The author of Lincoln in the Bardo has taught a class on 19th century Russian fiction to MFA students at Syracuse University for two decades. Saunders includes lessons from that course here, mingling writing advice and close readings of stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.
This book is a delight, and it’s about delight too. How necessary, at our particular moment ... I love the warmth with which he writes about this teaching ... This kind of reading (one of the best kinds, I’m convinced) tracks the author’s intentions—and missed intentions, and intuitions, and instinctive recoil from what’s banal or obvious—so closely and intimately, at every step, through every sentence ... All this makes Saunders’s book very different from just another 'how to' creative writing manual, or just another critical essay. In enjoyably throwaway fashion, he assembles along his way a few rules for writing ... reading...with this rich, close attention will mulch down into any would-be writer’s experience, and repay them by fertilising their own work eventually ... One of the pleasures of this book is feeling his own thinking move backwards and forwards, between the writer dissecting practice and the reader entering in through the spell of the words, to dwell inside the story.
... craft books tend to read like invitations to a kind of shared suffering. But if Saunders’ writing guide is no more helpful, it’s funnier and more open-hearted ... though he approaches the book with I’m-just-winging-it humility, he works in some pedagogy. His trick...is not to be so pedagogical about it. Rather than throw down diktats about plot, structure and characterization, he encourages readers simply to walk attentively through each story. Saunders invents shorthand to make the process less intimidating ... Saunders delivers some old-fashioned from-the-lectern close readings, with occasional forays into multiple translations to explicate certain word choices. But he bites off bigger chunks than an academic ... It’s persuasive in context. But...Saunders opens up the kinds of questions that defy answers ... When do you get to make messes and when is it best to avoid them? On such points, Saunders may be more honest than most writing teachers, but it’s where Swim is at its haziest ... if the only solution is for writers to figure it out for themselves, Saunders excels at motivating them to do the figuring.
[Saunders] is moved by an evangelical ardor where fiction is concerned, intent on how it can help us 'become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional,' as he put it in a viral commencement speech. These particular hopes have never been more precisely, joyfully or worryingly articulated than in his new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain ... I’m making the book sound revoltingly technical. It isn’t. Saunders lives in the synapses — he looks at all the minute and meaningful decisions that produce a sentence, a paragraph, a convincing character. He offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read — that state of heightened alertness, lightning-quick decisions ... The book might provoke comparisons to Nabokov’s classic lectures on Russian literature, first delivered at Cornell. But where Nabokov is all high-plumed prose and remove, presiding at his lectern, Saunders is at your elbow, ladling praise ... Here’s where I must admit that I can find myself in an occasional bardo of sorts about Saunders, torn between admiration and wariness. The breadth of his belief in fiction is inspiring — and suspiciously flattering to the reader ... Now, I’m as self-interested a champion of fiction as anyone, but such overstatement does the form no favors — at best it feels naïve, at worst, deeply solipsistic. Is the invasion of Iraq best understood as a 'literary failure,' as Saunders has written? Can racism be described as an 'antiliterary impulse'?