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Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping

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A groundbreaking resource for fiction writers, teachers, and students, this manifesto and practical guide challenges current models of craft and the writing workshop by showing how they fail marginalized writers, and how cultural expectations inform storytelling. The traditional writing workshop was established with white male writers in mind; what we call craft is infor A groundbreaking resource for fiction writers, teachers, and students, this manifesto and practical guide challenges current models of craft and the writing workshop by showing how they fail marginalized writers, and how cultural expectations inform storytelling. The traditional writing workshop was established with white male writers in mind; what we call craft is informed by their cultural values. In this bold and original examination of elements of writing—including plot, character, conflict, structure, and believability—and aspects of workshop—including the silenced writer and the imagined reader—Matthew Salesses asks questions to invigorate these familiar concepts. He upends Western notions of how a story must progress. How can we rethink craft, and the teaching of it, to better reach writers with diverse backgrounds? How can we invite diverse storytelling traditions into literary spaces? Drawing from examples including One Thousand and One Nights, Curious George, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Asian American classic No-No Boy, Salesses asks us to reimagine craft and the workshop. In the pages of exercises included here, teachers will find suggestions for building syllabi, grading, and introducing new methods to the classroom; students will find revision and editing guidance, as well as a new lens for reading their work. Salesses shows that we need to interrogate the lack of diversity at the core of published fiction: how we teach and write it. After all, as he reminds us, "When we write fiction, we write the world."


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A groundbreaking resource for fiction writers, teachers, and students, this manifesto and practical guide challenges current models of craft and the writing workshop by showing how they fail marginalized writers, and how cultural expectations inform storytelling. The traditional writing workshop was established with white male writers in mind; what we call craft is infor A groundbreaking resource for fiction writers, teachers, and students, this manifesto and practical guide challenges current models of craft and the writing workshop by showing how they fail marginalized writers, and how cultural expectations inform storytelling. The traditional writing workshop was established with white male writers in mind; what we call craft is informed by their cultural values. In this bold and original examination of elements of writing—including plot, character, conflict, structure, and believability—and aspects of workshop—including the silenced writer and the imagined reader—Matthew Salesses asks questions to invigorate these familiar concepts. He upends Western notions of how a story must progress. How can we rethink craft, and the teaching of it, to better reach writers with diverse backgrounds? How can we invite diverse storytelling traditions into literary spaces? Drawing from examples including One Thousand and One Nights, Curious George, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Asian American classic No-No Boy, Salesses asks us to reimagine craft and the workshop. In the pages of exercises included here, teachers will find suggestions for building syllabi, grading, and introducing new methods to the classroom; students will find revision and editing guidance, as well as a new lens for reading their work. Salesses shows that we need to interrogate the lack of diversity at the core of published fiction: how we teach and write it. After all, as he reminds us, "When we write fiction, we write the world."

30 review for Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping

  1. 5 out of 5

    Roxane

    This outstanding, absolutely brilliant book completely upends what we know about craft discourse. It is challenging, for sure. It really forces you to examine how you think about craft and why, but it also offers new ideas about what craft is and how it can better function in the real world, populated by different kinds of people. Loved this book. Will be returning to it many times and will absolutely be including this book in my teaching.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    I was interested in this book as a writer, but think that it will be more impactful for writers who attend workshops. It will also be more applicable to literary fiction writers who are focused on constructing themes over plot/action. I appreciate the ways the book challenges the way we criticize stories based on cultural biases/expectations of what a “good” story should be. I would’ve loved a deeper breakdown on Western storytelling vs other forms of storytelling so that we can better identify I was interested in this book as a writer, but think that it will be more impactful for writers who attend workshops. It will also be more applicable to literary fiction writers who are focused on constructing themes over plot/action. I appreciate the ways the book challenges the way we criticize stories based on cultural biases/expectations of what a “good” story should be. I would’ve loved a deeper breakdown on Western storytelling vs other forms of storytelling so that we can better identify these social constructs. Some other interesting points the author brought up: - How prescribing an identity to a character (like race or sexuality) makes readers project assumptions about how the characters should act - How characters are often viewed as an autonomous being with their own personality outside of the pages VS something created by the circumstances of the story (I’ve always viewed mine as the latter and am glad this is being validated) The second half also has a bunch of exercises that are interesting and will force writers to challenge how they think about their story.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Salesses

    Talking bout a revolution...

