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.
George Saunders is the Tom Hanks of letters – profoundly gifted and profoundly humane, so much so that we forget to miss the darkness and danger that can substitute for distinction in the art of others ... a close, marvelling, grateful and precisely articulated reading of seven short stories, included in the book, by Russian masters of the nineteenth century ... Many books that try to teach us how to write commit the first sin of bad writing: their guidance is abstract. There are even more books that try to teach us how to read. None I know do both with Saunders’s microscopic attention to the myriad impressions and calculations that occur within us when we compose or absorb even a single word on the page ... Saunders is the gentlest and most gracious of guides, forever reminding us that these are only his views.
[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'?
... maybe I’m biased as a former English major, but A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is refreshing, warm and educational in the best sense of the word. For me, the best non-fiction books — like the best teachers — open your eyes and engage you with personality and passion. And as Saunders takes us through six short stories by Russian masters, we learn to read differently. We slow down. We feel his passion. And we ask questions ... Don’t worry — A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is not a workbook with all questions and no answers. An experienced, generous teacher is leading you along. The subsequent five stories appear in full, followed by Saunders’ take on each one. This isn’t esoteric literary criticism or dry, mansplaining lectures. Saunders’ book will help you enjoy fiction more ... Months after reading an advance copy, the title has stuck with me — it’s such an evocative image (pulled from Gooseberries by Chekhov). And it really fits; the book is a splash in the face. You can dive deep or lie on your back and let the words wash over you.
... 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.
Part intro to Russian literature, part musings on craft, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is all pleasure ... It’s rich pickings ... Saunders’ commentary on the stories reads like the coffee-stained notes of a professor fond of the subject—and his students. Where the text sparkles in particular is in his attempts at articulating the mystery of the muse.
... warm and inviting ... I was the lucky recipient who finally got to attend a class with one of my favorite writers ... Right away, we are launched into Chekhov’s 'In the Cart.' And then, a page later, Saunders interjects with his thoughts about our expectations as readers and what Chekhov as writer could do with those expectations. His insight was fascinating and helped me prepare for the discussions after later stories. But I admit that, at that moment, I flipped ahead to the other stories to see if Saunders interjected like that every time. He did not. And I was relieved. In hindsight, though, I believe it was a great choice for a reader like me; someone unaccustomed to stopping so often to think about a story while still in the middle of reading it. His prodding and jabbing after every page or two in the first story blew some dust from some unused connectors in my brain. Plus, the wonderful thing about Saunders’ approach is that he’s utterly nonjudgmental. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t familiar with these writers or that I've never been in a writing class. Readers are encouraged to bring whatever they can to the proceedings ... the post-story conversation...really did feel like a conversation: Saunders is a generous instructor. I felt involved. Even when a particular story didn’t resonate...aunders’ insights helped me appreciate it ... while reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain may not be the same as having a front-row seat in 'that Russian class' Professor Saunders so loves teaching, it felt pretty close.
Welcome to Man Booker Prize winner George Saunders’s classroom at Syracuse University ... As a reader (and perhaps an aspiring short story writer), you can audit the seminar for no credit (at no cost except for the price of the book in whatever format you choose), with his exemplary lessons and assignments ... The book is organized uniquely, like a syllabus. There are assigned readings of stories (included in the text), lectures on the narratives, and suggestions for writing exercises ... It does not, however, carry the heavy weight of an academic tome. Saunders often expounds with personal, sometimes witty, observations that blend the tone of literary criticism with that of life’s lessons ... Saunders is sometimes too self-deprecating in asides about his talents and skills ... He frequently disparages himself as a 'lesser writer.' He may not be a Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, or Gogol, but he is a George Saunders, and a damn good one ... these are minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book, in which Saunders offers us an indispensable list of laws for writers ... Bottom line: Who is A Swim in a Pond in the Rain for? Anyone who reads and admires short stories or might aspire to writing one — or better ones.
George Saunders’ surprisingly affirmative new book is a bit like being taken around a literary museum by a curator. His Old Masters are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, and the book presents seven works by them, and then Saunders’ insights about them having taught a course on the Russian short story at Syracuse University for many years. That said, even these Old Masters knew a thing or twelve about suffering ... one doesn’t need a pandemic and a lockdown to find an excuse to return to these Russian masters, and it was certainly not without profit, interest and joy to re-read them. So the justification for the jacket price must be what Saunders brings to this. As one would expect, it is a very eccentric form of seminar.
