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Samuel CohenSamuel Cohen (PhD, City University of New York) is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri, where he has won a number of teaching awards, including the Provost's Outstanding Junior Faculty Teaching Award. He is the author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s, co-editor of The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Series Editor of The New American Canon: The Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture, and Co-editor of the Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, and has published in such journals as Amerikastudien, Voices in Italian Americana, Clio, Twentieth-Century Literature, The Journal of Basic Writing, and Dialogue: A Journal for Writing Specialists. For Bedford/St. Martin's, he is author of 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology and coauthor of Literature: The Human Experience.

It Says Here

posted: 9.11.14 by Samuel Cohen

The world these days is full of competing stories. I can’t turn on my computer without being inundated by them (unless I don’t look at any social media, but then what’s a computer for? Writing?). Everything that is happening, it seems, is represented by not one but at least two differing narratives. The recent retraction of a hiring offer at a major Midwestern university over a controversial Twitter feed is either an affront to faculty governance and intellectual freedom or it is a reasonable decision based on the evidence. Relatedly, (since this is what the tweets were about), recent events in Gaza are reason to condemn the Israeli government for war crimes or are reason to support it in defending itself. Unrelatedly, publicly airing a video of a football player assaulting his then-girlfriend, now-wife, in an elevator was the right move as it led to his suspension from professional football or it was a violation of the couple’s privacy.

I bring these examples up not to talk about them in themselves but to make the point that the controversies over these events can be seen not as made up entirely of logical argument (or, for that matter, unreflecting passion), but as consisting largely of competing narratives. That is, the positions people hold on these things may come from aspects of their identities—national origin, gender, some kind of identification with a relevant group—but even if they do, they are informed and supported by a story. The stories may be about the past that led to the current state of affairs or about assumptions regarding human nature or the nature of the relationship between states and citizens or employers and employees.

I’m thinking today about the importance of stories to the way we see the world (not a new insight, I know) in part because the anniversary of 9/11 is two days from the moment I am writing this. In this morning’s online reading I saw an article about still-classified portions of documents pertaining to the events of that day, documents that might or might not change our understanding of what happened. One congressman is quoted as saying these pages “tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report.” The 9/11 Report is the official account of what happened, but it is one story among many, and it is a story informed by other stories about American history, global history, and the nature of armed conflict, just as competing accounts are informed by other, larger stories and smaller personal ones.

This got me thinking about other stories we tell ourselves about those events, stories that are as much about ourselves as anything else. A scheduled event on my campus, an email from my chancellor informs me, will celebrate “Patriot Day,” the term some are using for the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a wealth of narrative behind that labeling choice.

I am also thinking about stories now because I am always thinking about stories. It is one of the chief job hazards of teaching and studying fiction. This job has taught me to see narrative everywhere. As Hayden White has argued even history, which at first glance seems about the facts of past events, is shaped by the same tropes and story-forms that shape novels.  It has taught me that the arguments we have about the world around us are at bottom just stories, and that, as Billy Bragg sings in “It Says Here,” “…there are two sides to every story.” Maybe most importantly, it has taught me that there actually more than two sides—that is, that we too often fall into the trap of thinking there are only two choices, two ways to understand a particular event or phenomenon, while the best fiction can show us that the options are never-ending.  It can do this, as Bakhtin argued in his reading of Dostoevsky when a writer embodies opposing viewpoints in different characters and doesn’t pick a winner. It can also do this when it shows how difficult it is to understand the world at all, when it presents characters or narrators with points of view that do not seem to be endorsed by the author but to which the author seems to oppose no “correct” view (which Lukacs claimed is the definition of the modern novel).

My ultimate point here could be seen as another answer to the question answered in a previous entry, “Why I Teach Literature.” Another reason I teach fiction is to offer my students the opportunity to see the competing narratives in the books I assign and in the world around them, to see how these stories are built on other stories, and to see how there are more than two sides to every story. There are ways to teach that encourage these lessons, which any teacher can easily enough apply in their classroom, methods that highlight the opposition, nuance, and ambiguity in fiction and in the stories we tell outside of the pages in books. Helping students to look at things in this way can, in a hoary old humanist formulation I still believe in, help them to better appreciate and understand not only literature but also life, which, to borrow an old concept, is stories all the way down.

