Skip to content

The Short Story Priesthood

George Saunders and the religion of literary craft

When George Saunders first arrived at Syracuse University in 1986, he had three hundred bucks, an aging pick-up truck, and a prodigious, blond mustache. His proletarian look and habit of sleeping in the beater’s camper extension only added to the mystique of being the only student in Syracuse’s writing program who could boast of being fresh off a gig at a slaughterhouse in Texas or that he had previously worked oil rigs in Indonesia. These years of coming home alternately coated in crude and blood represented most of Saunders’s twenties, a period during which he would later recall regularly thinking to himself, “I’m just slumming, I’ll write about this some day.”

That day had come. Here young Saunders was at last, a self-styled Reagan-era Hemingway ready to fulfill his destiny of becoming a Famous and Successful Writer. A few weeks into his first semester at Syracuse, he pulled aside Tobias Wolff, the program’s grand poohbah, and assured him that he’d given up “the silly humorous crap I applied to the program with.” Instead, he would eventually recall in The New Yorker, Saunders intended to begin “writing more seriously, more realistically, nothing made up, nothing silly, everything directly from life, no exaggeration or humor—you know: ‘real writing.’”

The early results were not promising. It took a full decade for Saunders to publish his first collection of short stories, but once he had, the path to stardom was suddenly clear. He was quickly invited to return to Syracuse as a professor, an appointment he made good on by winning a Booker Prize, the Guggenheim, and National Magazine Awards out the wazoo. At this late date, Saunders has earned himself tenure at his alma mater and accumulated a shelf of trophies befitting any practitioner of “real writing,” even as the chummy, off-kilter voice he has refined since the nineties doesn’t share any immediately obvious DNA with the deadpan minimalism of Hemingway or his midcentury imitators.

What’s left for a writer of Saunders’s stature? Why, to write a craft book, of course! And why not? Saunders is the prince of the MFA age, his pedagogy nearly as famous as his writing. Much of that reputation has to do with a single class Saunders teaches at Syracuse: “The Russian Short Story in Translation (For Writers).” The class has been adapted by the critic Maria Bustillos into a “kit” that allows the public a facsimile of the experience of a Saunders-led seminar on Chekhov. It has been catalogued in a series of illustrations by a former student that render his pronouncements into speech bubbles crowding around his scruffy visage. Now, “The Russian Short Story in Translation (For Writers)” has gone blockbuster in the form of a new instruction manual for aspiring short story stylists, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, and Life.

While Saunders’s contribution to the craft-book genre feels far more inevitable than any of the books by his contemporaries that have entered the market in recent years, it’s hard to ignore just how crowded those shelves already are. Here’s Stephen King, with On Writing—over there, it’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Samuel R. Delany, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eudora Welty, E.M. Forster . . . poets on how to write poetry, memoirists on how to write memoir. In Saunders’s case: a short story writer on how to write short stories. None of these books could ever be mistaken for a usage dictionary or a style guide. No, their subject is craft, a carefully chosen term meant to evoke the dutiful commitment being a famous writer necessitates. While creating narrative momentum isn’t exactly akin to replacing the alternator of a V6 engine, dubbing writing a craft at least avoids having to answer any tricky questions about whether or not art can be taught. Never mind that the vast number of craft books already available surely outweighs all the plumbing manuals ever published. The idea of writing as craft persists, if only because differing theories of just what that craft entails are a lot like the old joke about assholes: everybody’s got one. For a bona fide writer like George Saunders, the temptation to show yours off to the world is impossible to resist.

Hard-ass Fiction

Saunders’s procedure in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is straightforward. Seven short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev are reprinted, each of them followed by an essay in which Saunders dissects whatever element of the craft of writing the associated story illuminates. Saunders’s treatment of Gogol’s “The Nose” focuses on voice, while his discussion of “The Darling” describes Chekhov’s mastery of narrative patterning. “For a young writer, reading the Russian stories of this period is akin to a young composer studying Bach,” Saunders writes in his introduction. “All of the bedrock principles of the form are on display.”

