Resource Review: George Saunders' Story Club Substack
By Katie Zdybel
“What can we learn about the mind by watching it read and process a story?” This is one of the guiding questions to Story Club, a new ‘craft of fiction’ Substack, written by George Saunders.
Hold on—what's a Substack?
Substack is an email newsletter platform. It works in a variety of ways, but for the purpose of Story Club, you can imagine it as a blog that also sends each post to all subscribers.
And who is George Saunders?
Saunders is the author of many short stories and a few novels including Lincoln in the Bardo, Tenth of December: Stories, and most recently, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a craft book on writing and analyzing fiction. For his fiction and short fiction, he’s won the Man Booker prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, and a National Magazine Award, among many other prizes and awards and teaches in the renowned creative writing program at Syracuse University.
It is his love of teaching, the give and take between his students and him, that inspired Saunders to begin Story Club. According to The Guardian, “he joined the platform because he ‘hated’ the idea of losing the wisdom that students have imparted to him over the years.”
He had completed A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a book that studies several Russian short stories in great depth, narrated in Saunders’s extremely likable, humble, approachable style—the kind of voice that makes you feel as though you’re sitting down with an old friend rather than reading a textbook. But the wonderful thing about this old friend is that he is an exceptional writer, and he has extraordinary insights into what might make anyone’s writing exceptional—and he wants to talk about this with, well, anyone else who might want to talk about it. Thus, Story Club.
Story Club started in December 2021, and comes out twice a week. Most posts can be read in half an hour or less; some of them read as lectures, others are exercises, some feel more like conversations. After starting out with a couple introductory posts—which actually accomplished the hard-to-achieve effect of an intimate community of writers, rather than just a bunch of people all over the world, signing on, alone—Saunders got down to business by assigning a Hemingway story. And then we were off.
My takeaways from Story Club
I’ve been attending Story Club as often as I can, week by week, and find it insightful, useful, bolstering, and connective. Bolstering because Saunders has a way of making great writing feel achievable, and connective because there’s a notably positive vibe in Story Club.
Comments are supportive and personable and warm; it truly does feel as though we’re all in a giant MFA cohort together, and remarkably, I often fall into thinking Saunders is speaking directly to me. This may be the genius of his voice—it’s not only welcoming and engaging, but it has a kind of musical, perhaps rural, unassuming cadence to it, which sets the reader, or student, at ease and reels them in.
It may also be because Saunders made this intention clear from the get-go: “We’ll find ourselves forming a tight and mutually supportive community.” While he sometimes creates the illusion of fumbling his way toward wisdom, it’s clear that he has a sturdy grasp on his goals for us all: he’d like to help us all become smarter readers and writers—I think because he feels this is one way to become better human beings.
In addition to feeling part of a strong writing community, I find, every week, there are gems to hold onto, ideas to jot down in my notebook, quotes from Saunders to scribble on a Post-it note and stick directly at eye level, such as this one: “I discovered a trick I’m still using to this day: if I make a person in enough detail, this creates plot. That is: if, over the course of a few pages, I make a vivid, funny person that the reader feels some connection with, anything that happens to that person is going to feel meaningful.”
Also, this pearl, which immediately made me understand how fiction functions as a kind of controlled microcosm in which we can try to figure out the macrocosm: “How do we know things about the world? The mind makes scale models, and we test them out.”
When he said this, it instantly clicked: we create these small lives in order to be able to isolate them and observe them. In other words, writing a story is like placing a particular part of life, a kind of person, a type of situation into a small box so that you can get a better grasp on it. Except that the parts of life are themes, the kinds of people are characters, a situation is a scene, and the small box is a stack of paper.
I often return to George’s opening question, posed in the first post: “What can we learn about the mind by watching it read and process a story?” In essence, that’s what we do in Story Club. We get together and read stories to try and understand our minds. We wonder what kind of scale model the writer was creating and discuss with each other exactly what they were trying to know about the world. In doing so, we also start to see what we—and our fellow Story Club members and George—are trying to know about our minds and our world. It’s enlightening and inclusive and constructive and fun and, best of all, it might just make us all better readers and writers—and if we want to believe George (which I do), better human beings.
You can join the Story Club Substack here.
Katie's first collection of short stories, titled Equipoise, was shortlisted for the 2018 HarperCollins | UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2019 and 2021 Canada Council for the Arts award, the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction award, and was publisher-nominated for a Journey Prize as well as two National Magazine Awards in fiction. Katie is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and has worked on PRISM International’s editorial board. As a manuscript editor, she enjoys working with character, theme, and imagery.