Workshop Meets Gogol

The fifth of the seven chapters in George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (which, I will repeat here for those who have not been following, I am enjoying immensely and learning a lot from) features Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose.” This was a risky move on Saunders’ part because the basically rational and construction-focused approach he has adopted, exploring “the physics of the [short story] form,” for his book does not seem to match up well with much of Gogol’s work, “The Nose” perhaps least of all, with its tendency to veer away from rationality and structural consistency, to exhibit — let’s call them — bulges, protrusions, and assorted eccentricities that make it difficult to analyze from any sort of efficiency-minded standpoint.

In part this is because Gogol’s language is idiosyncratic, which highlights issues of language per se, making it difficult to translate, on the one hand, but also difficult to discuss without invoking language, on the other. Saunders appropriately brings in the notion of skaz here, and remarks, parenthetically, that there are “American variants” of this narrative technique in Mark Twain, Sacha Boren Cohen, and others: an intriguing idea, but this supposed parallel is mostly about point of view, not language. And if one is approaching the text as if it were written in English (see this earlier post), then we’re left with a conundrum, something Saunders indicates with disarming frankness when he remarks, “It’s kind of problematic to be talking about the language of a piece we can read only in translation” (p. 286). My inner translator wants to agree with him with something like what he writes in response to the narrator’s admission that “there is much that is improbable in [“The Nose”]”: “‘Uh, yeah.” But another, more rational voice has a better response: “Well, it depends on what you want to say about it.”

I recall the rigorous reading practice of a fiction writer colleague of mine, who used to help me evaluate stories for publication at The Iowa Review: if he noticed a rich, exuberant style at the beginning of a submission, he would immediately be on the lookout for structural flaws; if he read through the whole of it and found the piece structurally sound, he would read back through it to see whether the language held up all the way through. This is a version of Saunders’ approach, which is focused on the form’s perfection, its lack of superfluousness, where every detail is where it is for a reason, and one can always ask the question, as he does often in the book, usually to good effect, “What is this doing here?” Saunders refers to this as a “rather hard-ass model of a story [that] says that every part of it should be there for a reason” (91), an idea of the form that is consistent throughout the book — except for in the chapter on Gogol, where it falls apart.

Notions of rationality and efficiency anchor this approach to writing, which some have critiqued as the “workshop model” or, in Mark McGurl’s formulation “program era” fiction, a sort of institutionalized high Modernism whose best precursors include writers like, well, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. This approach is on display in Saunders’ attempts to read “The Nose,” which comprise the only twenty pages or so of the 400 plus in the book that seem to ring false. He asks many perfectly reasonable and rational questions about how and why things are the way they are here — “How did [the nose] get out of the river?” “Why does the nose feel the need to leave town?” “Why is Kovalyov thwarted [at the newspaper office]?” “What caused [the nose’s] reversion to nosehood?” And so on. Much of this is the sort of questioning that would take place in a workshop, where, as Saunders notes, “one of the first critiques that will be made about a story is that it doesn’t make sense.”

This story, says Saunders, again in a perfectly rational comment, “doesn’t add up.” All this is fine and correct enough, but by comparison with the nuanced analyses of the formal aspects of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Tolstoy that we might have got used to in the earlier portions of the book, here one could easily lose patience. The amount of time spent on this somehow does not seem worth it, such that when he notes, about a short segment in the newspaper office, that it is “not essential to the action of the story,” I even grow a bit frustrated: What in the world is essential to the action of this story? The question, which comes out of the particular method of writing short stories, has completely overtaken the manner in which we read short stories, and with this story it is inadequate and mismatched.

The method of reading we’ve grown accustomed to in earlier portions of the book, where we analyze pieces and see how they fit, does not work well here, and Saunders is left making grand generalizations about how Gogol is a “supreme realist,” but for no demonstrable reason other than that, for example, “‘The Nose’ suggests that rationality is frayed in every moment, even in the most normal of moments.” Well, yes, that could be, but the person making the claim hasn’t offered evidence of the same quality as that used for the other big claims regarding Chekhov and the others. The basic problem here is that this story doesn’t align with the conception of the short story introduced in this book. It doesn’t fit.

