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Scott Korb

Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story: A Course on Empathy

Illustration by J.D. Reeves

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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Read the full course

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.

Contributors: Paul Bloom, William Gatewood, and Daniel Raeburn.

Editor: Krista Stevens | Creative Director: Kjell Reigstad | Illustrator: J.D. Reeves

Writing Our America

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)

 

The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.

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I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”

The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,

On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”

In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”

Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.

This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?

Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope. Read more…