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Advice from a master: always be escalating

In a recent issue of New Yorker magazine which carried a short story by George Saunders (‘The Mom of Bold Action’), the writer tells an interviewer, “I think it might be the job of a short story to ask certain questions and decline to answer them, buttressing both sides so that the questions become more complex.

“The reader is put in the position of being rebuffed when she tries to come to some neat moral conclusion. I think there’s value in that. When I’m reading a story that works in this way, it makes me see how quickly I, in real life, shut down my mind and decide too soon.”

There is a lifetime of wisdom distilled in that. Literary theorists recommend ‘close reading’ of a text, to tally with their own theories, some so esoteric as to put off the reader. Saunders recommends close reading too, but without the technical jargon and aimed only at enhancing the reader’s enjoyment.

It does not pay sometimes to analyse enjoyment, but when the analysis is enjoyable too, and even challenging, then it is special. Especially when it is at all times moored to simplicity and comprehensibility. Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a masterclass in how to read and write. Seven Russian short stories – by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol – are discussed.

Before I ordered the Saunders book, I picked up books of short stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Gogol to prepare myself. But I need not have. The stories – treats in themselves – are here in full, the enjoyment vastly enhanced by Saunders’s comments: brilliant, funny, provocative, profound. Occasionally irritating too, which is good.

The stories are followed by Saunders’s commentaries. It is a happy relationship, and a convenient one too.

The art of the masters is explained by a contemporary master of the form. Saunders, who has won the Booker and is a Macarthur ‘genius’ has been teaching at the Syracuse University for twenty years.

Saunders’s offering is no self-help book, nor is it a how-to manual. “Always be escalating,” he says of story-writing, which might sound obvious (“move on, move on”); and adds, “that’s all a story is really: a continual system of escalation.”

His ‘jargon’ is delightful too. For example, there is TICHN, which stands for “Things I couldn’t help noticing” and advice on “ritual banality avoidance.”

Gogol’s story here ‘The Nose’ is either a silly piece of work or a profound treatise on how the absurd can make us understand reality better. Saunders’s criticism is not about literature alone; it is about life.

“We might think of a story as a system for the transfer of energy,” writes Saunders; if you detect a slightly hesitant tone there, that is a mere literary tic from a writer fully confident of himself. He doesn’t want us to swallow everything he says uncritically – that would defeat the purpose of the exercise – but having sharpened our senses he wants us to apply these to his own criticism.

(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu).

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 10:43:36 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/advice-from-a-master-always-be-escalating/article37127518.ece

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