  4. 4 out of 5

    Adam Dalva

    Rewired my brain - for reading and for writing, yes- but most of all for teaching. This review, therefore, will have to take on a slightly limited perspective, because as a teacher of creative fiction, I found it immensely useful. Alternate forms of workshops - smart exercises - cohesive arguments about approaches to plot that include other narrative traditions. Shifted my syllabus for the fall: a great gift, and required reading for teachers who work within (and against) the classic Workshop tr Rewired my brain - for reading and for writing, yes- but most of all for teaching. This review, therefore, will have to take on a slightly limited perspective, because as a teacher of creative fiction, I found it immensely useful. Alternate forms of workshops - smart exercises - cohesive arguments about approaches to plot that include other narrative traditions. Shifted my syllabus for the fall: a great gift, and required reading for teachers who work within (and against) the classic Workshop tradition.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ming

    This book significantly struck me by showing me how culturally constituted (and thus culturally relativistic) my tastes and my biases in reading are. For instance, I’ve used the word “plausible” (with a “not” preceding it) to criticize and critique how a story element appeared. This practice is loaded and completely subjective; and I knew that. Same with the few times I described something as not "relatable" or as not liking the character. But, in addition to diminishing the author’s imagination This book significantly struck me by showing me how culturally constituted (and thus culturally relativistic) my tastes and my biases in reading are. For instance, I’ve used the word “plausible” (with a “not” preceding it) to criticize and critique how a story element appeared. This practice is loaded and completely subjective; and I knew that. Same with the few times I described something as not "relatable" or as not liking the character. But, in addition to diminishing the author’s imagination, it potentially (and likely) negates cultural values and practices. And this directly counters the very purpose I have for reading diversely. I read almost exclusively authors of color and international authors (yes, those two are generally different; and at times, they can overlap). But what is the value of doing that if I require a type of story in order to enjoy it? Well, as I wrestle with that, I’m now confronting myself with the mere awareness that I have preferences which are overtly informed by Western precepts—stereotypical ones, tired tropes. What I do with that realization is another thing altogether. Salesses capably and carefully describes Western storytelling and mainly focuses on how fictional writing is taught in college and at the graduate level. And by doing so, I believe, he is questioning and expanding how stories are read (or viewed or ingested). He posits how writing has been universalized and centers white/Western, cis-male, heterosexual, physically-normed, middle-class writers. Ok, this may not be news to many but how it’s done is deft and has become almost unconscious…now equated with proper storytelling and acceptable writing practices. If you’re interested in how mass media is consumed or produced, this is the book to help lift the veil on and uncover some of our “personal tastes.” Salesses takes an even-handed approach: he’s forgiving and supportive. And there is something that I would call a “paradigm shift.” He describes a more inclusive, more aware, and more uplifting way to teach fictional writing. I found this to be rather technical but informative nonetheless. And it very much will inform my reading and my book reviews. Several quotes: What we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations. Make no mistake--writing is power. What this fact should prompt us to ask is: What kind of power is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean? ...What people read and write affects how they act in the world. If writers believe that art is important to actual life, then the responsibilities of actual life are the responsibilities of art. While Western narrative comes from romantic and epic traditions, Chinese narrative comes from a tradition of gossip and street talk. Chinese fiction has always challenged historical record and accepted versions of "reality." Western storytelling developed from a tradition of oral performances meant to recount heroic deeds for an audience of the ruling class. Like Thomas King, author Ming Dong Gu, in his book Chinese Theories of Fiction, describes writing as something more like "transmission" than like "creation." More collective and less individual. Craft is the history of which kind of stories have typically held power—and for whom—so it also is the history of which stories have typically been omitted. That we have certain expectations for what a story is or should include means we also have certain expectations for what a story isn’t or shouldn’t include. Any story relies on negative space, and a tradition relies on the negative space of history. The ability of the reader to fill in white space relies on that reader having seen what could be there. Some readers are asked to stay always, only, in the negative. To wield craft responsibly is to take responsibility for absence. Craft tells us how to see the world. In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” author Zora Neale Hurston identifies characteristics of African American storytelling, such as adornment, double descriptions, angularity and asymmetry, and dialect. All are things often edited out of workshop stories in the name of craft. Hurston identifies them in order to legitimize them. Craft is in the habit of making and maintaining taboos. One of the major issues I have with the way conflict is currently taught is the idea that is should come out of the protagonist and be solved by the protagonist (see the redefinition of plot). My problem is moral. Straight cis able white male fiction has a tendency to present the world as a matter of free will. The problems are caused by the self and can be solved by the development of the self. And somehow both external and internal conflict is like this. A large part of that message is this: How much of the conflict you face is caused by your own actions? How much is on you? This is a question that has every implication for how to read the contexts of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, etc. Conflict presents a worldview, along a spectrum from complete agency to a life dictated completely by circumstances. Some lives are mostly dictated by circumstance, by DNA or place or other individuals or what have you. Such is not the case for everyone sure—that’s the point. Character should be particular and specific and have a particular and specific context. In that context, the question of how much of the conflict you face is a matter of fate or free will has meaningful consequences. Conflict, in context, has meaning. When most readers say they find a character “relatable” then, either (a) they are talking about the choices of the author but about themselves, or (b) they are obscuring the usefulness of a discussion about who the intended audience is and how the author works with that specific audience’s expectations in mind. …To say a work of fiction is unrelatable is to say, “I am not the implied audience, so I refuse to engage with the choices the author has made.” I find that the question of who believes something happened or not comes up a lot in life. It usually has to do with privilege. Again, microaggressions can serve as a useful example. It’s not unusual, in my experience, that to speak about a microaggression to a white audience is to have it or its racism called into question. This happens in workshop as it happens on the internet. I have been in multiple workshops where white students have basically said either No one is that bad or That isn’t so bad. Then there’s the comment that starts with “not all” and ends with embarrassment. I’ve had peers tell me I need to include non-racist white people “for balance.” These are foremost questions of audience, since in workshop believability is usually leveled against events and characteristics that most of the workshop has not experienced or has the privilege to ignore. And the writer can choose not to address such an audience. The point is that believability can be utilized, rather than simply addressed or avoided, if it is redirected away from who is doing the believing of the story toward who is doing the believing within the story. Beliefs sometimes seem like the last things writers give characters, far lower on the list than facial features or fashion sense (yes, this is about expectations). Yet the measure of belief within a story is something an author can actually control and use to say something about the world of the story and even about the world in which we live. …(T)he book world often demands vulnerability disproportionately from writers of color, especially from women of color and LGBTQ+ people of color—as if these writers are expected to put their lived experience on display in order to publish. This demand for personal vulnerability starts with our cultural expectation that people of color should submit themselves for public consumption (consumption that is economic, intellectual, and emotional). In other words: like everything else, vulnerability is a matter of privilege and power and must be considered within a system of privilege and power. …The settings most typically said to be characters are settings that are underrepresented in the dominant fiction tradition. Setting as character is often a veiled way of praising work from or, even more so, about about minority communities, if that work is considered evocative by a white audience. This is because setting is about what is noticed. Now take this inherent decentering of the author (in writing workshops) and enter race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and so forth. For more privileged writers, their decentering in workshop is countered by their centering in the rest of the world. A cis able white male who leaves workshop feeling disempowered usually finds the rest of this American life more than willing to empower him again. Someone less privileged leaves a disempowering workshop and faces the same disempowerment on a larger scale: though they should be in charge of their story, they are again made to listen to other people telling them what their story is or should be. The result is exactly the opposite of finding their voice—the real-world silencing simply reinforces the idea that the marginalized writers should be writing toward the workshop and power. …But we need to think more about how and when to empower authors. And we need to talk more about power’s relationship to audience (as marginalization only increases if it is unacknowledged or unchallenged)…