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Why I Teach Literature

posted: 3.4.14 by Samuel Cohen

For the epigraph to the preface of the latest edition of Literature: The Human Experience, I chose a few sentences from an interview given by David Foster Wallace: “We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”

It might just be that simple, but I’m not sure that it is. I do think it’s possible to feel less alone inside by living for a while inside someone else’s head; even better, it’s possible that this identification can help readers of literature not only to feel better but to act better, to treat others more empathetically, and to do so because they know not only how others feel but also how they live. Teaching literature, then, could be a way to help people learn from literature how to be better humans.

But of course some historically awful humans are said to have read a lot of literature. And there is writing out there that one would be hard-pressed to describe as empathy-expanding (see Ayn Rand), yet it gets read and even taught. So it’s not that simple. What else? Helping students to appreciate beauty is a good reason to teach literature. So is teaching them to appreciate complexity, and ambiguity, and even contradiction. So is teaching them to communicate their own thoughts better in writing.


There are many good reasons to teach literature. The one I reject is the one that those inside and outside of higher education who question the value of the humanities are most ready to hear: that it prepares students to join the workforce, maybe even better than the business degrees to which so many are inclined these days. I think it’s great if studying literature helps get my students jobs—saying otherwise in this economy would be outrageous—but it’s no reason to teach literature. As important as the economic and the political are, and as much as literature can say about them, maybe the greatest value of literature is that it stands apart from these things. It gets produced and consumed, and emerges out of a world where money and power shape everything, but I teach it as art, as something that can resist those forces. So, in a much shorter formulation, why teach literature? Because in some saving measure, literature stands apart from the world of getting and spending, a world that is way, way too much with us. Time spent reading it and thinking about it and talking about it and writing about it is time well-spent, period.

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The Lost Weekend

posted: 3.26.13 by Samuel Cohen

Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, Missouri, one of the city’s locations for the annual True/False documentary film festival. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I spent last weekend watching documentaries. This may not sound at first hearing like the most exciting weekend a person could have, but every year at this time I spend all of my money and time to go see more documentary films than a person should see in four days at True/False, a documentary film festival in its tenth year that is a highlight of the year for me and my little town. Directors and producers and writers and fans descend on the city and turn it into temporary mecca for (mostly) nonfiction narrative cinema (and for hoodies, which for some reason go with documentaries like Botox goes with Hollywood), and normal residents like me get to forget our day jobs and immerse ourselves in a vibrant and inventive art form.

Emerging bleary-eyed and wrung out (maybe that explains the hoodies) on the other end of my sixteen-film weekend, I’ve been thinking about documentaries, especially in light of what I do, which is study and teach fiction. This isn’t so paradoxical—nonfictional and fictional narrative share more than most people think, and have a lot to teach us about each other.

The most important thing they share, of course, is that they’re narrative. While I am more in the theory of the novel camp than the narrative theory camp because the latter looks for the keys to all narrative while the former keeps its eye on genre, it is important to recognize the specific shared goals and forms of nonfictional and fictional films and prose. In plainer words, it is correct to say that one genre is true and the other is false, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t both used to tell stories (and that both are not both true and false). Through these genres, writers and filmmakers tell stories with certain effects in mind, using a toolbox of techniques to achieve those effects.

One film I saw, Dirty Wars, follows reporter Jeremy Scahill’s investigation of covert military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The structure of the film is dictated by Scahill’s activity—the filmmakers follow the trail of the reporter’s story, watching over his shoulder as he tracks the activities of the Joint Special Operations Command through small villages and along the banks of the Potomac. As they do so, they mix genres, using the tricks of straightforward investigative journalism alongside those of the diary, the personal essay, and the travelogue, taking advantage of the power of identification to tell a haunting story and make a strong argument.

The Act of Killing, my favorite of the weekend, looks back at Indonesian death squads active after the 1965 military coup. It is a strange and powerful film (the presence on the Executive Producers roster of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, two masters of strange and powerful films, is unsurprising in this regard) in which former members of one such squad proudly recreate scenes of torture and murder from the past. These scenes become part of the film, are presented as they are made, and are accompanied by interviews of the players.  The filmmakers follow the squad members as they confront (and fail to confront) their memories, and show the reactions of the rest of the nation—the victims and those who still celebrate the nominally anti-communist purge. It is an incredibly inventive and even (to use an overused word) surreal film, one that rides the line between nonfiction and fiction in the service of an unfortunately true story. It is an excellent example of the ways in which narratives can bend themselves to accommodate experiences so traumatic that straightforward storytelling forms seem unable to capture.