At times Saunders's commentaries read like exactly what they are, dressed-up lecture notes — perhaps of limited interest to those not hell-bent on getting published in The New Yorker. Often he strains a little too hard to make it 'FUN!!' ... his strength as an interpreter lies in his non-academic approach. He reads, as Vladimir Nabokov advised, with his back, alert to the shiver down the spine. He interrogates his own responses, asks you for yours, never quite settles for an all-encompassing interpretation ... Suffice to say, the hairs on the back of my neck were alert.
... a true gift to writers and serious readers ... infectious enthusiasm and generosity of spirit ... On the surface, this may seem a dry endeavor. However, in Saunders’ hands it is anything but. His love of literature is palpable, and his obvious qualities as an artful teacher are on full display. Saunders takes a different tack with each story, sometimes providing pulse-by-pulse dissections, other times analyzing the building of character or even how the excesses of a story somehow manage to contribute to rather than detract from its greatness ... While the genesis of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain can be found in the creative writing classroom—and writers at any level of their careers will glean priceless pearls from nearly every page—the genius of Saunders’ book, and his clear intention in offering it up, is to elucidate literature for the engaged reader, deepening the reading experience. It is also a blueprint for a greater engagement with humanity.
Saunders, a former petroleum engineer, likes to disassemble and analyse, yet this is not a dry, technical guide on how to write ... he...communicates in plain prose much of what his students have taught him, as well as his own personal musings on life, art and death. Suffused with a wry humour, the essays are aimed at anyone interested in how fiction works ... His book is what every lover of pre-Revolution Russian literature needs close by: not an academic interpretation, but a reader’s companion. I was pleasurably absorbed from start to finish.
... the eminent short story writer and Booker Prize-winner George Saunders comes to the rescue with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, an enthralling, clear-eyed, between-the-covers seminar on seven classic Russian stories and what they reveal about the form--and about human nature ... There are razor-sharp critiques here but also rich personal history. What’s most striking about the book is Saunders’ conversational, even intimate tone--we are getting a master class in how to read and write fiction ... by picking his way through these seven tales Saunders rejuvenates his craft, not only as an author but as a teacher. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
... lively, edifying essays ... It’s an ambitious reverse-engineering project for which his former career serves him well ... This is a book about craft, but it’s not highly technical, and it’s not just for writers ... another generous, funny, and stunningly perceptive book from one of the most original and entertaining writers alive.
[A] flat, uncomplicated, and depoliticized background as essential to understanding the fundamentals of the craft of storytelling ... A Swim in a Pond in the Rain might catch readers looking for traditional literary criticism by surprise. As Saunders explains, it is actually more of a 'workbook' for creative writers, based on a course he’s taught at Syracuse University ... This matter of not passing judgment seems to be the primary life lesson Saunders wants readers to draw from nineteenth-century Russian literature. That these writers held quite passionate and critical views of certain human behavior or social types often gets cast aside, as Saunders tries to squeeze them into what I think of as the Empathy Industrial Complex ... I kept reading to understand why 'the Russians' are uniquely poised to offer guidance on how to be more empathetic by virtue of being 'the Russians.' The closest we get to a culturally specific lesson on craft is in Saunders’s fascination with the Russian literary device skaz ... Are we supposed to read Gogol and suddenly realize that the people shouting 'Build That Wall' are not racists, but just have a 'skaz loop' playing in their heads? This might be what Saunders is getting at ... We are already bombarded by the narrative that white racists are actually downtrodden victims subject to the whims of uppity people of color; surely there is no need to encourage aspiring creative writers to imagine more of the same. At the very least, it is a cliché. This anecdote confirmed my worst suspicions of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
George Saunders deems his delightful readings of seven stories by Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoy non-academic, and they are all the better for that ... To be certain that the reading experience is fresh when we consider his analyses, Mr. Saunders includes each story in full in an adequate, if not always the best, translation ... At his best, Mr. Saunders teases out easily overlooked moments of authorial genius ... Mr. Saunders’s faith in 'craft' sometimes misleads him. He attributes Tolstoy’s unsurpassed depiction of the mind, and his status as 'a moral-ethical giant,' to 'a technique,' an explanation Tolstoy himself despised and mocked in Anna Karenina ... Mr. Saunders, most comfortable when discussing realist stories like Chekhov’s, forces those governed by a completely different aesthetic into the realist mode ... Mr. Saunders also projects contemporary politics onto the stories ... Mr. Saunders’s students, we learn, have pointed to passages where these writers demonstrate insufficient wokeness. For the author, any supposed moral lapse of this kind must also be an aesthetic one, to be remedied by supplying appropriate, morally up-to-date additions ... Apparently, the principles of aesthetics just happen to coincide exactly with the values of American intellectuals in the year 2021, while departing from the values of all other cultures at all other periods of history. I cannot imagine how to improve 19th-century novels by making them conform to modern gender standards ... Mr. Saunders’s love of student-speak ('the crappo version of our story,' 'can a jerk change?') also grates ... The enticing brilliance of his careful analyses, as illuminating to the scholar as to the beginner, would have shone even more brightly.
