Great American Short Stories: A Guide for Writers and Readers

Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great instructor I am not a writer and I listen to this course to learn how to read short fiction. The teacher made the subject matter fascinating and I enjoyed every lecture.
Date published: 2020-11-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Course This is how all courses should be like: thorough, passionate, detailed, complete, easy to listen to, joyful and logical. I absolutely loved it. ps-why does The Great Courses insist on giving a nickname when leaving a feedback here? Why can't I use my own name?
Date published: 2020-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'd follow this teacher anywhere; She's that good. Please, please, please, if you can get Ms. Cognard-Black to present another course, do.
Date published: 2020-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EXCELLENT PRESENTATION The professor’s delivery is lucid. She has total command of the subject. I enjoyed her interpretation of the stories.
Date published: 2020-01-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Program Learning a lot about American Short stories. Instructor is easy to listen to and makes it interesting.
Date published: 2020-01-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Expectations and More I ventured into this course by taking a free viewing of the first lecture and becoming engaged in the presentation of the professor and her language style that I found appealing. It also helped as a motivation as I purchased The American Short Story (collection) and the World of the Short Story, a 20th Century Collection, both books for my reading as part of my personal library. I don't read much fiction, a shortcoming I suppose, but short stories can be an awakening of the power and beauty of literature (as the professor suggests) that enriches our understanding of the human condition or experience. (Please don't roll your eyes). I am in for a treat as I read through my books of short stories having an appreciation and knowledge of America's unique short story legacy gained, as I expect and anticipate, from this course. It is fun to be back in a college course with a great engaging professor. Highly recommended. And as an aside, I don't plan to write short stories, but that also is an interesting part of this course. Another aside, she related how Ernest Hemingway met is a bar with other writers and bet them that he could write a short story in six words. He wrote the words and won the bet. Sorry. I won't spoil it for you.
Date published: 2019-12-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great features, well produced Gives new insight into the process of writing a short story.
Date published: 2019-11-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Intellectually engaging with great context Presenter was clear , providing overview of varies periods, asking provocative questions that helped you meet the pieces on their own terms, but also let you apply it to currenttimes. This inspired me to re-read the more classic pieces and try some contemporary short pieces!
Date published: 2019-11-05
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Great American Short Stories: A Guide for Writers and Readers
Course Trailer
“Come In Here”: How Stories Draw Us In
1: “Come In Here”: How Stories Draw Us In

Begin your exploration of American short stories with a look at one of the form’s most important features: the opening sentence. Learn the four P’s (people, place, perspective, and problem) and how they can help build a strong opening to a story. Then listen to multiple examples of first sentences and their various strengths and weaknesses.

33 min
Discovering the American Short Story
2: Discovering the American Short Story

What defines a short story? And what makes American short stories unique? Take a look at some features and definitions that help explain the form and its boundaries, while also learning how the form has changed over time. You’ll also get a partial reading list that will allow you to explore some of the greatest authors of different styles and eras.

34 min
The Storytelling Instinct in America
3: The Storytelling Instinct in America

Storytelling can help us find meaning in chaos, foster empathy, and share lessons and values across generations. Look back into the past and see how oral and print cultures came in contact with each other in the Americas, creating a hybrid form of storytelling that continues into the present day.

32 min
Storytelling and American Mythos
4: Storytelling and American Mythos

After the Revolutionary War, American authors sought to forge their own national literary traditions. Examine the emergence of the short story as a patently American genre, beginning with the “sketches” of writers like Washington Irving. Along the way, you will see how writers have shaped the American mythos—the stories that tell us who we are.

31 min
Sentimental Fiction and Social Reform
5: Sentimental Fiction and Social Reform

Can stories change the way we look at the world? In the mid-19th century, many Americans believed you could use fiction to shape public opinion and morality. Look at the tradition of sentimental fiction and the writers that mastered the tools of emotion and empathy, focusing especially on the ways women contributed to the field.

32 min
The Rise of Realism in American Fiction
6: The Rise of Realism in American Fiction

Realism dominated American short fiction from the end of the Civil War until the outbreak of World War I. See how four decades of social upheaval and the rise of print journalism motivated the rise of the “boys’ club” of realist writers, in opposition to the more feminine-influenced sentimental fiction of earlier decades.

32 min
American Modernists
7: American Modernists

The rise of modernism in the early 20th century was a self-conscious reaction to realism. Reflecting the rapid changes of the time, modernist short stories have an intentionally fragmented, staged feeling that many writers felt made the work more “literary.” Examine the work of modernist writers like William Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Toomer.

33 min
Contemporary American Storytelling
8: Contemporary American Storytelling

Ernest Hemingway remains the single most influential short story writer of the 20th century. Disillusioned by World War I and heavily influenced by the objectivity of journalism, Hemingway changed the American short story—and possibly the American identity. Consider how this one writer revolutionized short fiction and influenced countless other authors.

32 min
Setting or Donnée in American Short Fiction
9: Setting or Donnée in American Short Fiction

Shift from the history of American short fiction to the technical aspects of the form with a look at how writers build verisimilitude into their story worlds. Professor Cognard-Black guides you through several stories with different settings—or, more specifically, données—and shows how the writers convey time and place as well as mood, atmosphere, symbolism, and more.

32 min
The Use of Detail in American Short Fiction
10: The Use of Detail in American Short Fiction

What is the difference between fact and truth, and why does this distinction matter in fiction? Discover how writers use certain details to inform readers about the inner life of the characters and look closely at why the facts in a short story are never random. Works by Toni Morrison, James Thurber, and Lee K. Abbott demonstrate different levels of detail.

