journey. This book does not come off as didactic, for that reason. This is the world according to George Saunders. This is the beauty of fiction, according to George Saunders. He is explicit in encouraging people to find their own beauties, to discard everything they find off-putting about the vision he presents in the book and to construct their own view point.

I love engaging with this kind of stuff, because I love fiction. It moves me just to talk about the power of fiction. Fiction can be startling and revelatory. “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” captures that perfectly.

It’s hard to describe that feeling, though, because to do so is to undertake the same monumental task that Saunders does in the book. It is to try and capture what fiction does to a reader, to describe an amorphous, largely unconscious process. Saunders manages to do it, and, in his criticism and evaluations, he finds the particularities of great stories. But in many ways, this process feels just as mysterious to me as does fiction. Powerful fiction is hard to describe. It moves me in ways that I can’t quite articulate. I can only limply gesture at the base work. Good criticism, which reveals, defines and shines a light on some core of art, is similar. As such, good criticism is always a little obscure. A little high-minded. It risks losing people in its generalities and statements. And that’s why it’s so effective and sometimes so indescribable. “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” is good criticism. I can only gesture at it. I can only say that it moved me, showed me something I hadn’t seen before.