... [Saunders] instills the collected fictions with a new layer of richness. That said, taking these stories a 'page at a time,' as the author himself acknowledges, is a bit tedious. I, for one, was glad that for the rest of the way, Saunders saves his comments for afterwards ... Saunders brings his own humanist sensibility to these stories ... Saunders’s tone remains charmingly self-deprecating, as he probes these stories’ merits both in composition and philosophical content. Above all, he pours his ever-generous heart into his readings, often revealing hidden threads of humor and compassion ... would be worth owning if only to have all seven stories in a single volume. Yet beyond that, George Saunders has written a loving tribute not only to the giants of Russian literature, not just to the short story, but to fiction itself.
this volume serves as a mini-anthology of great Russian fiction from the 1830s to the 1900s ... Above all, the tales pay attention – visionary, transformative attention – to humble and slighted people who lead downtrodden lives ... Saunders loves these works like old friends who never let him down, and always have something new to say. He does his fair share of minute structural analysis, stripping the engines down to show us how they go. But his warmth, enthusiasm and homespun metaphors – all part of that 'writerly charm' – banish any sense of the chilly, mechanistic Fiction Lab. Wannabe short-story writers will no doubt learn a lot ... Fix a story’s formal problems of voice, or pace, or structure, Saunders argues, and you’ll expel moral – even political – shortcomings from it too ... Russian speakers will also worry that, for much of the book, Saunders says little about the translations that he cites. The word choices, the sentence flows, the nuances of voice and tone, that add to the effects he examines depend here on the stories’ Anglophone interpreters ... Never mind: A Swim in a Pond in the Rain generates more fun, more wit, more sympathetic sense, than we have any right to hope for from a 400-page critical study.
This is no history of 19th-century Russian literature; the Booker Prize-winner is clear that he neither reads Russian, nor studies its literature systematically ... Yet the illogic is deliberate, the stories chosen because the author loves them as much (if not more) than English-language texts. They also, in his view, offer unique insights not just for short-story practitioners, but for anyone seeking to understand how reading affects us and why it is important ... an appealing and original synthesis. More practical and playful than formalist analysis, it also probes exactly how narrative techniques make us more alert, attentive and sympathetic in reading books and the world around us ... We thankfully avoid truisms about the Russian soul, and instead see how these four writers arranged their stories in such a way as to reveal how complex and fallible anyone, and life in general, could be.
...it is not the typical how-to writing guide. The closest comparison might be Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer from 2006. But while Prose focuses on close reading for craft techniques, Saunders aims for something larger: what stories do to us, how and why ... As Saunders takes us deep into the workings of each story, he explores what fiction can do for readers: how it can provide structures to expand and alter our thinking about our lives and worlds ... With each story, he gently encourages us to question our own biases and prejudices, imagine what the writer might have intended and consider other possible scenarios. He dives into existential and epistemological questions about how we understand and accept various versions of truth and joy and why we seek them in the first place ... Think of it like taking a walk around a favorite neighborhood, park or trail with a dear friend. You walk together, and this friend points out — with genuine delight and insight — the aspects that move and enliven them. The honesty, energy and earnestness are beyond infectious; they change your very relationship with these places so that you see them, with a fresh and clear vision, as vital to your very existence. You open up to let them shape your being and your way of thinking with a new curiosity and joy.