And when Saunders tries to make it fit by attempting to make “sense” of the irrational in Gogol’s story, he essentially makes the rather sweeping argument of Vissarion Belinsky regarding the stretching of reality via the grotesque, which, Belinsky claimed (in the 1840s), was a way of making a social critique that reached into the everyday and reflected its distortions. Life was so out of whack (because of serfdom and the other deformations of humanity produced by the Russian autocratic state) that everything in the world was distorted, and Gogol was simply describing that distorted reality: he was a “supreme” realist. While Saunders updates this idea of what it all means to include the horrors of the mundane in the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and Stalinist purges, it is still a version of Gogol as a social satirist who uses the grotesque in ordinary life as his primary tool.

This could be a reasonable way to make sense of Gogol’s work — others have used it — but it is just one way, and the narrowing of Gogol’s rather open-ended verbal slapstick, nonsense, lyricism, sloppiness, caricature, absurdity, sound painting, and sometime carnival wackiness down to this one idea is unfortunate. The strengths of other parts of the book, moreover, come from the closeness of the connection between the manner of reading, the specifics of the details analyzed, and the claims about the overall effects of the stories, their broader meanings, expressive richness, and emotional impact. That connection is largely lost in these twenty some pages, I think, because there’s no real way to do it well without delving into the language.

But then, just as I find myself giving up hope that Saunders might have anything new to tell me about Gogol’s story, he has an afterthought (No. 5), and in the course of the six pages that follow, a bit like a Bach chorale in the St. Matthew Passion, he gathers up the loose threads and launches me into the next section. It is almost not even about Gogol, at least not ostensibly, and feels more like a set of free associations on his own writing practice, where he “follows the voice.”

An idea for a voice appears, and off you go. You just ‘feel like’ doing that voice. (And you find that you can.) Sometimes the inspiration for that voice might be a real person. Sometimes it’s a tendency in myself that I’ll exaggerate […]. Sometimes it’s a fragment of language that came from elsewhere” (306).

Here I’m making associations with things I know about Gogol’s writing practice: his tendency to keep lists of unusual words and expressions; his notoriously entertaining readings, where he would do the voices of his characters; his inability to come up with plots of his own, imploring his friends to give them to him — all he needed was a start and off he would go. And I’m waiting, for three pages of this afterthought I wait, and there’s no mention of Gogol, only reflections on Saunders’ own practice, on stories he’s written through this method, until he gets to this:

So, one way to get a story out of ‘the plane of its original conception’ is to try not to have an original conception. To do this, we need a method. For me, (and, I like to imagine, for Gogol, when he was in skaz mode) that method is to “follow the voice.” (p. 308)

This little remark, in a parenthetical aside no less, seems the strongest part of the entire analysis of Gogol’s “The Nose,” a story so clearly rooted in voice that structurally it would not hold up in workshop. Because it does not make the right kind of sense or exhibit the typical coherence, measure, and balance of the workshop’s models or pristine products.

Intentional Fallacy, Meaning It, and Generous Ways of Reading

Robert Allen Papinchak’s LARB review of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is mostly filled with praise. Among the two objections he notes (the other being Saunders’ tendency to be overly self-deprecating) is what he characterizes as his “bête noire” and the “one persistent objection” he had, in his many years of teaching, to discussions and analyses of fiction. This is the intentional fallacy, which students committed when they “claimed to know what a writer had in mind,” “when they presumed an understanding of a story that even its writer might claim not to have.” Papinchak points out a number of occasions where Saunders’ does precisely this.

