The PEN Pod: Learning from Russian Short Fiction with George Saunders
Bestselling writer George Saunders is the author of 10 books—among them, the Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo. He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University, and his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a book version of sitting in Saunders’s classroom, walking us through some of the finest works of Russian short fiction. George joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss how his latest book replicates his classroom setting, as well as the power of short fiction, storytelling, and how studying the works of Russian writers can energize our political impulses. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with George is up until the 13:51 mark).
Let’s talk about this book. It’s so unique—it’s not just essays about short stories; you actually intersperse these short fiction pieces from Chekhov and Tolstoy with your own analysis, guidance, and questions. How did you come to this concept?
I was really just trying to model the classroom setting. I’ve taught this class for 20 years, and I imagined that the reader was just a student in the class. Those classes are always directly in response to the texts—you read them during the weekend, then we come in, and we unload on them. For a while, I thought, “Well, I could just do the essays and ask people to go find the stories,” but that seemed not quite right. I had it in mind to be a joint project between the two of us, so I wanted you to read the stories, and right away I was going to talk to you about them.
You subtitle the book: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Why not a master class from George Saunders on writing, reading, and life?
I don’t feel confident with it. The whole idea of mastery is kind of antithetical to the way I approach writing. I think you have to come to everything like a beginner—every story is different. So I really wanted to underscore the idea that the reader and I are going to sit together, and we’re going to both concentrate on these great stories. And I’ll go first—I’ll offer my ideas, but hopefully the readers are in there with me, pushing back a little bit, agreeing or disagreeing. I wanted to give pride of place to the Russians, who were the real masters, and I’m just like a mechanic running around their beautiful Ferraris.
“If the story is a gradual series of revelations, it starts off maybe mundane, maybe a little judgmental, even snide sometimes—and then over the pages, compassion opens up. By the end of the story, you know the character better, you know the author better, and you know the world better. So that happens best stepwise: A revelation follows a revelation, which is another way of saying it’s always escalating. And when you get to a place in the story where there are no more revelations, you should stop.”
You mentioned this is based on a course that you’ve taught. Why these four authors?
In the class we do, of course, a lot more—we do something like 40 stories. But it became this kind of Rubik’s Cube, like, okay, we only have so many pages, we want to print the stories, and I want my essays to be shapely as well. I want my essays to be metastories in which I’m not repeating myself, and it’s sort of graceful. So these are just really the seven stories that have taught the best over the years—you teach these stories in the semester, and these are the days on which the classroom lights up, and that distinction between teacher and class disappears, and everybody’s elated. Afterwards, I always felt that at least three or four of the kids had really been affected by the stories in ways that would make their work better. So these are just sort of the ones that give off the most heat in the classroom.
The book has a lot of expectations and prompts—one of them is, “always be escalating.” Is that advice you give in the classroom, and what does it mean?
Yes, and it’s advice I try to take myself. I think it’s inherent in the story form—if I say, “Once upon a time,” and then you look ahead and there’s only six pages there, you kind of understand that this is an exercise in urgency. Then, that implies that if the story is a gradual series of revelations, it starts off maybe mundane, maybe a little judgmental, even snide sometimes—and then over the pages, compassion opens up. By the end of the story, you know the character better, you know the author better, and you know the world better. So that happens best stepwise: A revelation follows a revelation, which is another way of saying it’s always escalating. And when you get to a place in the story where there are no more revelations, you should stop. According to me, that’s kind of implicit in the form in the same way that, with a song, if you have a 30-minute fadeout, somebody should have come and cut the fadeout, because nothing new is happening within it. Again, this is all just my take on the short story, which the reader is free to disagree with.
It’s interesting—that idea of breaking these stories down and showing folks that once those revelations are over, that’s the end. Do you think there’s something about the short fiction form that is more appealing now, while our brains are so distracted by the second impeachment and the war on Capitol Hill, and all the horrible things that are happening outside of our front doors?
I think so, but I also would say—and writing this book reminded me of this—that we think of reading a short story as kind of an esoteric, cultural indulgence, but actually we’re writing a short story in our head in every minute that we live. There’s all this data coming in, and we’re trying to make sense of it, so we’re telling it to ourselves in the form of a story. We are looking at other people and we’re having an initial understanding of them, which is usually—almost by definition—too small and reductive. If we have a chance to interact with them, or we have a particularly good imagination, our vision of them can expand—ideally, to the point where we see them as just us on another day. A story models that, and it also teaches us to do that.
“At this moment, after the events of the last week or so, if we ever thought that storytelling wasn’t vital to a culture, we’ve just been reminded that it is. What happened was a bunch of people had false agenda and stories injected into their minds—the minds that, for whatever reason, weren’t very good at distinguishing truth from falsehood. It revved them up, they committed horrible violence, and now they have to live with the consequences. This is the opposite of what happens in a short story, which is that somebody concentrates for a long period of time to make their story as truthful and empathetic as possible, and then they export it to us.”