On a lighter note (these documentary festivals can be murder), I saw a film, Village at the End of the World, that visits a tiny fishing village in Greenland as it faces change. It is not formally radical, nor does anyone but some fish and a polar bear die in it. However, in the way it takes viewers to a remote, foreign, frozen place— accessible only by helicopter and storytelling— it is a model for what narrative can do. Telling the story of the village as it deals with historical change and the individual stories of a few of its residents, including that of a teenage boy as he figures out and steps into his future, the documentarians invoke old generic standbys such as the wilderness story and the bildungsroman to make viewers experience a way of life that is very different from their own.

I am unsure just how all this will translate into the classroom. I want to help students studying fiction to better see how fiction works by looking at its techniques at work in nonfiction (and to see nonfiction’s techniques at work in it). And I want them to think about the shared goals of fiction and nonfiction—to move an audience, to make people think, to show them something about the world. That may mean bringing some examples into class, or assigning these films as they reach wider distribution (if they do). I welcome suggestions. It just seems that the examples of what narrative can do are so powerful and plentiful in documentary film that it would be a shame if I can’t use them somehow.


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Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me

posted: 2.22.13 by Samuel Cohen

Yesterday I wrote a course description for next semester. It was due only a week ago, so I’m feeling pretty good about getting it done. I’m thinking about the course today, which I’ve titled “1968” and which will be on that historic year in arts and letters, in part because I haven’t chosen the texts yet (use comments section to suggest texts! There’s too much to choose from!). I have some idea of other texts I want to include, but kicking around ideas for possible fiction has gotten me thinking about the criteria I’m using for choosing course material. I’ve been looking for fiction that has characters that feel real, through whom my students can feel what it was like to be alive in 1968. I’ve been looking for fiction that paints a realistic picture, that captures 1968 in amber. And I’ve been looking for fiction that has something meaningful to say about 1968.

What I’m realizing is that these preferences express a set of assumptions about fiction that I often work against in my students. Further, they’re a set of assumptions nobody made me reflect on when I was an undergraduate (not successfully, anyway).  Over the years I’ve done a lot of this reflection myself, with the help of critics who have  convinced me of  some pretty basic truths about fiction, and I’ve internalized them over the years. In retrospect though, I wish somebody had told me these basic truths early in my undergraduate career.

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #1: Characters Aren’t People.

If you read writers talking about writing, you will come across someone saying that she listens to her characters and lets them determine what they do in her stories. I know what writers mean when they say this, and it may feel this way to them, but it’s not quite true: writers try to create characters who act in a way that is consistent with whatever personality they have tried to give them: they try not to have them do things that seem “out of character” (the fact that people often act “out of character” is a subject for another day). Likewise, if you listen to your students (and I hope you do), you will hear them talking about characters as if they were real people. Often they use a word that has become a bête noir of mine and say that characters are “relatable.” They will talk about whether or not they like characters, they will psychoanalyze them, they will confuse them with their authors.

Why is this important? Because the constant battle is to get students to look at form—to get them to understand how literature is constructed through a series of authorial choices, choices that have calculated effects on readers. That’s why it’s important not to ask students, Why does Character X do this? but rather, Why does Author X choose to have Character X do this? While students aren’t wrong to have feelings about characters, they need to be able to recognize and think about how and why authors make their characters act the way they do.  Students need to remember that characters are made of words.

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #2: Realism Is a Trick.

Related to Thing #1, this basic fact is something that everybody knows deep down, but its ramifications are often not realized.  While undergraduates don’t necessarily need to watch you diagram structuralist insights about signification on the board to get this (though I think it’s a great idea), they might benefit from you talking early on about what Barthes called the referential illusion—the false idea that works of literature can actually represent the world faithfully. What writers do—and if you press the point, no student will persist in maintaining that the black squiggles on the page “are” the world—is paint a picture of an idea of the world, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, detailed description, and, in Barthes’ great insight from “The Reality Effect,” the inclusion of insignificant details, which makes the picture seem more real. (A bit of instruction on the history of realism as an ideal in the Western novel—on the way in which it wasn’t the centrally important thing in the prehistory or early life of the novel and only became the default mode in the late nineteenth century—can help too.)

Reading novels and stories with the unexamined assumption that they are representations of the real can keep students from appreciating the artistry writers practice—the way they do things with words that create reading experiences that have effects on readers, that make them feel things and see things. Reading for realism can also make it harder for students to consider the factors that influence a writer’s picture of the world—things such as political beliefs, historical moment, any of the things that make us perceive the world as we do.

Thing I Wish Somebody Had Told Me #3: Stories Don’t Mean Anything.

