Longreads is delighted to share this mini-course exploring empathy created by Scott Korb,
with contributions from Paul Bloom, William Gatewood, and Daniel Raeburn. In addition to Scott’s essay, “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story,” be sure to read the responses, delve into the questions for deeper discussion, and check out the suggested readings — featuring the work of Leslie Jamison, Vivian Gornick, J.M. Coetzee, Sheila Heti, and more.
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I teach in Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. Twice a year — once in January, once in June — the faculty and students gather in Oregon for 10 days of lectures, workshops, and readings. My wife is not wrong when she jokes that this is like camp for grown-ups.
Still, I like to think that serious work gets done when we get together. While some of the best talks at the residencies deal with the nuts-and-bolts of writing, the talks I prepare tend to address topics related to the writer’s mindset, or the fine-ish line between factual writing and fiction, or the writer’s role in civic life. I developed one such talk, “The Courage to Sound Like Ourselves,” into semester-long courses at universities where I otherwise teach.
On June 16, 2017, in Forest Grove, Oregon, I delivered a talk called “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story.” The title comes from Nabokov. The subject is the place of empathy in the moment of writing. Rather than develop a semester-long class for a university based on the talk, we’ve decided to present a version of it here at Longreads as a mini-course on empathy with a reading list, discussion questions, useful links, and a few critical responses.
One of the early lines of thinking in what follows stresses that education is a constant reminder of all that one does not know and that at its best, learning with others requires a good-faith effort to puzzle over ideas together. You’ll see that, like many people, I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy in recent years, especially where my writing and my teaching are concerned. “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story” is my best recent attempt to say what I think.
The course takes up a recent useful book where my thinking is concerned, Against Empathy by psychologist Paul Bloom, who offers his own response alongside memoirist Daniel Raeburn and Pacific MFA student William Gatewood. Like Bloom, I know that empathy is often taken “to refer to morality and kindness and love, to everything good.” And like Bloom, I can see empathy this way, and I’m not opposed to kindness, love, or goodness. Seeing empathy only this way is, however, I’ve come to believe, a problem morally and also limiting to our potential as artists. This course is mainly focused on the dubious place of empathy in art.
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Scott Korb directs the first-year writing program at The New School’s Eugene Lang College and is on the faculty at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. He is the author and editor of several books, including Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, now out in paperback.