The Writing Self Out of Context

George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life is the latest popular writing craft manual to come out from a major publisher (Random House). Is it a writing craft manual or a collection of lectures such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature? The former genre suggests a presentation of the idea that the manual is a guide on increasing the literary merit of one’s creative writing. The latter is one well-published writer’s theses about various works of literature.

As a manual on craft, A Swim has certainly been helpful to me and my process. It has given me new approaches and renewed a sense that this craft is one that eludes overthinking while also becoming more difficult the more a writer-practitioner develops. Saunders’ ideas suggest a way of “thinking with the story,” as David Jauss writes in On Writing Fiction, another book on craft.

But what troubled me in A Swim was the unanswered question of whether Saunders believes in universal literary merit, a quantifiable rubric with which to evaluate the “publishability” of a writer’s work. As Saunders writes in the chapter about Leo Tolstoy’s “Master and Man”: “I’ve worked with so many wildly talented writers over the years that I feel qualified to say that there are two things that separate writers who go on to publish from those who don’t.” Is that a guarantee? Is that what A Swim offers? It seems likely, then, that we’re reading the former genre.

The idea of universal literary merit is not new in American belles lettres. For example, we have the Best American series. Several years ago, a poet who, I presume, normally identified as a white male, submitted poems to Prairie Schooner under the Chinese, typically female name Yi-Fen Chou. These poems were later anthologized in Best American Poetry…, edited by Sherman Alexie, who admitted that he felt a kinship with Chou based on the presumed ethnicity of the poet. In a commentary on the controversy, poet Kazim Ali wrote in The Rumpus that any idea of universal literary merit is “predicated on a system of privileges based on race, class, gender, physical and mental abilities, sexuality and other factors.” I agree.

So we have an immediate problem with this new book on craft, one that the publishing industry would most likely hope to avoid. There has been a lot of discussion of #ownvoices, something any writer querying agents knows. According to Erik Hane and Laura Zats at Print Run podcast, the hashtag began as a way for readers to discover writers with whom they shared an identity group. But the publishing industry soon co-opted it, and it became a way to authenticate identity rather than simply connect readers with writers who identify as they do.

So why does Saunders use Russian writers specifically? They must be translated, so there’s an extra step between reader and writer. Does it make the content (four white men) more palatable that they’re Russian? I admit that, although I was always an admirer of Saunders’ courageous experimentation, I was particularly intrigued by A Swim… because I can read the originals of these stories. However, I don’t believe that I am the intended audience for this book. So, again, why include that extra step?

On many occasions, Saunders discusses the stories outside of their Russian context. But one of the Russophone writers consulted in the book has told me that there are many places where the Russian context would certainly change one’s reading. “In the Cart,” the first story by Anton Chekhov, takes us through a Russian village described by Saunders as “rough.” However, according to the Russophone writer with whom I spoke, it wouldn’t be taken as so rough by a Russian reader.

According to Saunders, the second story, “Singers,” from Sportman’s Sketches by Ivan Turgenev is mostly beautiful but unnecessary. Nonetheless, it works because the imaginary reader would like it too. Saunders writes: “A story is a frank, intimate conversation between equals.” But what about when the story is read by a professor in an MFA workshop? What about when a literary agent reads your story? What about when an editor or a slush reader of a literary journal reads it? Is it still a conversation? Is it still equal? The craft manual is a genre written by literary authorities, writers who have published well, who know how to do so, who know how to “amp up” their quantity of literary merit enough to reach the level of publishing and who believe in their authority, as Saunders writes. If writers of craft manuals and essays don’t believe in an idea of universal literary merit, why would another writer read such books? But, then, the reading of a story doesn’t sound like a conversation among equals. For a reading to be a conversation among equals, for it to involve taste, we have to surrender–at least to a larger degree than we have–this idea of the authority of the “more experienced” writer or editor or agent. The reason is that what’s often called simply “experience” often has something, perhaps a lot, to do with privilege. Right?

