A Swim in a Pond in the Rain

George Saunders
Year of publication
When I read it
August 2021
What I thought

So damn good

Choice Highlights

Chekhov once said, “Art doesn’t have to solve problems, it only has to formulate them correctly.” “Formulate them correctly” might be taken to mean: “make us feel the problem fully, without denying any part of it.”

Criticism is not some inscrutable, mysterious process. It’s just a matter of: (1) noticing ourselves responding to a work of art, moment by moment, and (2) getting better at articulating that response.

When there are no customers he can usually be seen sitting like a sack on the ground in front of his cottage, his thin legs tucked up under him, exchanging pleasantries with every passer-by.

Booby emptied his glass with eager haste and, as is the custom with confirmed drunkards, grunted and looked sad and preoccupied.

The whole experience of reading fiction might be understood as a series of “establishings” (“the dog is sleeping”), stabilizations (“he is really sleeping deeply, so deeply that the cat just managed to walk across his back”), and alterations (“Uh-oh, he woke up”).

We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs—or doesn’t—in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple. But the “knowing” at such moments, though happening without language, is real. I’d say this is what art is for: to remind us that this other sort of knowing is not only real, it’s superior to our usual (conceptual, reductive) way.

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.

In my view, all art begins in that instant of intuitive preference.

Having stumbled back to the sledge Vasili Andreevich caught hold of it and for a long time stood motionless, trying to calm himself and recover his breath. Nikita was not in his former place, but something, already covered with snow, was lying in the sledge and Vasili Andreevich concluded that this was Nikita.

At its best, in my experience, artistic mentoring works something like this: the mentor strongly expresses his view as if it is the only and entirely correct view. The student pretends to accept that position: takes the teacher on faith (tries on his aesthetic principles for size, surrenders to his approach), to see if there might be something in it. At the end of the mentoring period (now), the student snaps out of it, disavows the teacher’s view, which is starting to feel like a set of bad-fitting clothes anyway, and goes back to her own way of thinking. But maybe along the way she’s picked up a few things. These are things she likely knew all along, of which the teacher simply reminded her.