Reality Beyond Realism: Storytelling for/versus Enlightenment

Reality Beyond Realism: Storytelling for/versus Enlightenment

Steven Koteff 

Four Wednesdays, July 1st – July 22nd, 6-8 PM (Eastern Time Zone)


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion tells us. But what if we just tell ourselves stories because we’re terrified of dying? What if it’s the State telling stories through us, in order that It may live?

Linear time is a delusion, the physicists tell us. So then what do we make of the fact that almost all of our stories obey this delusion? The story of human progress is propaganda, the theorists tell us. But then why do our stories all have beginnings, middles, and ends?

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are fictions, straightjackets, veils that obscure the real, the Buddhists tell us. But then why do so many of us feel that storytelling can be a vehicle for enlightenment? Do we just need better stories, more representative stories, or do we need entirely new kinds of stories, or do we need to abandon stories altogether?

Is fiction, that most human abstraction, a technology of falsehood, or of reality? For confinement, or liberation? If it’s to be the latter, do we have to transform our basic assumptions about how the physics of time, reality, and stories operate? 

In this multi-week seminar, we will examine the work of different writers who have attempted to go beyond linear realism in their quest to tell stories that bring readers closer to (or perhaps further from) something called reality. We will use conversation as a means to collectively dream and theorize about the nature of storytelling and reality, as well as alternative techniques for marrying the two. There will also be occasional writing exercises using the unconventional story strategies we’ve encountered and/or envisioned together. 


Readings will include excerpts and short stories we will read together during sessions and light suggested assignments between weeks. A seminar reader will be sent out prior to the start of the seminar. Likely lineup will include:  

  • Leo Tolstoy… excerpts from War and Peace, “Master and Man,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”
  • Lucy Ellmann… excerpts from Ducks, Newburyport
  • Gertrude Stein…excerpts from The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Word Portraits
  • Arthur Flowers…excerpts from The Hoodoo Book of Flowers
  • Ishmael Reed…excerpts from Mumbo Jumbo
  • Thomas Pynchon…excerpts from Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, The Crying of Lot 49
  • Renata Adler…excerpts from Speedboat, Pitch Dark
  • Gao Xingjian…excerpts from Soul Mountain
  • Franz Kafka…selected aphorisms, “Before the Law,” excerpts from The Castle
  • James Joyce…excerpts from Dubliners, Ulysses
  • Lydia Davis…selected short stories 
  • Joseph Campbell…excerpts from The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Ma Jian…stories from Stick Out Your Tongue
  • George Saunders…excerpts from Lincoln in the Bardo
  • William S. Burroughs…excerpts from Naked Lunch
  • Jorge Luis Borges…various Labyrinths and Ficciones
  • Italo Calvino…excerpts from Invisible Cities
  • Vladimir Nabokov…excerpts from Lolita, Pale Fire
  • David Foster Wallace…excerpts from Oblivion, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
  • William Faulkner…excerpts from As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury
  • Virginia Woolf…excerpts from Mrs Dalloway
  • Thomas Bernhard…excerpts from The Loser, Gargoyles


steve-bioSteven Koteff is a Chicago native and a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University.  He now lives in Philadelphia and writes many kinds of fictions. His essay on the cultural importance of The Simpsons was published in the The Point magazine. He is a member of the Vaudevillains New Year’s Brigade, an anti-racist, anti-capitalist Mummers troupe united in the belief that the right party can be a technology for liberation. 


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Reality Beyond Realism

Replenishing the ruins....


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