George Saunders is the master class instructor of our dreams. He is witty, charming and informative, willing to pepper in just the right amount of personal asides to make us feel like we are in direct conversation with him. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain Saunders serves as our faithful guide, walking us through seven Russian short stories to help us, ultimately, become better readers and writers. Here, Saunders explores the relationship between the reader and the writer, that mutually curious moment of connection and the true beauty of storytelling.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a book called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which the reader and I look together at seven classic Russian short stories, in an attempt to come to a better understanding of storytelling itself.
We often think of “storytelling” as something performative. (The first storytelling stands up in the cave and tells the one about the elk that got away. A writer stands at a podium in a bookstore, nervously performing sections of her novel.) But storytelling is actually something we’re doing in every instant. Looking at a bunch of molecule-clusters, we say, “Look, a bird on a telephone wire.” Another molecule-cluster approaches and we cry out, “Mom!” We might say that our ability to be a sane, positive force in the world depends upon the quality of this instantaneous storytelling. (If a wolf approaches and we cry out “Mom!’ — that spells trouble. If our storytelling apparatus gets poison in it, and we start seeing conspiracies where there aren’t any, we’re going to behave weirdly, relative to reality. A functional culture has to agree on some basic truths; if it can’t, it’s because its storytelling has gotten messed up.)
When we start reading a story, what’s going on? How are we deciding to keep going? Well, one thing we’re doing is assessing the story for truth. If I write, “I crossed a field of fresh-cut grass, which smelled like vinegar and pencil shavings”— reading that, you experience a moment of resistance: “Fresh-cut grass does not smell like that.” And a rupture appears in our relationship. You’re suddenly looking over skeptically at me, instead of being absorbed in my (imaginary) story.
You’ve just been reminded that you know the truth when you see it.
A literary short story is a rarefied, refined, high-level thing — it’s been carefully, sometimes maniacally revised; it’s been curated, we might say; it’s a thoroughbred version of “the yarn.” It’s an object we can use, mutually, to do some thinking about the way the world is (or is not), and a means for us to examine the process itself; to ask why we are drawn into a story and why we’re pushed out; to look at the relationship that develops between our mind and the writer’s mind, to start to understand the pleasures of language and the relationship between truth and beauty.
In other words, reading a short story is a way of refining the way we “read” any text (the story, a newspaper, the world itself).
It makes us a more discriminating judge of reality, we might say.
In writing a short story, the writer is basically saying, “Here’s how I think things work.” We stand there alongside her, assessing her model. The beauty of this is that we don’t have to completely agree with her model to benefit from it. It’s the standing together that’s beneficial; this well-intentioned, mutually curious moment of connection with someone we don’t know, both of us setting our attention on that constructed object. It’s a moment that creates generosity; that reminds us that it’s actually in our nature to want to connect with another person — and that we’re good at it. That reader/writer exchange produces (as we readers know) levels of subtlety and nuance rare in real life: a kind of balm for our feelings (so endemic in this sad old world of ours and especially in this odd new world of ours) of futility and disconnection.