To be clear, “the form” Saunders is addressing here is avowedly the short story. 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, wherein self-contained short stories are typically prioritized because they lend themselves much more easily to classroom discussion than a dozen pages that represent a miniscule fraction of a novel that hasn’t been finished yet. But Saunders’s adoration of short stories cannot be chalked up to their mere manageability. He is a true believer in “the form.” “A story is an organic whole,” he writes, “and when we say a story is good, we’re saying that it responds alertly to itself.” Producing that alertness requires that a story be “ruthlessly efficient. . . . Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose.”

If what Saunders is describing is beginning to seem less like a creative endeavor than assembling flat-packed IKEA furniture, all the better. He labels the stories he’s included in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain “seven fastidiously constructed scale models of the world, made for a specific purpose.” The book’s role, then, “is mainly diagnostic.” By diagramming and schematizing the stories, Saunders promises to uncover their mechanical functioning, with the end goal being to redefine that elusive “purpose” as the effect the story has on the reader which serves as its justification for having been written.

So how is it that I’m supposed to write a short story again?

First up on the syllabus is Chekhov’s “In the Cart,” which, rather than being presented in its entirety, is fed to the reader a page at a time, with Saunders pausing every two hundred words to discuss what has been added to the story since the last interruption and where it might go from here. This approach serves mostly as an illustration of Saunders’s belief that stories make their “meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time,” but it doesn’t persist. As Saunders moves into “The Singers” and “The Darling,” he abandons the page-at-a-time routine but finds plenty of other technical seeming ways to vivisect the work of Turgenev and Chekhov: the action of “The Singers” is summarized into a bulleted list, while the plot of the “The Darling” is mapped onto a table tracking the similar beats that are hit by the protagonist with each of the three men and one child she falls in love with.

In visualizing each story’s structure, Saunders is reaffirming his argument that writing ought to be understood as “a form of call-and-response. . . . If we want to make good structure, we just have to be aware of what question we are causing the reader to ask, then answer the question.” Put another way, “The writer is like a juggler, throwing bowling pins into the air. The rest of the story is the catching of those pins.” Though these analogies feel friendly, they’re just a nicer way of saying efficiency must be achieved at all costs, a more politic twist on the proclamations of a McKinsey consultant. Every description of scenery must be a reflection of the protagonist’s internal state; any action a character takes must relate to the “moment of change” around which the story pivots.

Desks and chairs in an empty 1920s college classroom.
Theodor Horydczak / Trinity College classroom, Connecticut, ca. 1920–1950 (Library of Congress)

“One of the tacit promises of a short story, because it’s so short, is that there’s no waste in it,” Saunders writes. Despite how much he loves it, there’s not much romance to Saunders’s conception of “the form.” He labels it “harsh as a joke, a song, a note from the gallows.” If your idea of a short story is that it serves as some distillation of life, Saunders has news for you. “The story is way faster, compressed, and exaggerated,” he writes, calling stories “a place where something new always has to be happening, something relevant to that which has already happened.” If the Saunders short story should be understood as a “scale model of the world,” his vision of reality in miniature is less like a snow globe enclosing a sleepy village along the Volga than it is a Muscovite rendition of Grand Theft Auto.

If you’re having trouble squaring this “rather hard-ass model of a story” (Saunders’s words, not mine) with the kindly, bearded aspect of its formulator, take heart—it doesn’t last. As Saunders progresses through his chosen masterworks, the uncompromising rules he laid out in his introduction become ever more flexible. In his discussion of “The Singers,” Saunders notes that while every component of a story should be able to withstand scrutiny, he believes that scrutiny should be “administered generously, lest our story become too neat and mathematical.” He describes an optional assignment he’s offered in the past, in which his students at Syracuse are invited to attempt to cut some of the more ponderous bits of “The Singers,” which includes more than its fair share of Turgenev’s signature, overwrought descriptions of his characters’s faces and clothing. The idea is for the aspiring writers to try and figure out what portion of Turgenev’s prose, if any, can be cropped without “divesting the story of some of the mysterious beauty that, in spite of its wordiness, is there in the original.”