If I’ve said any one thing in a classroom more than “No, tell me what you think” (or possibly “Please don’t use the word ‘relatable’ in your papers because it causes me physical pain”), it may be “Good fiction doesn’t have a moral.” It’s one of those things that is generally true but will admit exceptions, at least for some people; while Milan Kundera has said that there was nothing George Orwell wrote in his novels that he couldn’t have just as easily said in a pamphlet, most readers will admit that there are a few powerful works whose main aim is to drive home only a single message. Still, the larger point is that part of fiction’s power lies in its ambiguity; it can show us things about the world we may not have seen before, it can push us to consider ideas we’ve not thought much about before, but it doesn’t generally have what less sophisticated forms—fairy tales, parables—have: a moral.

It’s also true that even if writers want to drive home a single point about something, even if they are skilled at their craft, things will get away from them. Whether they are trying to keep two ideas in dialogue without picking a winner, as Bakhtin said is what makes great novels great, or are trying to display a Single Great Truth about the world, language and culture—meaning—is too complicated, too rich, to play along. This is the great frustration of so many students—what do you mean there’s no right answer?—and of many teachers who want to confine a novel to its “theme.”

So I’m going to continue planning this course, and maybe I’ll talk some more here someday soon about the process of text selection—about how I want to be wary of looking for texts with characters like people that capture 1968 in amber and have something to say about what happened then; about how to pick texts that challenge these assumptions about fiction; maybe even about how certain kinds of courses and critical approaches lead to the privileging of these assumptions. For now, I’ll just try to remember to pass on these three Things to undergraduates, who sometimes just Need to Be Told.

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Winging It: On Teaching Novels Blind

posted: 1.15.13 by Samuel Cohen

I’m sitting on the train from New York City to Boston, writing my talk for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association which I don’t have to give for a couple of days yet so please don’t judge, and I’m watching the trees and snow fly away from me, backward. I sat down facing the wrong way, but it seems the appropriate orientation for a year-end post.

The past year of teaching, looking back, was a lesson in the value of being unprepared. I say this with some trepidation, for the obvious reasons—as academics, former good students all growed up, we are conditioned to do all our homework and the extra credit—but due to circumstances both beyond and entirely under my control, the last two semesters were My Year of Winging It. In the spring I took a course over from an instructor a few weeks into the semester, inserting myself into a preexisting syllabus and telling the story of American Literature since 1865 that it was designed to tell. So my winging it here was not completely improvised; like the actors hurrying to learn their lines just offstage and receiving prompts from the wings, I had a script, I just didn’t write it.

This past semester I taught a new course on the rock novel (which I’ve already written about here). In the past, I’d occasionally included a novel in a course that I hadn’t read prior to putting it on a syllabus. Once or twice I’d not read it until the semester had already started. This time out, for reasons practical and pedagogical, I hadn’t read most of the books on the syllabus prior to putting together the syllabus, and chose not to read them until teaching them—that is, I taught  the novels blind, reading only the pages assigned to the students and reading them the night before.

Was this a little terrifying? In some cases, it was. Day to day, I couldn’t depend on the big picture, knowing where things were leading and what themes would emerge as major; I was unable to rely on having the whole novel under my belt in choosing where to direct discussion. The downsides to this are obvious. The upsides were not, always, so I got to discover them as I went, and foremost among them was this very process of discovery. Threads of ideas and form emerged for me as I read, at the same time as the class made their own discoveries. A central tactic of my pedagogy has always been (as I suspect it is for many teachers) the creation of an atmosphere for discussion in which discoveries can happen collaboratively, rather than the leading by the nose I too often fall back into (which I occasionally realize I’m doing mid-discussion and end the string of leading questions with “What number am I thinking of?”). Teaching unread novels did this work for me. The “we” in the question “So what did we learn last night?” was genuine.

Reading without knowing the plot—or without knowing the end—was quite instructive for me as, well, an instructor, and helped me see that this is what students are always doing. This seems an obvious point, and maybe it is, but I tend to forget from class to class that I usually have the benefit of hindsight when I teach fiction. Not knowing how things would turn out made me more cognizant of the construction of plot, of the narrative devices employed, and more aware of the existential fact that a plot can turn any way it wants to. We have the sense after we’ve read a narrative that it could only have gone the way it went (this is the moment of retrospection Peter Brooks describes), but as we read a story for the first time, we can only guess.