  6. 5 out of 5

    Possibly in Michigan, London

    This has blown so many of my ideas apart! What might be experimental fiction by a western writer might actually be commonplace in another country/literary tradition, for example. I sort of know this but the book really made me think about the ethics, say, of something being feted for being experimental when there are precedents for it in mainstream East Asian fiction. I skimmed over the teaching bit - I am not a teacher and do not plan to enter into a workshop again lol - but the section where Sa This has blown so many of my ideas apart! What might be experimental fiction by a western writer might actually be commonplace in another country/literary tradition, for example. I sort of know this but the book really made me think about the ethics, say, of something being feted for being experimental when there are precedents for it in mainstream East Asian fiction. I skimmed over the teaching bit - I am not a teacher and do not plan to enter into a workshop again lol - but the section where Salesses breaks down each aspect of craft is five stars alone. His deconstruction of the workshop and returning to centering the writer was really fantastic - for example, posing questions about the work rather than offering your general thoughts on its effectiveness, which is so tied up with unquestioned assumptions about who writes literary fiction and what it should concern. In my sharing of work with other people, I’ve always found questions more helpful than anything else. And thinking back to workshops during my own MA, I definitely think that approach would have been helpful to some people who were going through a weird patch of work or who felt stuck. It would also make it impossible to offer the same critique to every writer, which happens. It’s a good way to make all ideas about writing more provisional - rather than being like ‘this is good writing, do it this way’, asking why someone has done something can help you *and* them.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Samantha