When Saunders turns to Gogol, he remarks approvingly that a section of “The Nose” “is not essential to the action of the story but seems to have been done just for the fun of it.” And once he reaches “Alyosha the Pot,” Saunders’s grand finale, he seems to have forgotten that the book he’s writing is meant to teach readers how to write short stories, rather than simply to appreciate Tolstoy’s mastery of “the form.” He devotes ten pages to an analysis of the story’s final two lines, in which its peasant protagonist dies. Saunders draws on three published translations of the story, as well as the amateur translations of a few Russian-speaking friends, to formulate two competing ideas of how these lines are intended to inflect the reader’s judgment of poor Alyosha’s life: either Tolstoy means for the man’s suffering to give him the aura of a commonplace hero, one who did only what was asked of him for the glory of God, or else the writer intended Alyosha’s unwillingness to resist the many forces that oppressed him as a tragedy. After much discussion, Saunders announces that “Alyosha the Pot” depends on

these two coexistent interpretations, eternally struggling for prominence. If we decide that the story supports cheerful obedience, it does. If we decide it opposes cheerful obedience, it does. Both readings feel radical; both pose the question of how to deal with oppression, then and now, in a world divided into haves and have-nots, the most urgent one of all.

So how is it that I’m supposed to write a short story again?

Conversion Narratives

A few weeks after Saunders informed Tobias Wolff that he would only be practicing “real writing” while at Syracuse, the eminent professor (himself mustachioed, though with a much tighter trim than his student) gave a reading that doubled as a lesson to the novices in his care about the effect “real writing” can have on its audience. It was the close of the semester, and Wolff chose a trio of Chekhov stories to share with his students. Saunders remembers the tender scene in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:

The podium was set up in front of some big windows, and as Toby read, what I remember as the first snow of the year started to fall softly behind him. I felt part of a literary community, finally, a community that included everyone in the room and all the other writers who’d come through the program and Raymond Carver, who’d recently taught there, and Chekhov too; all of us acolytes together in the short story priesthood.

Saunders goes on to call the reading “a bit of a life changer. At the time I was struggling with all sorts of young-writer questions: Was writing supposed to be smart or entertaining? Philosophical or performative? Enlightening or fun? Toby’s reading of Chekhov answered: Yes, of course, all of those.”

While this moment of revelation did affirm the vitality and necessity of “the form” in Saunders’s eyes, it did not have much of an effect on his writing. “Everything I wrote was minimal and strict and efficient and lifeless and humor-free,” he relates, yet no matter how restrained or sober his prose, he “couldn’t seem to make it live.” When he eventually completed his thesis, it was titled, “On the Tragic Bank of the Dark Sad River: Stories.”

Not until several years later, after he had received his degree and was shuffling through a day job as a technical writer at an environmental engineering company, did the quirky, crooked voice Saunders would eventually become associated with finally announce itself. Bored on a conference call, he began scribbling “dark little Seussian poems,” each accompanied by a doodled cartoon. When he brought them home that evening, his wife read them and let out a peal of laughter—“the first time in years that anyone had reacted to my writing with pleasure.”

As origin stories go, Saunders’s is hard to beat. Indeed, when I was getting my MFA, at Columbia, he was frequently referenced in conversation as a paragon of writerly persistence. Saunders’s first collection of stories wasn’t published until he was nearly forty years old, which placed him among the likes of Toni Morrison, Deborah Eisenberg, and Helen DeWitt in what I came to think of as the “stick with it” crew. Those writers stood in stark contrast to the Zadie Smiths of the world, wunderkinds who were best thought of as an alien species, having apparently internalized the rhythms of fiction while in utero. In one workshop, when a student brought up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, our professor interrupted, unable to stop himself from marveling, “Man, she wrote that joint when she was nineteen.” The class responded with a moment of silence, as if in mourning.

The Glow, The Zone, The Form, The Way

Saunders’s relatability is as key to his literary superstardom as his writerly talent. But that relatability is an illusion. In the same way that watching a grinning, undersized Steph Curry sink jumper after jumper in the NBA Finals has inspired millions of shrimpy fans to go to the park to get some shots up, Saunders’s warm manner and everyman aesthetic makes him an ideal bearer of the message that anyone can write a short story.

If what Saunders is describing is beginning to seem less like a creative endeavor than assembling flat-packed IKEA furniture, all the better.

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. That’s because the technician schtick works wonderfully in theory but is next to impossible to apply in practice. “One model of writing is that we strive upward to express ourselves precisely, at the highest levels of language,” Saunders writes. “Another is that we surrender to our natural mode of expression, flawed though it may be, and, by way of concentrated work within that mode, raise it up, so to speak, creating a poetic ratification of that (inefficient) form of expression.” While the former model seems to sync more cleanly with the engineer’s approach the book takes to the Russian stories, Saunders’s own career speaks to the necessity of embracing the latter.

