A Swim In The Pond In The Rain is a book version of George Saunders’ Syracuse University course on fiction writing, taught via a selection of short stories by nineteenth century Russian authors who serve as models for how it might be done.
I’ve read a number of ‘how to write’ books, and many of them warn against things like inconsistent point of view, or the liberal use of adverbs. A Swim In The Pond In The Rain is not so literal. It does have guidance on what makes a good story – give mind to escalation, try to make one thing cause another. But all this is sometimes contradicted by the Russian stories used as illustration. Both causation and escalation are, shall we say, enigmatic in The Nose by Gogol, where a man’s nose takes on a life if it’s own.
Even though it might seem that this book has no straightforward prescription, there is one piece of advice it gives consistently. A writer of fiction is often told to show not tell. This old chestnut is mentioned in passing, referring to Turgenev getting carried away with long physical descriptions in his story The Singers. But showing might not just be about descriptions. The Russian authors we read here are very good at showing complicated situations or characters from all angles, rather than telling a reader what to think about them. Chekhov’s Gooseberries, a story about the nature of happiness, has George commenting:
“The story is not there to tell us what to think about happiness. It is there to help us think about it. It is, we might say, a structure to help us think.”
Our Russian mentors show that good writing, in accepting contradiction, does not push readers to focus on one side of an argument to the exclusion of the other. To me, showing rather than telling, is a straight-forward way of describing the light touch, naturally tolerant nature of good fiction, providing for thought and reflection rather than a set of conclusions. In that sense, A Swim In The Pond In The Rain makes a case for one of the most familiar bits of writing advice – show don’t tell.
I really enjoyed this book. The Russian stories are wonderful, their exposition insightful, the tone friendly and supportive, conveying the excitement of a true enthusiast who is good at what he does. I valued the description of writing as a process of many decisions about a sentence, giving the best chance of arriving at a good sentence. This certainly chimed with me. Early in my writing efforts I thought the need for endless fettling meant that I was a hopeless incompetent – but the encouragement here to revise, revise, revise reminded me of the relief I felt coming across a remark of Somerset Maugham – he was talking to M.M. Kaye, at that point a struggling writer, who admitted to sometimes spending an entire day bogged down on one sentence. Maugham replied: “My dear young woman, that’s the only thing you’ve said to make me think you may be a novelist one day.”
Notice, finally that I have referred to George Saunders by his first name in this review. I wouldn’t have done that in an essay at Syracuse University where he works as a writing tutor. But the tone of this book is friendly. The author is someone leading a collaborative thinking effort, rather than telling us what to think. I had a similar tutor at university. She told us that Shakespeare, for all his fame as a great writer, is not actually saying anything. As with Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol, Shakespeare shows us complications but does not tell us what to think about them. All we can do is “maintain the paradoxes” as my tutor said. I didn’t think of that tutor as professor so-and-so, because for all her knowledge, she was more in the business of showing us things to think about, rather than professing – which is the fanciest form of telling. I always thought of her as Carol. Her classes came to mind as I read A Swim In The Pond In The Rain.