The spell of words … a wonderful book in which a Booker prizewinner explains what makes classic short stories work so well

This book is a delight, and it’s about delight too. How necessary, at our particular moment. Novelist and short story writer George Saunders has been teaching creative writing at Syracuse University in the US for the last 20 years, including a course in the 19th-century Russian short story in translation. “A few years back, after the end of one class (chalk dust hovering in the autumnal air, old-fashioned radiator clanking in the corner, marching band processing somewhere in the distance, let’s say),” he had the realisation that “some of the best moments of my life, the moments during which I’ve really felt myself offering something of value to the world, have been spent teaching that Russian class.”

I love the warmth with which he writes about this teaching, and agree wholeheartedly that there’s not much on earth as good, if you’re that way inclined, as an afternoon spent discussing sublime fiction with a class of eagerly intelligent apprentice writers, saturated in the story and greedy for insight and understanding (everyone saturated and greedy, the teacher along with the rest). He’s right, too – as well as appealingly modest – in thinking that the best teaching is “of value” straightforwardly, as writing itself somehow can’t be. You don’t get up from your writing table believing you’ve done something “of value to the world”.

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