James Phelan has devoted his scholarship to developing a comprehensive understanding of narrative as rhetoric, and his rhetorical poetics is grounded in an understanding of narrative as both a way of knowing and a way of doing. Starting with his famous definition of narrative as "somebody telling somebody else on some occasion and for some purpose(s) that something happened," Phelan has, over the course of 10 authored or co-authored books and more than 175 articles, offered new ways of thinking about style, character, narrative progression, first-person narration (reliable and unreliable) and narrative ethics. This work has also led to insightful accounts of broader issues such as genre, authorial agency, the audiences of narrative and fictionality. He has written about a wide range of authors including Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Ian McEwan, Jhumpa Lahiri and Roz Chast. Phelan’s books include Worlds from Words: A Theory of Language in Fiction (1981); Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative (1989); Narrative as Rhetoric (1996); Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration (2005); Experiencing Fiction; Judgments, Progression and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative (2007); Reading the American Novel, 1920-2010; Somebody Telling Somebody Else (2017); and the autobiographical narrative Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor (1991). He is a co-author of the second edition of The Nature of Narrative (with Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, 2006) and of Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (with David Herman, Peter J. Rabinowitz, Brian Richardson and Robyn Warhol, 2011). He is currently working on fictionality, narrative medicine and lifewriting.
Phelan is also the editor or co-editor of 10 books on subjects ranging from holocaust narrative to teaching narrative theory. Since 1992, Phelan has edited Narrative, the journal of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, recently ranked #1 by Googlescholar in the category of "literature and writing." He is also the co-editor of the book series The Theory and Interpretation of Narrative at the Ohio State University Press.