February 19, 2022
“No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.” That's the short story writer George Saunders misquoting Einstein. The story goes that one of his writing students told him that Einstein had said this. But Saunders has since learned that what Einstein actually said was, “Let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels." Saunders prefers the misquote. I do, too. But the actual Einstein quote rings loud and clear and true to me as well.
Saunders is full of good advice, and even good advice in the form of quotes. I've also heard him quote the poet Gerald Stern many times as having said, “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking—then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.”
In other words, the writer had something to say. And they said it. But nothing significant happened. There was no discovery. Because there were too many answers and too few questions. And that's assuming any questions were allowed entry at all. Another way I picture this is as a kind of mental video game. One where your character is a thought that you already think, and the objective of the game is to make it to the end by dodging as many inconvenient questions and objections and nuances and whatever other things might take power away from your already formed conclusions as possible.
Short stories and poetry and the things happening right in front of us are not unconnected. They are in intimate and mysterious relationship with one another. Einstein, I would venture to guess, was not talking about writing stories. And Gerald Stern was speaking explicitly about poetry. But when I read the real world, I see a lot of stories about two dogs fucking. And it's often clear to me from the start that the author really wants to tell me this particular story about these particular two dogs fucking, one of whom seems to hold some kind of psychic power over said author.
To be clear, I'm not absolving myself of this same sin. I've committed it, too. For a good bunch of years now, I like to think that my infractions have been mostly unintentional. But I'll admit that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference. I.e., it's sometimes hard to identify the truth behind why we do what we do, and in turn, how truthfully we advance our thoughts and reach the conclusions (aka, the intellectual deaths) that we reach. In any event, my request to you as readers, I guess, is just to know that I'm aware of this somewhat precarious human tendency that I, too, hold, and to know that I'm doing my best to keep it at bay.
Saunders has a new-ish Substack called Story Club in which he dissects and analyzes short stories. It's essentially the same approach he took to writing his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. Here's what he has to say about all of that on the Story Club about page:
In my most recent book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, I explored seven short stories by four of the great Russian masters (Chekhov, Turgenev, Gogol, and Tolstoy). A lot was going on in the world as I wrote it, but working on it always made me feel happy and stable. Focusing all of my energy on the stories (reading them closely enough to write about them, revising and revising my essays, obsessing over the meaning of a paragraph or the nuances of various translations) felt immersive and stimulating – the very opposite of burying my head in the sand. I’d come flying/stumbling down at the end of the day from a little writing shed I have up on the hillside in Corralitos, California, feeling, not that I’d “taken a break from” the current difficulties, but that I’d, well, girded up my loins for a deeper, less fearful engagement with the world.
And here's a key paragraph from the intro to A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:
To study the way we read is to study the way the mind works: the way it evaluates a statement for truth, the way it behaves in relation to another mind (i.e., the writer’s) across space and time. What we’re going to be doing here, essentially, is watching ourselves read (trying to reconstruct how we felt as we were, just now, reading). Why would we want to do this? Well, the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world; it can deceive us, but it can also be trained to accuracy; it can fall into disuse and make us more susceptible to lazy, violent, materialistic forces, but it can also be urged back to life, transforming us into more active, curious, alert readers of reality.
And amen to all of that.
More and more, that’s all I’m really after. I want us all to be better and more accurate (or at least less often deceived) readers of the world. I ache for us all to be more curious and alert readers of reality. I have almost zero interest anymore in what conclusions people reach. All of that’s a mirage to me. Definitive answers are a distant lake in the desert. They’re just two dogs fucking. Bring me the questions. Then leave me alone to figure out how and what to think about them. And I’ll keep trying my best to do the same for you.
Below, you will find an example of what Saunders is doing with Story Club. The pieces examine the story "An Incident" by Lu Hsun (or Lu Xun), the text of which is also linked below. I'm sharing these in particular because (a) the story itself is a short read, timeless and microscopically profound; and because (b) there's a lot of gold to be found in Saunders' gentle trawling.
By Lu Hsun
Six years have slipped by since I came from the country to the capital. During that time I have seen and heard quite enough of so-called affairs of state; but none of them made much impression on me. If asked to define their influence, I can only say they aggravated my ill temper and made me, frankly speaking, more and more misanthropic.
Lu Hsun, story translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang
Events are being narrated by a first-person narrator. Our natural inclination is to believe him. But he is not necessarily telling us the (objective) truth; he’s shading things a bit, interpreting them for us. He’s lightly coaching us on how to understand these events.
George Saunders, Story Club
My suspicion (that’s too strong a word, but) kicks in a little in paragraph 5, at the phrase “without warning.” I wonder, a bit, why he’s telling me this. On one level, of course, he’s being a reporter. And yet, once we’ve read the whole story, and look back at this moment, he seems to be engaged with the question, “Whose fault was the accident?” Likewise, when he assures us that “the rickshaw man had made way.” I still believe the narrator but I’m noticing that he is making small judgments that are having the effect of aligning him, slightly, “with” the driver and “against” the woman.
George Saunders, Story Club
To Frame, or not to Frame...
The incident “causes him distress” and teaches him shame and urges him to reform (all of which we expect, given what’s just happened) but it also gives him “fresh courage and hope.” To my ear, that’s a new development. It is, essentially, a last-minute escalation, a call-back to the driver’s moment of quiet moral clarity. It also says, in a lovely way, that right action is contagious. The driver did what he felt was right, the narrator observed this…and it changed him. What a hopeful message this is. It gives us a reason, in every single moment, to try to do our best.
George Saunders, Story Club