Another effect of reading without knowing where the plot is going is that it encourages something I value but don’t always practice as much as I’d like, which is close reading. Focusing only on the pages at hand makes it easier to focus on the pages at hand—that is, to pay sustained, slow attention to the words in front of us. As Jane Gallop has discussed so eloquently (here and elsewhere), the historicization of literary studies has tended to lead to a focus on the thematic to the exclusion of the kind of close attention to form that is one of literary studies’ chief joys and benefits. Whether we are arguing for the value of the English major or just the occasional English class from the instrumental side (employers value the skills associated with textual interpretation) or the humanist (citizenship of the world values the attention to ambiguity, irony, beauty, etc., that exposure to the literary affords), we can agree on the value of close reading.

One last effect of effect of Winging It in this way was, in one case, the assigning of a novel that wasn’t very good, one to which I’d been pointed by someone whose literary judgment is unimpeachable (though maybe should receive censure for this one offense). While I won’t be teaching this novel again, there was something positive to doing it. Practicing full disclosure, I had told the class at the beginning of the semester that I hadn’t read most of the books, so as we read this one and discovered that many of us didn’t love it, we were able to talk about our own tastes and what they consisted of and even about taste as a thing in itself and, without bringing in Bourdieu and taste as a social phenomenon, were able to get pretty far into what it means to like or not like artworks.

I’m not much for resolutions, and even if I were, a resolution to work harder to prepare less assiduously wouldn’t be one I would make. I am still one for working up pages of notes about career, context, theme, form, and divergent interpretations. I am hoping, looking back at the year flying away behind me, that I can find ways to remind myself of the value of not knowing the end of the story.

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Who Died and Made You Author?

posted: 9.27.12 by Samuel Cohen

Sometimes literary theory is pretty distant from the practical work of teaching. Think back to that time you brought your panopticon or your phallus (Lacan’s, I mean!) into the classroom, and to the moment in the middle of your excited explanation of the revolutionary ideas delivered to you across the Atlantic and through that one class in grad school when you realized it wasn’t helping  your students understand “A Rose for Emily.” The connections between the work with theory that we do in our training and our research often can seem part of another world than the one in which we teach.

I was reminded the other day—on the occasion of one of those curious confluences of events that happen when you’re doing a lot at once and all of the different things swim together in a river of caffeine—that this is not always the case. I’d just read D. T. Max’s new biography of the late David Foster Wallace, and in an interview I did with him (here) asked him about the revelation that Wallace had voted for Reagan. It seems to have been a surprise to many of his readers, who had come, through their reading of Wallace’s fiction and essays, to see him as squarely on the other end of the ideological spectrum. They thought they had a sense of the man from reading what he wrote, and this bit of news blurred the picture they’d constructed of him.

That same day the interview came out, I had a meeting of my course on the rock novel (fiction about, inspired by, and formally influenced by rock and roll, a course I’m teaching for the first time and not at all because I get to play a lot of loud music in class).  We were reading Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses, a little-known but interesting quasi-sci-fi novel about a man, Ray, who has an obsessive relation to the history of rock music, and many students, despite the course’s own obsessive concern with that history, were finding the main character’s behavior a bit much. Why was Ray driven to such lengths by his obsessions? One answer to this conundrum—which kept some students from identifying with Ray—was supplied by another student who raised the idea that Shiner, in his presentation of Ray, was actually critiquing the character. That is, maybe there was some ironic distance between Ray’s behavior and the author’s opinion about that behavior. With this issue raised, I played The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” a second time, because it’s awesome, and class was over.

One of the pitfalls of reading (and teaching) fiction is the temptation to think we know an author. Readers of Wallace think they know him, especially because some of his work seems intensely personal. Another pitfall is the tendency to conflate the main character in a story or novel with the author, especially in an autobiographical work like Shiner’s. Decades of literary theory have explored the relationship between author and work, arguing alternately that we must ignore the author, that he is dead, that he is a conduit for the knowledge available given the social structure of his time, etc. In fiction, narrative theory, narratology, and theory of the novel have kicked around different responses to the problem, from Wayne Booth’s idea of the implied author to John Brenkman’s rejection of that concept as, well, a fiction, and not a very helpful one. Similarly, theories of narrative and the novel have worked over the relation of character to text, none better than Lukacs, who understood the relation of the modern novel to its writer as one in which the writer divides his subjectivity between a main character who gets the world wrong and a story that refuses to tell us what right is.

We want our stories to hold together—those that we read and those that we construct about the world. Many of the best stories, however, admit a complexity that challenges their coherence. The picture we have of an author can’t really hold a book together, just as the belief that the author completely agrees with the main character—or completely doesn’t—can’t really hold a book together. Things are more complicated than that. One of the gifts of teaching fiction is the chance to help students see how, for all kinds of stories, complicated ≠ bad. One of the ways to help them see this is to bring in the literary theory that has helped us to see it.


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