    I finished this a while ago and have been sitting on what to write about it, but if there's one takeaway here, it's that every writing instructor in America should be using and teaching this book in their classes. I stopped reading books on writing years ago, for reasons that have become clearer to me over time. They're almost exclusively written by white writers, many of them men. Men who insist on not just writing every day, but writing for uninterrupted hours and hitting certain word counts if I finished this a while ago and have been sitting on what to write about it, but if there's one takeaway here, it's that every writing instructor in America should be using and teaching this book in their classes. I stopped reading books on writing years ago, for reasons that have become clearer to me over time. They're almost exclusively written by white writers, many of them men. Men who insist on not just writing every day, but writing for uninterrupted hours and hitting certain word counts if you want to be a successful writer. What maybe should have been obvious to me all along was that most of us lacking the privilege these writers have can't sit down and write for eight hours a day, whether because we have day jobs, are parents or caregivers, have the weight of household management on our shoulders, etc. I realized these books weren't written for me per se, but more likely, for dudes with consistent or no jobs who had partners caring for their home and family so they could write worry-free all day. The lack of inclusiveness was a turn-off, to put it mildly. Enter Matthew Salesses and his brilliant book on craft and workshop that has been needed for far too long. I hear a lot of people say this book blew their minds and opened them to new ideas about writing and workshopping. I can't say it did that for me. Rather, it clarified feelings I've had and have been sort of messily articulating since. Craft in the Real World is for both readers and writers. I come to it as both - the reader who has always preferred less linear narratives, the POC writer in a workshop full of white people who's had a story torn to shreds because they don't understand anything outside patriarchal, Hemmingway-esque, traditionally American standards of storytelling. I saw myself in so much of this book and am so grateful to Salesses for making these points so eloquently and accessibly. Recommended to readers and writers. This isn't another book on craft that's going to tell you how to write, but it'll open your mind to ways of storytelling that are just as good as the traditional American (white, male) mold we're taught is the end-all-be-all.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Pollock

    I loved this book! The author is a writing teacher and this book is his philosophy of what a meaningful writing workshop could be for writers who fall outside of the Hemingway demographic (white, straight, male, cis, affluent, able, etc.) He articulates why I have typically found traditional workshopping a less than helpful experience and I want to be part of these new workshop structures! The book seems like its primary audience is writing teachers who lead craft workshops, but it has a broader I loved this book! The author is a writing teacher and this book is his philosophy of what a meaningful writing workshop could be for writers who fall outside of the Hemingway demographic (white, straight, male, cis, affluent, able, etc.) He articulates why I have typically found traditional workshopping a less than helpful experience and I want to be part of these new workshop structures! The book seems like its primary audience is writing teachers who lead craft workshops, but it has a broader appeal for anyone who writes and has questioned the "traditional" writing workshop structure. Salesses explains in clear terms why the "traditional" structure works well for straight, white, cis, affluent, able, male (etc.) writers but often doesn't provide meaningful writing development opportunities for writers who fall outside that narrow "Hemingway"-esque demographic. Really upliftng and validating to read and realize that past workshop experiences which felt unhelpful at best (bullying at worst) might be chalked up to the structure of the workshop itself as being a space not created for me. I received an ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Erin Kelly

    MUST READ for anyone who teaches writing, belongs to a writing group, or is in a writing program. Also incredibly insight for writers in general.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Steve Haruch

    Even if you don't teach writing, or are not a writer yourself, this book deftly unravels the underlying ideologies that prop up "craft" as some kind of natural or inevitable set of practices. Simply put: this book will make you a better and more informed reader. Even if you don't teach writing, or are not a writer yourself, this book deftly unravels the underlying ideologies that prop up "craft" as some kind of natural or inevitable set of practices. Simply put: this book will make you a better and more informed reader.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kris

    MUST read for any writing teachers & any writers participating in a workshop. I also appreciated the workshop/revision exercises included!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Cruikshank

