Online Lecture on Pandemic Storytelling: Ansgar and Vera Nünning and James Phelan

Thursday, May 06, 2021, 7:00pm


Ansgar Nünning (Justus-Liebig-University Gießen)/ Vera Nünning (University of Heidelberg): Competing Crisis-Narratives of the Coronavirus-Pandemic: Disciplinary Constraints, Literary Affordances, Critique of Forms of Life, and Contemporary Crises


James Phelan (Ohio State University): Donald J. Trump’s Storytelling, May 12—June 7, 2020; or, Can His Saying Make Things So?

Jim Phelan Copyright: Ohio State University


This talk examines U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s storytelling over 27 days in spring 2020 in order to explore the ways in which his performances threatened to destroy the genre of nonfiction political narrative in the United States. The analysis of these 27 days is framed by a Preface, written from the perspective of January 2021 after the attack on the U.S. Capitol by those who believed Trump’s Big Lie that he won the 2020 presidential election—an attack indicating that Trump had almost succeeded in destroying the genre.

By the spring of 2020, Trump had all but eroded that genre’s foundations in referentiality, and his Republican supporters in Congress, in right-wing media, and in the electorate had allowed him to operate on the principle that “my saying makes things so.” The events of the spring of 2020, however, especially those accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, provided the greatest resistance to that principle, because the virus was an extratextual reality that was indifferent to Trump’s rhetoric. The talk is itself an unfolding narrative, as it traces Trump’s storytelling about the pandemic, voting by mail, Barack Obama, and, toward the end of the period, about George Floyd’s murder and the protests that followed. This thick description of Trump’s performances does not end with a definitive judgment about the fate of the genre of nonfiction political narrative, but instead offers insights into the nature and relentlessness of Trump’s attack on that genre that in turn shed light on his Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election.

Recommended Reading:

James Phelan • Assessing Nonfictional Narratives in Contest: The Rhetoric of Devin Nunes | Instrumental Narratives (


James Phelan, Distinguished University Professor of English at Ohio State University, teaches and writes about narrative theory, the medical humanities, the English and American novel, especially from modernism to the present, and nonfiction narrative. His research has been devoted to thinking through what it means to conceive of narrative as rhetoric, even as his individual books have focused on specific aspects of that conception. He has written about style in Worlds from Words(1981); about character and narrative progression in Reading People, Reading Plots (1988), about a rhetorical approach to a range of narrative techniques and their consequences in Narrative as Rhetoric (1996); about character narration in Living to Tell about It (2005); about judgments and narrative progression (again) in Experiencing Fiction (2007); about literary history and ten American novels in Reading the Twentieth-Century American Novel (2013); about the larger project of rhetorical poetics in Somebody Telling Somebody Else (2017), and about his concepts of mimetic, thematic, and synthetic components of narrative in a dialogue book with Matthew Clark, Debating Rhetorical Narratology (2020).

Since 1992, Phelan has been the editor of Narrative, the journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, recently ranked #1 in the category of “Literature and Writing” by googlescholar. Phelan co-edits, along with Katra Byram and Faye Halpern, the Ohio State University Press book series, The Theory and Interpretation of Narrative.

In 2013, Phelan was awarded an honorary degree from Aarhus University. In 2016, he was elected a member of the Norwegian Academy Science and Letters. In 2021 he was named the winner of the Wayne C. Booth Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for the Study of Narrative.