By Toye Oladinni
It’s hard to stay humble when Zadie Smith is nervous to interview you and David Foster Wallace once named you the most exciting voice in American Fiction, but George Saunders manages to do it. Sending out emails to literary agents has made me something of a ‘Specialist in Failure’ (as José Mourinho once called rival manager Arsène Wenger), so you can only imagine my surprise when the MacArthur Fellowship and Booker Prize winner replied to my sheepish email in the affirmative.
George Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, focuses on seven short stories from four iconic Russian authors — Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. The stories are reproduced in full, and each is followed by an essay showing the reader what can be learned about short fiction from them, along with a more ponderous ‘Afterthought’ section. For the first essay, Saunders even includes a play-by-play, interrupting periodically to check in with us. It feels like reading through someone else's glasses. To Saunders, these are not just short stories — he calls them ‘fastidiously constructed scale models of the world’ and describes them as though they were snow globes, crafted perfectly to illustrate elusive truths. But while the end result may be beautiful, the process seldom is. Writing holds the promise of the sweet nectar of praise, but at its heart it is difficult, repetitive work, even more so when taken on as a profession rather than a hobby. As a result, the writer is perhaps the rare creature that is more compelling in reality than in theory. Many an Oxford student has opined sadly that reading their passion as a degree has drained it of all magic and replaced it with tedium, after only a few years of study. How then, does George remain so passionate after decades? What does writing look like, through a veteran’s eyes?
Saunders has been teaching Creative Writing for more than 20 years at Syracuse, the same program where he received his M.A. in 1988 and met his wife, getting engaged to her in only three weeks. With a history like that you might expect him to be a romantic in all spheres of life, but he takes a very practical approach to his writing. Trying to build a bridge between Saunders’s early working life in science and technology and his present career, I asked whether — in the same way that some theorise about mathematics, as Robert Matthews has for the BBC Science Focus magazine — writers create or discover their style over the course of their lifetimes. He replied: ‘one thing I’ve learned over my years of writing is to not spend too much energy occupying theoretical positions but rather to approach such questions with this pragmatic thought in mind: “Which answer will allow me to be my most productive self?”’. He prefers to think of his craft as a process of discovery, but this was consciously an answer to a limited question. His approach to questions of plot, structure and character in A Swim in a Pond is firmly orientated towards results; practicalities are prioritised over abstractions. For Saunders, the moment of writing is always the focus. As he grew more comfortable in his craft, he chose to eschew questions around what type of writer he would end up being — questions he finds to be ‘gigantic buzz-killers’, anyway. Saunders puts it simply: ‘it’s sort of like being a person. Do we, at eighteen or whenever, “decide” to be a certain way? We might, but then life generally comes along and upends all that, and, 40 years down the line, you look back and, of course, you were a certain sort of person, but that person accreted over those thousands of decision points in that life.’
Saunders leans into this process of accretion, never adhering to the mythology around easy creative genius (even as someone who has received a “genius grant” himself). That’s not to say that he is not gushing with praise about the unique skills of Chekhov and Tolstoy, both of whom he places into a special category of creative prowess that poor saps like us can only hope to one day emulate. But he is always encouraging, believing firmly that an author’s practice evolves over the course of their lives, that it is something that comes with an intentional, tedious honing of their skills. With this tedium has come patience: Saunders is like the best English teacher you never had, charitable to a fault towards the flaws of both reader and his chosen author. In fact, in our interview, he saves his only negative words for his past self — ‘I was fine with the idea of finding a distinctive style (and was desperate to do so actually), but I just couldn’t seem to do it.’
A wide-eyed 28-year-old Saunders was first accepted into the Syracuse workshop with a charismatic and sprawling piece of work. He then fell back into trying to write “serious, realist” work like Hemingway and Carver, losing, in the process, the magic and charisma which brought him there in the first place. Saunders only surfaced from this faux-Hemingway hypnosis years after graduating, as he worked as a technical writer while publishing short stories on the side. He is desperate for us not to make the same mistakes. The Singers, a Turgenev tale about a pub singing competition between a man with a technically flawless yet soulless voice and one with an imperfect but beautifully inflected one, is included in his book ‘to suggest … how little choice we have about what kind of writer we’ll turn out to be.’ The story is full of narrative digression, and rigid segments of description and action awkwardly bolted on to one another like a cut and shut Ford Focus. And yet, it is still deeply moving. In one of the book’s most illuminating essays, Saunders shows that the structure of the story itself may be Turgenev’s acknowledgement that while his style of writing might have been technically imperfect, it was the only one he had. The seams show, but we love them anyway.