I feel like at this moment, after the events of the last week or so, if we ever thought that storytelling wasn’t vital to a culture, we’ve just been reminded that it is. What happened was a bunch of people had false agenda and stories injected into their minds—the minds that, for whatever reason, weren’t very good at distinguishing truth from falsehood. It revved them up, they committed horrible violence, and now they have to live with the consequences. This is the opposite of what happens in a short story, which is that somebody concentrates for a long period of time to make their story as truthful and empathetic as possible, and then they export it to us. We’ve been prepared by years of reading, the story falls on us, and it actually has the effect of waking us up, making us more patient and attentive. So those are two very different modes of storytelling, and I think it’s a choice that we have to make culturally, if we want to be a more expansive culture. Stories have always been with us—the literary short stories have always been with us. It’s a beautiful form.
These stories from these writers, in particular, are obviously from a different age and era and, for many of your readers, from a different country. Why do you think they continue to be so resonant? What is it that keeps students and readers intrigued?
|For me, the Russians seem to assume that stories are little moral, ethical machines—they’re there to help you figure out how to live. Now, they don’t necessarily give you answers on how to live, but they deepen the journey. That seems like a fundamental assumption of the Russian stories. They are also, as you suggested, pretty simple—they’re almost like parables in some way. So that’s nice, that’s like having a very simple car to work on, if you’re a mechanic. You can just see all the parts there, and it’s easy to talk about them.
The other thing I say is, in the class, part of the really lovely dynamic is that not everybody loves these stories the first time. Some of the students generally don’t like them, and that’s a great energy to have in a class, too. Someone comes in and says, “You know, this story strikes me as very dull.” Well, that gives us a great chance to interrogate the idea of dullness: What are you talking about when you say “dull?” Tell me more. So these stories, I think, tend to get a strong reaction from people—mostly positive, but occasionally negative. From a teaching perspective, a strong reaction you can really work with—tepid is not so easy, but if someone comes in all fired up in either direction, you can use that energy and do a kind of judo with it.
I think that’s the beauty of this book. I just remembered being a high school student, a college student, and assuming that there was always a right answer. I feel like the way you present questions in this book, you’re pretty clear: There isn’t necessarily a right answer. It’s the question that you want people to really contend with and have a strong reaction to.
Absolutely right. It’s mostly because I’m teaching this class to a group of really talented young writers—we pick six every year from a pool of 600 or 700. So they’re wonderful, and my job is not to tell them the right way to read. My job actually is to lovingly poke at them, so that whatever obstructions and difficulties they’re having in their own work get relieved. That’s a very different thing than someone who is a professional critic and is trying to convey the “correct” version of the story. I’m just trying to use it as sort of a heat source—I’m trying to get the story to speak to them in some way that jogs them loose from whatever obstruction they’re caught in. So that’s a different way, and it really is totally fine with me, because any writing advice that’s general is going to be pretty bad. You have to give a specific piece of advice to a specific writer regarding a specific story on a specific day for it to even have a hope of being helpful.
“As I was writing the book, it was such a comfort to go back to basic questions and say, ‘Okay, after this is done, do I want to live the same way I was living before? I’ve got limited time here, so what am I trying to do?’ The Russian stories—for me, anyway—are a great focuser of those questions. You come out of them, and the world looks new. It looks lovely, and most importantly, you feel that you have responsibilities in the world. So they’re very casually political in that way—they energize our political impulses.”
You probably came up with the concept of the book before the pandemic, but in some ways, this is the perfect read for the pandemic. I imagine you’re teaching remotely and your students have to contend with their ideas virtually, and they’re able to speak with you and speak with their colleagues, but they often have to tussle with these ideas alone. In some ways, it feels like the right moment for this book.
It was inadvertent, but I think so. I had the thought that—I say it in the introduction—this book was a little strange for me, because I think it’s difficult in some ways, or at least it’s challenging. It takes real equal participation from the reader. So I do imagine somebody who’s now so tired of this quarantining and so over it saying, “Okay, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and spend some time with this book that maybe, in my usual act of life, I wouldn’t quite have the concentration for.”
Also, I feel like this pandemic has been a life, but compressed. The tragedy and the harshness, also the little heroism—it’s all been compressed in these last 11 months. As I was writing the book, it was such a comfort to go back to basic questions and say, “Okay, after this is done, do I want to live the same way I was living before? I’ve got limited time here, so what am I trying to do?” The Russian stories—for me, anyway—are a great focuser of those questions. You come out of them, and the world looks new. It looks lovely, and most importantly, you feel that you have responsibilities in the world. So they’re very casually political in that way—they energize our political impulses. I feel really lucky that I accidentally chose to write this book when I did, just for my selfish reasons.
It’s a very nice literary coincidence—could come right out of a short story. George, what are you reading right now?
I tend to read several things at once. My big project is Don Quixote, which I think I’ve never finished, so I’m working on that. Then, I just got a copy of this book, Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett, which is fascinating. She’s a wonderful writer, and she’s taken apart all my concepts of how the mind works. Somehow, it’s dovetailing with this book, because one of the things I was thinking about was: “What’s actually happening to your mind when you read? What’s actually happening to your mind when you experience and then judge a work of fiction? What’s happening there when you’re writing something?” So, that—along with Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind—is really speaking to me.
The other: I’ve just got a fresh copy of a book called The Trouble with Language by Rebecca Fishow, who is a former student of mine. The book is a collection of really beautiful and strange short pieces. And then I’m hoping to go back to Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s such a beautiful book—I read it a few years ago and it was just a revelation, and it feels like a good time to revisit that book.