George Saunders’ Lectures on the Russian Greats Brought to Life in Student Sketches


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We’ve seen plen­ty of post-mod­ern decay in writ­ers before George Saun­ders—in Don DeLil­lo, J.G. Ballard—but nev­er has it been filled with such puck­ish warmth, such whim­si­cal detail, and such empa­thy, to use a word Saun­ders prizes. As a writer, Saun­ders draws read­ers in close to a very human world, albeit a frag­ment­ed, burned out, and frayed one, and it seems that he does so as a teacher as well. Since 1997, Saun­ders has taught cre­ative writ­ing at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, where he received his M.A. in 1988, and where he remains, despite being award­ed a MacArthur “Genius” Fel­low­ship in 2006 and pub­lish­ing steadi­ly through­out the last decade and a half. To sit in a class with Saun­ders, accord­ing to his one­time stu­dent Rebec­ca Fishow, is to vis­it with a dar­ing prac­ti­tion­er of the short form, one whose “words seem a lot like the trans­fer of secrets through a chain-link of writ­ers.”


While attend­ing one of Saun­ders’ semes­ter-length writ­ing sem­i­nars, writer and artist Fishow com­piled the notes and sketch­es you see here (and sev­er­al more at The Believ­er’s Log­ger site). In each sketch, Saun­ders teach­es from one of his favorite clas­sic Russ­ian short sto­ry writ­ers. At the top, see him expound on Turgenev’s method, prof­fer­ing epipha­nies, keen obser­va­tions on craft, and writer­ly advice in word bubbles—“You are allowed to manip­u­late,” “Tec­ni­cian vs. Artist” [sic], “Instan­ta­neous micro-re-eval­u­a­tion (@end of story)”—while sur­round­ed by a fringy aura. Above, Fishow recon­structs Saun­ders’ take on Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog” around a por­trait of a pen­sive Saun­ders (look­ing a bit like Chekhov).


Fishow’s recon­struc­tions are obvi­ous­ly very par­tial, and it’s not clear if she took them down on the spot or scrib­bled from mem­o­ry (the mis­spellings make me think the for­mer). In the sketch above, Saun­ders’ expli­cates Gogol, with phras­es like “VERBAL JOY!” and an Ein­stein quote: “No wor­thy prob­lem is ever solved on the plane of its orig­i­nal con­cep­tion.” The lat­ter is an inter­est­ing moment of Saun­ders’ sci­en­tif­ic back­ground slip­ping into his ped­a­gogy. Before he was a MacAu­rthur win­ner and an enthu­si­as­tic teacher, Saun­ders worked as an envi­ron­men­tal engi­neer. Of his sci­ence back­ground, he has said:

…any claim I might make to orig­i­nal­i­ty in my fic­tion is real­ly just the result of this odd back­ground: basi­cal­ly, just me work­ing inef­fi­cient­ly, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have suf­fi­cient back­ground to real­ly under­stand. Like if you put a welder to design­ing dress­es.

As a teacher, at least in Fishow’s notes, Saun­ders cel­e­brates “work­ing inef­fi­cient­ly.” As she puts it: “His wis­dom con­firms that flaw and uncer­tain­ty and vari­ety and empa­thy (espe­cial­ly empa­thy) are pos­i­tive aspects of the writ­ing process.” Fishow’s por­traits go a long way toward con­vey­ing those qual­i­ties in Saun­ders as a pres­ence in the class­room.

Find more sketch­es at The Believ­er’s Log­ger site.

Also Read 10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

George Saun­ders Extols the Virtues of Kind­ness in 2013 Speech to Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Grads

Vladimir Nabokov (Chan­nelled by Christo­pher Plum­mer) Teach­es Kaf­ka at Cor­nell

James Joyce, With His Eye­sight Fail­ing, Draws a Sketch of Leopold Bloom (1926)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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