... A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is not a work of biography — or of scholarship. Although all of the stories predate the Russian Revolution and refer to very specific, time-stamped issues in Russian culture and history, Saunders admits that he can’t address questions about the stories’ social context. 'These questions are above my pay grade. (Even asking them has made me a little anxious.)' What he can do is share his idiosyncratic, high-spirited way of approaching fiction. Here, it is emphatically, delightfully enough.
Saunders writes in an easy-breezy style, with lots of silly anecdotes and self-deprecation. Whether or not this appeals to you is probably a question of personal taste. I feel that Saunders is trying a bit too hard to be the cool teacher that everyone likes, and occasionally while reading I wanted to rebel and shout, ‘OK Boomer!’ from the back of the class. On the other hand, it’s a light, easy, fun-filled read, which takes its subject seriously, but not too reverentially. Saunders says things like, ‘Write it like Tolstoy. Use, you know, a lot of facts. Ha ha.’ He makes the Russians feel approachable.
... the book very much feels like a class ... There’s no skipping the readings or checking Wikipedia here; Saunders is a strict disciplinarian ... However, there is the question of who exactly this book is for? To describe it as a niche publication is something of an understatement. Even as a Saunders fan, I often found the book to be quite an arduous undertaking. But I suppose that is mostly my fault for approaching it as a critic and not as a student ... I doubt A Swim in a Pond in the Rain will lead to a great swell of writers suddenly turning their lectures into books. And judging from what I’ve heard from writer friends who’ve experienced great authors giving these lectures, few would be able to fill 400 pages quite so easily as Saunders). But when you judge it for exactly what it is – a master of the short story taking you through his process, using the great Russians as sandboxes – then A Swim in a Pond is truly worth its weight in gold.
... billed as a master class in how to read and write, is effectively two books in one: seven classic Russian short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol paired with funny, lively, profound essays by Saunders explaining their art, craft and enduring appeal ... the best possible guide to have on this invigorating tour through FictionLand because although he thinks like the MacArthur 'genius' that he is, he talks like the guy sitting next to you at the bar.
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is a lesson in looking closely at narrative to understand how and why it can weave such a spell ... Reading A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is like taking a class with the kindest, most open-minded professor you can imagine. Saunders is an engaging guide, earnest almost to a fault at times, but the enthusiasm is clearly genuine and ultimately winning.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a distillation of what he tries to impart to his students. It’s difficult to name a contemporary writer whose work departs further from the stereotype of the overcrafted, MFA-boilerplate, New Yorker story than Saunders, the inventive, playful, idiosyncratic author of Tenth of December. Yet in this book, rather than advising his readers (and his students) how to write as far outside of the box as he does, Saunders seems surprisingly inclined to help them squeeze themselves into it ... Much of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain addresses how to write, but for someone like myself, a person with no plans to produce a short story, it better serves as a course in how to read short stories ... True, I closed A Swim in a Pond in the Rain with an improved appreciation of the fineness of the Russians’ craft, but none of that gave me much sense of how Saunders’ own peculiar magic, the fictional magic I prefer, gets made. So is it a good book or a bad book? The answer is yes.
Admirers of Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) and Saunders’ equally imaginative short story collections will discover the full scope of his passion for and knowledge of literature in his deeply inquisitive, candid, funny, and philosophical analysis of seven stories, each included here, by his Russian mentors ... An invaluable and uniquely pleasurable master course and a generous celebration of reading, writing, and all the ways literature enriches our lives.
Saunders’s procedure in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is straightforward ... He makes no attempt to teach the reader how to write fiction in any larger sense: novels go almost entirely unmentioned in the book, which makes the experience of reading it eerily similar to spending a few weeks in a fiction workshop ... But Saunders’s adoration of short stories cannot be chalked up to their mere manageability. He is a true believer in 'the form' ... The audience that will get the most out of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is not made up of writers, but rather those who wish to become writers without having to do too much ... The trouble with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is that Saunders’s relatability [...] Reading Saunders’s book feels akin to fully disassembling a set of Matryoshka dolls. Each nested layer is colorful, amusing in its way. But there at the end, you’re left with a stubby, unprepossessing figure: a reiteration of a fact you already know. Want to be a writer? Come up with a sentence. Write it down; frown at it; write it again. See? Easy.
... [a] thrilling literary lesson ... Once we become accustomed to reading like he reads, we proceed through the stories with great joy, anticipating even further delights with his explications to follow.