    “The argument that one should know the rules before breaking them is really an argument about who gets to make the rules, whose rules get to be the norms and determine the exceptions.… Writing that follows nondominant cultural standards is often treated as if it is ‘breaking the rules,’ but why one set of rules and not another? What is official always has to do with power.” CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD is written by a Korean–American author and is primarily directed to writers and workshop instructors “The argument that one should know the rules before breaking them is really an argument about who gets to make the rules, whose rules get to be the norms and determine the exceptions.… Writing that follows nondominant cultural standards is often treated as if it is ‘breaking the rules,’ but why one set of rules and not another? What is official always has to do with power.” CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD is written by a Korean–American author and is primarily directed to writers and workshop instructors. I read it as a white American reader with the vaguest inclination toward maybe writing something someday. I expect for writers and readers of color it could validate experiences of forced conformity and gaslighting by the (white) Western literary community; for me, it cracked open my understanding of craft. Rather than plod through a detailed description, I thought I would illustrate how the book can inform the expectations of a reader steeped in white Western notions of craft. There is a fantastic novel by a Black author from a few years ago. (You probably read it.) I loved the book—the author is now a favorite—but I was disappointed by the ending, which relies on a coincidental family reunion to wrap up the plot. I have internalized the idea that a deus ex machina is a neat trope designed to force resolution—though the author had already proven eminently capable of driving the plot without relying on cliches and I have spent years deliberately diversifying my reading life. Salesses writes: “In the tradition of African American fiction … coincidence plots and reunion plots are normal. People of color often need coincidence in order to reunite with their kin.” Those lines forced an immediate confrontation of my biases and my expectations around what constitutes “good” plotting. Does this mean every coincidence is good writing? No. It means I need to analyze the source of my values and continue to develop my understanding of other cultures’ literary conventions and storytelling traditions. In other words, this is a mind-expanding book that I think could benefit anyone who engages with writing as craft.

  13. 5 out of 5

    jiyoon

    fucking brilliant and genuinely groundbreaking — i don’t need to imagine how validating this book will be for writers and readers from marginalized backgrounds, as i felt a lot of that relief and vindication myself. if you read or write, read this!!! especially if you’re white/cis/het/american/“western” and at all interested in decolonizing the way we’re taught to evaluate what makes “good” writing good and valuable.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Carsten

    Excellent - thought provoking for me in particular on the underlying unconscious value-system for reviewing the writing of others and for thinking about your own craft. I'm notionally in the traditional writers' workshop audience he describes - white, cis, abled and middle-class - but I left my birth country (Germany) as a child and have since been a 'third-culture-kid' who now sounds/appears like a local but whose identity is also international/foreign/immigrant. Do I as a writer think of my au Excellent - thought provoking for me in particular on the underlying unconscious value-system for reviewing the writing of others and for thinking about your own craft. I'm notionally in the traditional writers' workshop audience he describes - white, cis, abled and middle-class - but I left my birth country (Germany) as a child and have since been a 'third-culture-kid' who now sounds/appears like a local but whose identity is also international/foreign/immigrant. Do I as a writer think of my audience as international or domestic etc, and perhaps more importantly, when I work with other writers in workshops, are my comments blinkered - either by wanting their books/characters to be more international/identity-fluid or more cis/white/middle class/abled; or blinkered by thinking of the work I am reviewing perhaps too much via the lens of the fiction I like to read and approve of and too little of the lens of the author's objectives? I like Mathew Salesses's idea of asking the author more open questions - of what the author wants most from a workshop (or other feedback format) and of what the author is aiming for / struggling with in their writing. Too often do I hear myself comment on craft in too rigid a way, or hear myself or others utter the (banned by Matthew Salesses) expressions 'I liked it' or '(un)relatable', which come from assuming an audience (ie me and my values) that may not be the author's aim. Have I as a writer sometimes listened too much to the wrong workshop audience? I am sure that I have. The tools at the back of this book will help me rework my drafts to find the stories I want to write. They will also make me a better workshopper and writing partner. The book arrived this week and I finished it [barring the full detail of the end which demands a text in my hand alongside}. I suspect I will open it again next week at the beginning. Well written, insightful and a tool that will make me a better writing/reader.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ari

    I wish something like Craft in the Real World existed when I was struggling in my own MFA program and wrestling with a cultural and academic institution laid carefully by the CIA. Nevertheless, this book validated a number of questionable experiences I had as a creative writing MFA student, but it also went beyond that, moving into pedagogical alternatives for how I can navigate future writing and future workshop settings. I appreciated the careful instruction to set students up for the most eff I wish something like Craft in the Real World existed when I was struggling in my own MFA program and wrestling with a cultural and academic institution laid carefully by the CIA. Nevertheless, this book validated a number of questionable experiences I had as a creative writing MFA student, but it also went beyond that, moving into pedagogical alternatives for how I can navigate future writing and future workshop settings. I appreciated the careful instruction to set students up for the most effective and helpful workshops -- something that none of my professors bothered to do (I particularly liked Salesses' list of banned and unhelpful phrases in the workshop). I think the book also gives tools to help me be a more conscientious reader. The 34 revision exercises in the back look incredible, but it was quite overwhelming to read them all at once. I'm excited to try a few, though.