In comparison, Tolstoy is the consummate craftsman. Both of his chosen short stories, ‘Master and Man’ and ‘Alyosha the Pot’, seem effortlessly composed and warm. One concerns a ruthless capitalist, the other perhaps the arch-pushover of Russian literature. Together, they show Tolstoy’s range of home truths, his ability to look with piercing empathy at all levels of society, and his structural brilliance. But I saw danger behind this perfection, too, having recently read ‘Fiction and the Age of Lies’ by Colin Burrow, an essay examining — and in great part justifying — the historical fear of the author as the double of the liar, where the author is seducer, the Don Juan, able to pour syrupy sweet nothings into the reader’s ears. I wanted to know from Saunders whether he was worried about the implications of fostering the ability to tell plausible untruths, even as the Trump era ends and the phrase ‘post-truth era’ (but not the state-of-affairs it articulates) dies a quiet death in American political discourse.
Saunders reassured me. He told me that, for a good fiction writer, the ‘aim is always, ultimately, truth’. It’s hard to believe now — so full of sympathy is his work — but Saunders was an Ayn Rand acolyte in his youth. No longer: he described the Russian-American writer to me as a ‘persuasive, energetic stylist … papering over defects in her worldview. The view she is trying to sell us on is actually flawed, and she’s hiding it with sleight of hand.’ Rand embodies the early modern nightmare that the novel was simply a bundle of artful lies bound together. Tolstoy on the other hand, has something deeper to his writing. For all his powers to articulate plausible fantasies, Saunders believes that his genius came from an ability to produce ‘higher order truths’, truths that can only be unveiled ‘in the dreamlike, exaggerated universe that is an invented story’.
He was introduced to many of these writers for the first time at Syracuse as a student. In turn, part of the book’s allure is the feeling of being a student in Saunders’s class. He shares anecdotes from the workshop, and leans in close to whisper writerly advice. We must ‘refuse to do the crappo thing’, never take the easy way out, he says, and develop characters tending ‘toward variation, against stasis’. He passes on structural advice from ‘movie producer and all-around mensch’ Stuart Cornfeld, one of the minds behind Tropic Thunder. It feels like a peek into a distinguished culture of its own, consistently producing some of America’s greatest literary voices. Notably, none of the writers he has chosen for A Swim in the Pond are personally embedded into the university system as teachers. Has the retreat of authors into the academy, then, changed the way that writing is thought of, and practised? When I asked him to weigh in on this, the eternal discourse on Creative Writing MFAs, he was firm but fair. ‘I think not as much as people often seem to want to believe.’ He gave an intimidating list of recently published Syracuse graduates to push back against the notion that these workshops are factories ‘cranking out identical writers’, but did admit that the system runs the risk of ‘becoming insular’, particularly as the marketplace becomes more and more hostile to young writers.
For a system that has had such a major impact on American literary culture, the modern MFA has yet to enter its hundredth year. And in a climate where so many educational institutions are being forced to consider what it is that they truly provide, the future of the MFA is as open as anything else. Saunders seems like he is in it for the long haul, though, and not simply for the sake of his students. ‘Teaching constantly reminds the teacher that talent is eternal; every generation is gifted, in its own way, and in such a way as to serve its own, new concerns.’ Many people of all ages have grown more comfortable seeing the western world as being in a state of inexorable decline, but for Saunders, the energy of his students provides hope. ‘That’s a good thing to be reminded of, as a person gets older — a good hedge against the old “Oh, Lord, everything has fallen into decadence” mindset that can set in with age.’
TOYE OLADINNI is an English finalist at Balliol College. He believes he can fly, once the travel bans have lifted.
Art by Isabella Lill