In commenting on Turgenev, [Saunders] wonders if “technically rickety” parts of “The Singers” make it a “clumsy work of art” by intention. Did Turgenev “intend” the story to “serve as an apologia for his lack of craft”? With Chekhov, he surmises that the relationships in “The Darling” were “intentionally” carrying forward “some set of variables.” With Tolstoy’s “Alyosha the Pot” he brings up intention at least six times, even attempting to rewrite the story to what he considers Tolstoy’s intentions might have been.

In response, Papinchak notes that “a story is what it is” and “it has a mind of its own,” and quotes D. H. Lawrence: “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” I suppose he means by this that what we have access to is the story itself and any presumed understanding of the author’s ideas outside of that is speculation on our part, something Tolstoy once suggested in a response to a reader who asked him what he meant in a particular passage of Anna Karenina: “If I wanted to tell you want I meant in that passage, I would have to write the whole book again from the beginning.” In other words, the story is on the page. Read it. Don’t ask me to reconstruct what I “meant” to say, especially after the fact, when I might not even remember what I had in mind at the time. There’s a similar, perhaps apocryphal, line attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Madam, when I wrote that, only two beings in the universe knew what I was thinking, myself and God. And now, Madam, God only knows what I was thinking when I wrote that!”

Papinchak moves on rather too quickly for me, but fine, it’s a relatively brief review, and, as I noted to begin with with, a basically positive one — indeed he calls his objections “minor nits to pick in an otherwise overwhelmingly constructive book.” The reason I find the observations too fast and perhaps based on too cursory a reading is, mainly, that Saunders brings up the intentional fallacy almost immediately after one of these instances, in “Afterthought #2” to “The Singers,” where he notes:

We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he wanted to express, and then he just, you know, expressed it. That is, we buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same. ¶The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and beautiful and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully. (p. 110)

What I find so interesting in this passage is how, by the end of it, the point of view has shifted from that of reading to that of writing. This, I think, explains the page-before instance of what looks a lot like the intentional fallacy:

Did Turgenev intend ‘The Singers’ to serve as an apologia for his lack of craft? While he was writing it? After he had written it? I’m pretty sure he didn’t ‘aim’ to produce an apologia–didn’t start out to do that. I doubt he realized what he’d done, and I don’t know that he’d necessarily bless our assessment of it. But here’s the important thing: I don’t think it matters. He did it, and then he let it stand. Which is a form (the ultimate form, for an artist) of ‘meaning to do it’ (of taking responsibility). The blessing an artist gives the final product (which he gives by sending it out into the world) is his way of saying that he approves of everything within it, even parts of it that may, in that moment be hidden from him. (p 109)

Besides the fact that “he did it” isn’t too clear (he did what? produce an apologia? or write what he wrote?) and that there are a lot of male pronouns here standing in for “the artist” (let’s just assume this is Saunders writing based on his own experience), what I find especially remarkable is the pull of perspective from reading to writing, which is constant throughout the book, such that sometimes, if we’re not paying close attention, we might get stuck squarely between the two.

The book’s pattern is to begin with reading, and this makes it look like it’s about about how to read, how to interpret, and this is where Saunders’ references to what Chekhov or Turgenev were “trying to say” look like instances of the intentional fallacy pure and simple. But this reading is always in the service of how to write, and its intended primary audience is writers who want to create their own stories. So he consistently moves quickly past these interpretive moments and turns them to the service of writing. When, for instance, he writes about “the actual process” in the passage above, he has shifted over to the process of creation, away from where he started, which was with the process of discussing art (“we often discuss art this way”). Well, of course, one might object, since this is a book billed as a master class for writers. But that is only partly the case: it might have emerged from a fiction writing class, but somewhere in the process of taking on its final form, it became a “master class on writing, reading, and life” (my emphasis, but it’s the subtitle of the book, so it’s not at all unfair). This is where it raises larger questions.

