Write Like the Russians
The invitation this hour, or maybe the dream, is to learn how to write short stories with the poignancy and power of the old Russian Masters, and how to become better versions of ourselves in the process. Anton Chekhov is our model writer; the modern American master George Saunders is our model reader and teacher, condensing his famous course for aspiring writers at Syracuse University. The Saunders idea—not quite a promise—is that Dr. Chekhov’s stories expand us morally. Follow his tricks and turns closely enough, and you’ll change your life. It’s something like the thought that just listening to Mozart’s sonatas can make a child smarter. Chekhov’s stories could make grown-ups less lonely, more effective, happier people.
The literary master George Saunders shows us this hour, for starters, how to recognize a masterpiece in a mere short story. He’s also going to spell out how a handful of Russians—led by Dostoevsky, then Tolstoy, then Anton Chekhov—reset the standard of high art in the short story. George Saunders won high honors for his bestselling novel of three years ago, Lincoln in the Bardo (with Honest Abe in a sort of limbo, to grieve again with his son Willie, who died in the White House). Saunders is a triple threat: a writer first, but famous too as a reader of the classics and teacher of a celebrated writing course at Syracuse University, from which his new book is drawn. It’s called A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, “in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life.”