Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story

A Course on Empathy

Here are a few notes about the major pieces of writing I refer to in “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story.” I’ve provided links to those you can find online.
–Scott Korb

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McCarthy, Cormac. “The Kekulé Problem.” Nautilus. Apr. 20, 2017.

While writing the talk, I read this essay by Cormac McCarthy on the origin of language. Though I make no direct reference to “The Kekulé Problem” in my discussion, the idea that the unconscious exerts some moral pressure on us was rattling around while I wrote and provides a basis for the arguments.

I. The Smartest Person in the Room

  • Pollan, Michael. “An Animal’s Place.” The New York Times Magazine. Nov. 10, 2002.

    For as long as I’ve been teaching food writing, I’ve brought this essay to my students; even after the ideas contained in Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma became too mainstream to teach, this essay, chapter seventeen in the book, still contains surprises.

  • Bloom, Paul. Against Empathy: The Case for Radical Compassion. Ecco, 2016.

    A student introduced me to Bloom’s work after conducting an interview with him for Guernica Magazine in February 2016, while he was at work on Against Empathy. “Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story” begins, in part, in a reading of Bloom’s book.

  • Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. Viking, 2003.

    Of all the books I’ve taught over my career, this one has probably gotten the most play and is among my favorite novels. Coetzee’s ideas appear in much of my writing and I’ve seen no better or more inspiring defense of the boundless sympathetic imagination than in Elizabeth Costello.

II. A Little Boy in the Dark

  • Jamison, Leslie. “The Empathy Exams,” “The Devil’s Bait,” “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” The Empathy Exams. Graywolf, 2014.

    Giving Up the Ghost.” Harper’s, Mar. 2015.

    Perhaps no one has had more, or better, to say about empathy in recent years than Leslie Jamison, and this talk in general owes a great deal to the work I refer to. Jamison has, over the years, become a friend in part through the conversations we’ve had, both in private and in public, about how to write about pain.

  • Korb, Scott. “Good for You.” Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2016.

    You can read this essay if you want. (Editor’s note: I think you should. It’s worth your time.)

III. As Weightless as All Others

  • Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. FSG, 2001.

    This is among the very best and most influential craft books available. Beyond arguing that writers of personal narratives must “fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self,” Gornick establishes a difference between the situation, “the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot,” and the story, “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

  • Heti, Sheila. How Should a Person Be?. Henry Holt, 2012.

    In one sense, Heti’s work makes the strongest — most aggressive — case against empathy of any of those included in the essay. We must kill it! For her, a boundless capacity to empathize threatens our very ability to know ourselves and our desires.

  • Scarry, Elaine. “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” For Love of Country, edited by Martha C. Nussbaum and Joshua Cohen. Beacon, 2002.

    This essay by Scarry, a response to Martha Nussbaum’s defense of cosmopolitanism, contains this terrifying line, which she italicizes in the original: “the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.”

IV. Between the Wolf in the Tall Grass and the Wolf in the Tall Story

  • Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Writers and Good Readers.” Lectures on Literature. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

    I first taught this piece in a class about rereading and rewriting called “Returnings,” mainly because of Nabokov’s claim that “one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Here Nabokov says we must “notice and fondle details” — turn them over and over, rereading them, I suppose — and he upends the notion that many students bring to classes I teach: that the best books are those containing characters we can relate to.

  • Pamuk, Orhan, “My Father’s Suitcase,” Nobel Lecture, Dec. 7, 2006.

    I’m largely interested in Pamuk’s ideas of a second self, animated not by the imagination but by the generosity of another power, largely because the process of writing makes him ecstatically happy. My own project on ecstasy is currently in the works.

  • Lopez, Barry. “The Invitation.” Granta, Nov. 2015.

    Much of this short essay I quote in the talk. I won’t say more here than go read it.