34 min
Character: Who You Are in the Dark
11: Character: Who You Are in the Dark

Creating characters that feel true to life means going below the surface and revealing their inner dimensions. Using the FAT principle of fiction (Feelings, Actions, and Thoughts) and looking at three major errors in fiction writing, compare and contrast flat, stock characters with the deeper characters that stick with readers long after the story has ended.

30 min
American Dialogue and Interior Monologue
12: American Dialogue and Interior Monologue

Crafting good dialogue means listening to how real people talk, but also understanding that speech in a story is fundamentally different from the real thing. Using exercises from both real life and fiction, learn how purposeful dialogue can be crafted. Then, look at how internal monologue works and how it serves to reveal character in important ways.

31 min
Standing Apart: The Third Person
13: Standing Apart: The Third Person

See why the point of view of a story is one of the most important choices a writer can make. Different perspectives create different reactions in the reader, and the third person has three distinct variations that allow writers to determine the level of objectivity and distance a story needs to create the best effect. Consider several examples and how they work.

31 min
Standing Close: The First and Second Person
14: Standing Close: The First and Second Person

There is power and there is peril in the first- and second-person perspectives. Both create close relationships with the story and both promote immediacy and empathy. However, they also have dangers that can derail a story if not handled properly. Explore both the first- and second-person perspectives and their effect on readers.

32 min
Plot: What Characters Do Next
15: Plot: What Characters Do Next

Instead of looking at plot as a clearly defined journey from point A to point B, here you will see why plot should be dictated by characters and their choices. Understand how good short stories strike a balance between structure and (seeming) randomness to capture something that feels meaningful and true to life.

30 min
Imagery in American Short Fiction
16: Imagery in American Short Fiction

Vivid imagery is crucial to good storytelling. Professor Cognard-Black takes you through several examples to see how sensory and figurative language can help create an immersive experience. Along the way, you will get useful introductions to tools like personification, allusion, symbolism, metaphor, and other literary devices through writers like Flannery O’Connor.

31 min
Style in Traditional American Short Stories
17: Style in Traditional American Short Stories

Compare and contrast two iconoclastic American writers, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, to see how style encompasses every aspect of an author’s writing, from word choice and sentence length to syntax and punctuation. You’ll also receive a list of writing handbooks that can help you explore style.

32 min
Experimental American Short Stories
18: Experimental American Short Stories

How is writing fiction like making a quilt? Turn your attention to the innovative short fiction that emerged in the turbulent years after World War II to find the answer. Look at the deconstructionist approach to short stories, focusing particularly on metafiction, and then explore the use of voice to create both intimacy and scope simultaneously.

32 min
Genre Short Fiction in America
19: Genre Short Fiction in America

Though genre fiction has a reputation for being frivolous or commercial, it has been an important part of America’s literary tradition since the 19th century. Focusing on the “big three” genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, you will see how genre fiction has grappled with the same issues and concerns as literary fiction, simply through different means.

34 min
Graphic Short Fiction in America
20: Graphic Short Fiction in America

Short stories in the 21st century have broken out of traditional constraints of size and form to include more experimental modes, as you will explore here with graphic short fiction. Discover how visual storytelling works in short fiction and why the images and words must work together in ways that go beyond mere illustration.

33 min
Postmodern Short Fiction in America
21: Postmodern Short Fiction in America

While the postmodern era is hard to define, the features of postmodern fiction are rooted in artifice and hyperawareness. Consider how the “meta-experience” of postmodernism is created by going against the traditional ideas of immersion and author invisibility, and investigate how different authors accomplish this tricky balancing act.

35 min
American Microfictions
22: American Microfictions

While the accepted length of a short story has always been somewhat vague, here you will see what kinds of storytelling feats can be accomplished with a drastically limited word count. Dive into microfictions written by Professor Cognard-Black and her writing students to see how even the briefest pieces can contain entire narrative worlds.

34 min
Short Story Endings
23: Short Story Endings

How can writers create endings that are both authentic to life and satisfying to readers? Reflect on endings from various short stories and see how they have changed over time. Also consider the ways writers create a sense of closure in fiction that never really happens in everyday life, yet feels authentic to human experience.

36 min
A Hundred False Starts
24: A Hundred False Starts

Even the greatest writers experience failure; the key is to fail creatively. Professor Cognard-Black closes the course with a look at the nature of publishing in today’s market, as well as how false starts and unfinished work can be a crucial part of the process of successful, fulfilling writing. As the careers of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others demonstrate, the most important skill a writer—or a reader—can have is perseverance.

34 min
Jennifer Cognard-Black

Each of us has the capacity to write meaningful essays that tap into the heartbeat of humanity.


The Ohio State University


St. Mary’s College of Maryland

About Jennifer Cognard-Black

Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary's College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college. She graduated summa cum laude from Nebraska Wesleyan University with a dual degree in Music and English. She studied under Jane Smiley for her M.A. in Fiction and Essay Writing at Iowa State University and received her Ph.D. in 19th-Century British and American Literature from The Ohio State University. Among her awards for teaching and writing, she was named a Fulbright Scholar to Slovenia, where she taught the American novel and creative writing. She was the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council individual artist award and was twice the recipient of the Faculty Student Life Award, the most prestigious teaching award at St. Mary's, selected by the students themselves. She was awarded Mellon Foundation grants on three separate occasions, and she won a gold medal in the national 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards contest for an anthology she edited. Nebraska Wesleyan University has named her a Distinguished Alumna and an Outstanding Graduate. Professor Cognard-Black's publications are extensive and eclectic, reflecting her intellectual background as both a writer and a literary critic. She is the author of numerous books, has published her essays and short fiction in a number of journals, and she has appeared on NPR.

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