When you’re the one doing the creating, you’re faced with different questions from those of all other readers, mostly about your own intention, and these will include how much control you need to feel you have over the story you’re creating, and the responsibility you take for what you leave on the page as the final version. This, I think, is what Saunders means by “meaning it,” confronting those moments “when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve” (108). I understand this, and I certainly appreciate both the sense of responsibility it seems to want to emphasize authors should take for their creations, and the way that it complicates the intentional fallacy for them in their practice. Not so much for readers who aren’t thinking of writing, where I agree with Papinchak: it’s the intentional fallacy.

What I’m still trying to fathom is a habitual manner of reading the words of others that is so implacably turned toward expressing oneself. As Saunders jokes (“and yet not”) on the opening page, “we’re reading to see what we can steal” (p. 3). The book is certainly consistent in this sense. A writerly approach to reading, I suppose, one perfectly suited for a fiction writing workshop, where the works explored are there as models and examples. This is the master class on fiction writing.

But reading and life? I suppose one could argue that life is like a short story, but that is not an argument Saunders employs. In fact he frequently points out the opposite, the starkness and efficiency of the form as such, which is highly artificial. This reading-for-writing-fiction clearly counts among the various ways one might read, and it wouldn’t preclude learning other things from the texts read that might be helpful to one in life, if only by happenstance. But it’s not a generous way to read. In fact, in its own way, it is as narrow as that used by students and scholars when they are focused on writing an analysis, where they ignore all the parts of the story that don’t support their argument and emphasize only those that do. Aren’t these stories worth reading in a more open spirit? For their history, and beauty, and critique, and richness, and subtlety, and tragedy, and all the other things you might discover if you weren’t focused on taking something to use? This is the biggest problem I see: I have doubts about being able to read both ways at once.

To put it more bluntly, I’m afraid that you narrow down the stories when your readings turn, again and again, to what you can use as part of your “own” stories? The approach reminds me a bit of those people we have conversations with sometimes who (we can sense it) are really only listening in order to be able to respond, a little like if someone learned a foreign language only in order to tell people things in it. I find myself hoping for a more generous approach, in which one is ready for anything the text might bring, because, I think, this kind of reading is what results in challenges to one’s accepted notions, in deeper engagement with the perspectives of others, in discovery and empathy.

This would be the master class on reading and life.

Teaching Russian Short Fiction

I’ll be teaching what is called a “second 8-week” class this semester. This is a special format that my university came up with to address two problems. The first one is that sometimes a professor offers a class that doesn’t get enough students to sign up, such that it has to be canceled. The second is that some students find that the classes they signed up for at the beginning of the term are not for them, so they need another class to take (often in order to maintain their full-time student status, which is important for such things as financial aid, scholarships, and so on). I was hoping to teach a graduate seminar, but I didn’t get enough students, so instead I’ll be teaching “Russian Short Fiction,” an intro-level course that I taught once before. The title sounds like an oxymoron to some, but there’s actually quite a bit to choose from, and I’m looking forward to it.

As part of my preparation for the course, I began George Saunders’ new book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which just happens to include four of the stories I use in the class: Chekhov’s “In the Cart” and “Gooseberries,” Turgenev’s “The Singers,” and Gogol’s “The Nose.” The book is based on a course he has taught for over twenty years in the MFA program at Syracuse, which means it is perfect for the sorts of students who are likely to take my course: interested in a general way, probably without Russian language or at least not enough to read the stories in the original Russian, and likely to respond to a practical approach that asks questions about what Saunders calls “the physics of the form (‘How does this thing work, anyway?'”

I have been surprised in the past by how a new book can come out just at the moment when you can use it in one of your classes, and this one has me really excited. While I know the material from having studied and taught it for many years, and from having written about it in a scholarly vein, I anticipate learning things from Saunders, who comes at it from a different perspective. I also anticipate sharing more here as I find little gems of concise, effective writing like this:

“This is a resistance literature, written by progressive reformers in a repressive culture, under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution. The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind” (p. 4).