I find myself fearful of challenging this idea of literary merit from my position of privilege in some ways without the correlative success. In other words, shouldn’t I have reaped these unfair benefits? Shouldn’t Michael Derrick Hudson have without using a Chinese name? I wonder if this same question speaks to the tension in Saunders book created by the partial contextualization that these are Russian stories. They can’t be read in a universal way, can they? Saunders writes in the Turgenev chapter, “This model applies to these Russian stories we’re reading, and would have applied the first time some cavepeople gathered around a fire…” Okay, nevermind. We are talking about universal literary merit as upheld by four white men. In terms of class, Chekhov comes from peasants, of course. Gogol’s origins are also somewhat humble. Tolstoy and Turgenev come from the aristocracy. Privilege is present in each case.

It might be important to contextualize the writer himself here. Saunders has an engineering background.

It shows up in the increasing number of tools of quantification, scientific research, and statistics he uses to support his theses about these–what we must then call–universally masterful stories. We shouldn’t forget, however, that this way of looking at these stories is not the only way. Again, a Russophone can point out that Olenka, the main character of “The Darling,” the second Chekhov story, is a common type of Russian or Eastern European woman. I am a Russophone, and, were I to write a craft manual including a piece about this story, I would bring that to my writing. That tendency to decontextualize masks something. That something, I think, has to do with the attempt to create the illusion of universal literary merit. However, such an attempt can’t be made too obvious. And there is certainly a lot of value to Saunders’ close readings of these stories. But the close readings can’t, as Saunders admits, come too close without access to the original language. Take the Lev Tolstoy story “Master and Man” for example. The master is Vasili Brekhunov, whose last name suggests the Russian word брехнуть, the word used for when a dog yelps or bays as well as for lying. It fits the character–whom Saunders describes as a “stinker”–well. That is, Saunders is getting this characterization without the Russian reference. Nonetheless, that characterization might come sooner for a Russian reader. It might even come too soon, no offense to Tolstoy. Universal literary merit isn’t easy to quantify in this instance.

Of course, I’m being nitpicky, as many Russophone readers may be. There is a history of Slavists and other readers with access to the Russian shutting down translations due to what’s lost. But, again, why these translated Russian writers if the purpose of this craft manual is to describe a model for amping up literary merit? Even in an exclusively Russian context, as Boris Dralyuk points out in the above-linked podcast, writing by women is coming to the surface. These “masters” (forgive the scare quotes) are also masters because of male privilege, because of patriarchy.

Saunders, who is quick to identify as coming from the working class, is aware of how privilege might change a writer’s work. At the end of the chapter on “Master and Man,” he correctly identifies a problem with the story: Tolstoy fails to give the same interiority and humanity to Nikita, the peasant, that he gives to Brekhunov (Vasili), the landowner. According to Saunders, Nikolai Gogol has been guilty of this oversight as well with a female character in “Nevsky Prospect.” Saunders posits that a moral failing in a writer can translate into a technical failing. Perhaps that’s true. But any reader of American literature can wonder about the work of Nabokov called Lolita, narrated by a very eloquent and charming murderer-pedophile. Whether a moral failure or a deeply ironic text, Lolita begs the question about this idea of moral failure as technical failure. Many readers who would have been in conversation with Nabokov while reading might find themselves sympathetic to Humbert Humbert. Would the book have been better with more interiority from Lolita?

Perhaps that’s too much of a jump. It’s better to stick with what Saunders presents us. In the next chapter, an unreliable and probably prejudiced narrator is the whole point. This chapter discusses “Nose” by Gogol with his use of “skaz,” again a particularly Russian (or perhaps even Ukrainian?) mode of storytelling rife with irony. Any moral failings here are, on the other hand, ways that Gogol increases the humor and, therefore, literary merit of his writing. Here is where it’s most difficult for A Swim… to present an idea of universal literary merit. Gogol’s humor is sometimes untranslatable. I confess that I’ve repeated lines from Gogol in Russian and heard laughter that I myself didn’t feel, even though I was the one who recited the line. I didn’t laugh because, although I understood the Russian, I didn’t have the context of the years of knowing the text, the memories of reading it in various places, the way the humor might have relieved me during a difficult time. Now, after years of reading Russian, I have that. So the idea of universal literary merit also denies the context of time with a text. Especially when it comes to agents and other literary industry gatekeepers, I sometimes get the feeling that not enough time is spent with rejected texts. But, of course, how could that be when agents have to rush through the deluge of texts? Universal literary merit can help with filtering, can’t it?