How, then, does Saunders attempt to provoke in his readers the ability to surrender to their own natural modes of expression? Since no charts or diagrams will do the trick, he turns instead to analogy. In addition to comparing short stories to a form of call-and-response and juggling, Saunders relates them to “a table with just a few things on it,” a Catholic mass, a candy factory, and a Hot Wheels track. While stories should be thought of as systems, what those systems are meant to achieve keeps shifting, from transferring energy to constantly escalating to “presenting a pattern of controlled variation.” Writing a story is like flying a kite. Well, make that enjoying “a frank, intimate conversation between equals.” Actually, more like operating a mixing board in a recording studio—no, a mixing board . . . but for light.

In his introduction, Saunders preemptively admits that none of these “models for thinking about stories” are all that useful. The point of offering them is not to reveal an objective truth of what storytelling requires, but rather to nudge the reader toward stumbling upon whatever personal revelation they need to have to keep going. Saunders cites the Buddhist maxim that “teaching is like ‘a finger pointing at the moon.’” “All of the workshop talk and story theory and aphoristic, clever, craft-encouraging slogans are just fingers pointing at that moon,” Saunders writes, methods for provoking the reader into whatever state of mind they need to be in to begin putting sentences down on paper.

While Saunders is clearly earnest about all this finger-moon stuff, it’s hard not to read it as an admission of the impossibility of the project he has taken on for himself. While he will gladly explain to the reader how each of his chosen stories is put together, why that character did this, and why scenery chewing isn’t necessarily bad, Saunders can’t quite bring himself to argue that anyone can learn to write from reading seven Russian short stories in translation, not even when they’re being schematized by a famous writer. No, the best he can offer the reader in terms of their own writing is to bang out a bunch of figurative images and hope that one, for whatever reason, “resonates.”

How else to explain Saunders’s comparison of Gogol’s “The Nose” to a pile of ceramic shards that appear to have once been a vase but that, once you try to reassemble them, reveal themselves to just be ceramic shards? Or that disquisition on the final two lines of “Alyosha the Pot”? Once he has fleshed out the two competing interpretations of the story and then stated that both seem to be accurate, Saunders muses, “How did Tolstoy manage this feat? One possible answer: by accident.” The craft essay has become a parable about how, even when a writer doesn’t intend to write a masterpiece, he might stumble into one anyway. Not useful, but true.

“When I’m writing well, there’s almost no analytical/intellectual thinking going on,” Saunders writes, explaining that most of what he does is accomplished through the process of revision, what he equates to “intuition plus iteration.” Saunders’s stories, he explains, typically begin as a few paragraphs of “loose, sloppy text.” He reads a line, feels an inclination about how it could be changed for the better, then changes it. “Over time, like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

Saunders’s vision of reality in miniature is less like a snow globe enclosing a sleepy village along the Volga than it is a Muscovite rendition of Grand Theft Auto.

Saunders is correct to call the notion that writers decide what they want to express and then complete a story (or essay, or poem, or novel) that expresses it a “fallacy.” Writing means sitting in a room, or, occasionally, outside; typing on a laptop or scrawling in a notebook, pausing every few seconds to go back, strike a few words out, plug one into a thesaurus, jot down some others. You get up to go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, thumb through a book. There can be no method to this, if only because everything that is happening is intensely interior: a mind setting itself problems and mostly failing to solve them.

This, in the end, is the lone useful lesson Saunders offers in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. For all his evocative metaphors, systems theory, and authoritative tables and diagrams, Saunders readily acknowledges all of it amounts to nothing more than his version of what Frank O’Connor called “One Man’s Way.” “Short story writing is my job,” O’Connor said in 1959, “and, as all of us who write stories will know, there is only one way to do a job and that is the way you do it yourself.”

The trouble with A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is that Saunders’s relatability—how presumptuous he was as a student, the late date of his first publication, his reputation for being an absolute mensch—makes it all too easy to conflate his way with the way. In truth, you don’t need to read the Russians to be a writer or wait for some teacher to point you at the moon. You don’t even need to listen to Tobias Wolff read Chekhov as the snow begins to fall. If you want to be a writer, you just need to write. 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.