The Empathy Industrial Complex

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by george saunders. new york: random house. 432 pages. $28.

The cover of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life

IN AN ESSAY ABOUT the Russian existentialist philosopher Lev Shestov, best known for his “philosophy of despair” (exactly what it sounds like), D. H. Lawrence writes that Shestov’s work provides a “real clue to Russian literature.” “With us,” Lawrence explains to his English readers, “[European culture] is our very blood and bones, the very nerve and root of our psyche.” The Russians, however, “have only been inoculated with the virus of European culture and ethic,” Lawrence claims, adding: “The virus works in them like a disease. And the inflammation and irritation comes forth as literature.”

Lawrence was part of a generation of English writers who were in rapture over “the Russians.” In the early twentieth century, English-speaking readers had been introduced to the Russian literary giants of the nineteenth century, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Constance Garnett (1861–1946), who nearly went blind translating seventy volumes of Russian literature into English. In an essay titled “The Russian Point of View” (1925), Virginia Woolf tried to account for her generation’s Russomania. Like Lawrence, Woolf describes Russian literature as a kind of primitivist antidote to the strictures of Victorian society. The soul of the Russian, Woolf wrote, was “confused, tumultuous, incapable, it seems, of submitting to the control of logic or the discipline of poetry.”

In these essays, Russia figures as a country on the cusp of both Europe and Asia, its citizens white with an all-important asterisk, suggestive of depth. Despite the veneer of European sensibility, Russians, their English readers asserted, were, deep down, wild and uncouth, and, as such, perhaps also wise. There are countless things wrong with Woolf’s assertions—students of Russia’s venerable poetic tradition in particular will have gasped in horror. Still, I am interested in how, across these essays, Russia enables a critique of Western civilization and English society that need not refer to the British colonies.

Nikolai Chekhov, Portrait of A. P. Chekhov, 1884, oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 16 7/8".
Nikolai Chekhov, Portrait of A. P. Chekhov, 1884, oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 16 7/8".

Indeed, the literature of nineteenth-century Russia tends to occupy a peculiar place in the popular Anglophone imagination, where the books’ condemnations of the West are largely abstracted into vague pronouncements about the soul, conveniently roped off from discourses about race, gender, or empire. In 2014, the New York Times published a pair of contributions from Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser on the question “What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?” Both Prose and Moser point to an elemental quality that can surpass difference. Prose praises the Russians for their “ability to persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that something about the human heart and soul transcends the surface distinctions of nationality, social class and time.”

In his new book on nineteenth-century Russian literature, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, acclaimed fiction writer and MacArthur recipient George Saunders offers this view of “the Russians” yet again. The Russian writers of the Golden Age, Saunders writes, saw art as something tasked with asking “the big questions,” such as:

How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it? How can we feel any peace when some people have everything and others have nothing? How are we supposed to live with joy in a world that seems to want us to love other people but then roughly separates us from them in the end, no matter what? (You know, those cheerful, Russian kinds of big questions.)

Saunders describes the stories he analyzes in the book as “for the most part quiet, domestic, and apolitical.” He attributes the latter quality to the fact that these stories were written “under constant threat of censorship, in a time when a writer’s politics could lead to exile, imprisonment, and execution.” This is a puzzling statement; one of the selections reprinted here is “The Singers,” a story about a singing contest between peasants from Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852), a book that has been called the Russian version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its biting critique of serfdom. I do not say this as a pedantic scholar, but as a writer curious to know why Saunders would want to present such a flat, uncomplicated, and depoliticized background as essential to understanding the fundamentals of the craft of storytelling.

A Swim in a Pond in the Rain might catch readers looking for traditional literary criticism by surprise. As Saunders explains, it is actually more of a “workbook” for creative writers, based on a course he’s taught at Syracuse University. It contains reprints of seven short stories, including Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist social satire “The Nose,” two of Leo Tolstoy’s moral tales (“Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot”), the Turgenev story, and three works by Anton Chekhov. Saunders’s own contributions include line-by-line analyses, tables, graphs, and charts meant to break down story arc and character networks. He warns us that he will not be providing the kind of studied examination we might expect from a scholar or a critic. Instead, we get a brick-by-brick approach to outlining, revising, and building narrative tension. The result often comes across as a bit detached. Take Saunders’s discussion of Chekhov’s “The Darling,” a story about a woman named Olenka who takes on the interests and worries of whomever she falls in love with. She marries a theater owner named Kukin, who dies near the beginning of the story. In explaining the importance of killing off the husband so Olenka can meet someone new and commence her signature behavior pattern, Saunders writes: “So, Kukin has died, there in Moscow. As a new friend of Olenka’s, I am sorry for her, the darling. But as a reader, I am sort of glad. Goodbye, Kukin, you gave your life for rising action.”

Saunders writes that Olenka is presented as both beautifully altruistic and worryingly vampiric. But the more he gets to know Olenka, “the less inclined [he feels] to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment.” This matter of not passing judgment seems to be the primary life lesson Saunders wants readers to draw from nineteenth-century Russian literature. That these writers held quite passionate and critical views of certain human behavior or social types often gets cast aside, as Saunders tries to squeeze them into what I think of as the Empathy Industrial Complex, a veritable cottage industry that emerged in 2016 alongside profiles of Donald Trump supporters (Saunders covered Trump rallies for the New Yorker).

I kept reading to understand why “the Russians” are uniquely poised to offer guidance on how to be more empathetic by virtue of being “the Russians.” The closest we get to a culturally specific lesson on craft is in Saunders’s fascination with the Russian literary device skaz. That word comes from the verb skazat’, meaning “to tell,” and is often translated as something like “unreliable narration.” Saunders believes empathy is essentially baked into skaz because it presupposes the existence of multiple perspectives and variegated realities. Saunders says of the device, “It’s like a prose version of the theory of relativity: no fixed, objective ‘correct’ viewpoint exists.” Saunders then takes Gogol’s disordered depiction of reality and turns it into one explanation for our current political divide: “If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, ‘Given how generally sweet people are, why is the world so fucked up?,’ Gogol has an answer: we each have an energetic and unique skaz loop running in our heads, one we believe in fully, not as ‘merely my opinion,’ but ‘the way things actually are, for sure.’”

There is something ironic about using Gogol, a deeply conservative thinker who was certainly capable of disliking whole swaths of people (e.g., women), in a book that seems to make generic empathy the main thing we are to learn from “the Russians.” Are we supposed to read Gogol and suddenly realize that the people shouting “Build That Wall” are not racists, but just have a “skaz loop” playing in their heads? This might be what Saunders is getting at. Indeed, elsewhere, when discussing how Chekhov builds anticipation in his fiction, Saunders puts forth an example of a story about “an angry white racist named Mel, who has cancer” and is about to be treated by “a slightly egotistical Pakistani American, Dr. Bukhari.” To which Saunders adds, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next in that . . . room but I’m pretty sure something will.” We are already bombarded by the narrative that white racists are actually downtrodden victims subject to the whims of uppity people of color; surely there is no need to encourage aspiring creative writers to imagine more of the same. At the very least, it is a cliché. This anecdote confirmed my worst suspicions of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. What are “the big questions” if they make room for this kind of narrative, and why do I suspect that my concerns here might be framed as distracting “little” ones?

Jennifer Wilson is a contributing writer at The Nation where she covers books and culture. She has a Ph.D. in Russian literature.