But a filter works against the “conversation” idea Saunders sets up in A Swim… So this writing manual works well for life and craft but not necessarily for craft and industry, the literary industry. During that chapter, Saunders even discusses “surrendering the ego,” not the only time he uses the language of Buddhism to establish his ideas. Why not contextualize this aspect of our author’s perspective? Saunders is a Buddhist, and many of his ideas come from viewing literature with a Buddhist perspective. If it were more contextualized, (something along the lines of “I feel qualified and also apply a Buddhist perspective to my readings and advice…”), perhaps it would also make this writing feel more like a conversation than an artifact further establishing an idea of universal literary merit.

Why take away any of the context? It would seem that context works against generalized titular adjectives such as “Best,” and works against the authority a publisher might be trying to establish while carefully balancing the still rising awareness out there that there is no such thing as universal literary merit. A Swim… doesn’t avoid all context. It comes in handy for Saunders. In the last chapter, on Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot,” Saunders returns to the theme of morality in storytelling. In this chapter, he’s taking morality in a new direction. Tolstoy doesn’t necessarily create a technical mistake due to a moral mistake. His morality is indecisive, and that’s what Saunders believes should be celebrated about the story. Nonetheless, morality, ambiguous or not, doesn’t save Russians from the horrors of the Soviet period, as Saunders writes in the conclusion of that chapter.

Unfortunately, at this point Saunders sounds sort of like a Cold War propagandist, mostly because he’s ignoring the many significant and, in some cases, horrible events and circumstances of the year in which Tolstoy wrote “Alyosha the Pot,” 1905. Much of what happened that year paved the way for the conditions of the Russian Revolution. Many of the details of, say, the conditions of workers in 1905 speak to the causes of the Russian Revolution and go beyond “czarist excesses,” as Saunders describes it. He quotes Solzhenitsyn, which is problematic in this context, as I have written before. Here’s where a lack of context sounds, to me at least, like a failure to recognize what the ideas fueling the Russian Revolution might have meant to people alive at that time in that place. Here’s where the idea of universal literary merit can look, well, supremacist.

After that the book concludes with a chapter entitled “We End.” The first sentence uses both the first-person and the second-person pronouns. To summarize, it discusses how any good ideas a writer takes from this craft manual were already there. Saunders merely enabled them. In other words, readers should believe that Saunders is no master but rather merely a practitioner, a good teacher, in other words. Any bad ideas, ideas that don’t work for us, are all his fault. He’ll take the blame for those. It’s a version of the “It’s not you, it’s me” line. Does anybody ever believe that line? I suppose it sounds fair, considering that his publication record is solid, his job secure. It’s very likely that any challenges to the ideas here won’t have an effect on his reputation or his publishing.

I, on the other hand, am a writer who has published a little bit. But my failure has been much vaster. Whether that’s because of a moral failing or something having to do with my identity, I don’t know. If I have been able to identify some simple principle mentioned in A Swim… or another craft manual and apply it to my writing, and if I will then be able to adjust my writing enough to reach some quantity of literary merit that would open the gates to publishing well enough to feel entitled to write my own craft manual, then my identity and all the time I spent morally failing–and, thus, technically failing at writing–wouldn’t matter. I would simply be a Writer. But that’s the writing self out of context. That it’s somehow better sounds, to me, like a form of supremacy. It’s a lie probably meant for somebody to make a lot of money, not to develop and propagate art.