Advertisement - Content continues below
Books

Master Craftsman by George Saunders: A writer’s David Bowie or Lou Reed

Four dead Russians and one American teacher give a writing masterclass, Chris Deerin writes of George Saunders’ new book

I have a lot to thank George Saunders for. I was a short-story sceptic, a committed chain-gobbler of the full-fat novel, until the release of his celebrated Tenth of December collection back in 2013. That book was so heavily lauded and so often recommended that I bought a copy, and was escorted into a vast genre that I had completely misunderstood and have since come to love.

In Saunders’ own work, he typically creates warped worlds – sometimes just slightly off-track from everyday life, sometimes psychedelically so – in which his characters are confronted by outlandish moral dilemmas.

The Semplica Girl Diaries from Tenth of December is one such extraordinary creation: a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses tale in which a financially embarrassed father copies wealthier neighbours in buying girls from third-world countries to hang as ornaments in his family’s front garden. Bizarre, upsetting, but asking some big questions too.

Lockdowns have taken income away from hundreds of Big Issue sellers. Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription.

Saunders is a master craftsman, a writer’s writer. It’s no surprise that he also runs an in-demand creative writing class at Syracuse University. Lucky students. For the rest of us, there’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

Even if you have no interest in writing, this book will make you a better, more observant and more understanding reader

The book’s subtitle is In Which Four Dead Russians Give Us a Masterclass in Writing and Life, and that’s true up to a point. But the real star of A Swim isn’t Chekhov or Turgenev or Tolstoy or Gogol – it’s Saunders himself.

Advertisement - Content continues below
Advertisement - Content continues below

There is of course pleasure in reading the classic stories he has selected for analysis, but the book’s charm and energy comes from their savvy, loving deconstruction by Saunders. Like a mechanic under the bonnet, he explains almost line by line how they work, why they work, why Chekhov chose to do this rather than that, why Tolstoy introduced this particular character at this particular point.

Based on two decades of teaching – he blessedly avoids the asphyxiating language of academia – it’s a world-class education for less than 20 quid. Even if you have no interest in writing, this book will quite simply make you a better, more observant and more understanding reader.

Saunders says that when reading the Russian stories, “all of the bedrock principles are on display. They were written to challenge and antagonise and outrage”. It is “akin to a young composer studying Bach”. George, then, is our David Bowie or Lou Reed.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99)

Advertisement - Content continues below

Support The Big Issue and our vendors this Christmas

Every time you buy a copy of The Big Issue, subscribe or donate, you are helping our vendors to work their way out of poverty by providing 'a hand up not a hand out.' You’re helping Big Issue vendors achieve their #BigWish

Recommended for you

Read All
Book reviews: The Killing Hills and The Shadows of Men
Book Review

Book reviews: The Killing Hills and The Shadows of Men

Top 5 books about trans lives, chosen by Matt Bates
LGBTQI+

Top 5 books about trans lives, chosen by Matt Bates

My one-man mission to build a school – and keep a promise
Jordan Wylie

My one-man mission to build a school – and keep a promise

Top 5 books for rebel girls, chosen by Vivian French
Top 5 Books

Top 5 books for rebel girls, chosen by Vivian French

Most Popular

Read All
Simon Le Bon: 'I’m very lucky. Solo artists have nobody to tell them they’re being an arsehole'
1.

Simon Le Bon: 'I’m very lucky. Solo artists have nobody to tell them they’re being an arsehole'

The six best things that happened at Stormzy’s Christmas party for the kids of Croydon
2.

The six best things that happened at Stormzy’s Christmas party for the kids of Croydon

The innovative 'nap pads' that could save the lives of homeless people
3.

The innovative 'nap pads' that could save the lives of homeless people

Michael Sheen: 'I’ve essentially turned myself into a social enterprise, a not-for-profit actor'
4.

Michael Sheen: 'I’ve essentially turned myself into a social enterprise, a not-for-profit actor'

With temperatures dropping and fewer shoppers on the high street, our vendors need you now more than ever. Buy, subscribe or donate.