  16. 4 out of 5

    C.L. Clark

    Echoes some things I've been mulling over in my own teaching (and writing) processes, and brings up some new ones. Can't wait to be back in a class again to try things out. In the meantime, I think this is also great for considering editor/writer relationships and how that process can go. The practical aspects--syllabus, grading options, and writing excercise--are massively valuable. I expect to get a lot of use out of all of it. Echoes some things I've been mulling over in my own teaching (and writing) processes, and brings up some new ones. Can't wait to be back in a class again to try things out. In the meantime, I think this is also great for considering editor/writer relationships and how that process can go. The practical aspects--syllabus, grading options, and writing excercise--are massively valuable. I expect to get a lot of use out of all of it.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Steven Duong

    Heading to my MFA in less than a month having just finished this book on workshopping fiction. I’m hoping to cause problems for others, etcetera.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    Great guide to writing and writing worships. Helpful activities and insight. I think author’s advice is excellent.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    Transformative. A must-read for fiction writers.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alison Donnelly

    Excellent dissection of the Iowa Writer's workshop and why it's not for...most writers. (Unless you’re an old timey white guy.) I write memoir and still found this book incredibly helpful in helping break free of the mindset that there’s ONE way to workshop/write. Yet another reminder that we must all question so-called "gold standard" ANYTHING. This is a treasure trove of many great alternatives to the aforementioned "way things are done." Excellent dissection of the Iowa Writer's workshop and why it's not for...most writers. (Unless you’re an old timey white guy.) I write memoir and still found this book incredibly helpful in helping break free of the mindset that there’s ONE way to workshop/write. Yet another reminder that we must all question so-called "gold standard" ANYTHING. This is a treasure trove of many great alternatives to the aforementioned "way things are done."

  21. 5 out of 5

    Courtney Maum

    Beautiful, thought provoking, important.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Massey

    A must read for anyone who teaches creative writing.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Misha

    "To name or not name a character's race is a matter of craft. To consider a character to be white unless stated otherwise is a matter of craft. Since this is a craft book, let's explore what exactly is at stake for the craft of fiction here. There are three possibilities: 1. If fiction dictates that a writer identify only the race of non-white characters, then craft is a tool used to normalize whiteness. 2. If race is a factor only in stories with characters of color, then craft must be different "To name or not name a character's race is a matter of craft. To consider a character to be white unless stated otherwise is a matter of craft. Since this is a craft book, let's explore what exactly is at stake for the craft of fiction here. There are three possibilities: 1. If fiction dictates that a writer identify only the race of non-white characters, then craft is a tool used to normalize whiteness. 2. If race is a factor only in stories with characters of color, then craft must be different for fiction with characters of color than it is for fiction with white characters. 3. Otherwise, if any mention of race affects a story, then, like setting, race must be a part of any craft discussion." (xiv) "What we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations. ...These expectations are never neutral. They represent the values of the culturally dominant population: in America that means (straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class) white males. When craft is taught unreflexively, within a limited understanding of the canon, it reinforces narrow ideas about whose stories are important and what makes a story beautiful, moving, or good. We need to rethink craft and the teaching of it to better serve writers with increasingly diverse backgrounds, which means diverse ways of telling stories. Like in revision, the fiction writer must break down what she thinks she knows about her craft in order to liberate it." (xv-xvi) "Make no mistake--writing is power. What this fact should prompt us to ask is: What kind of power is it, where does it come from, and what does it mean?" (xviii) "Workshop has created many axioms: 'show, don't tell,' 'write what you know,' 'kill your darlings,' etc. Writers have pushed back against these axioms, but we must also push back against the context that creates them, that nurtures them and passes them on. If not, we simply recreate the same exceptions within the same culturally defined argument we were taught to engage in. Whole other traditions of writing become only rule-breaking, boundary-crossing. Some of us have larger arguments at stake, arguments often about the bounds of the argument themselves, of what is and is not normal, good, beautiful. A workshop should not participate in the binding but in freeing the writer from the culturally regulated boundaries of what it is possible to say and how it is possible to say it." (xxii-xxiii) "Craft works best, then, when a writer and a reader share the same cultural background. If a writer were to use 'ask' in a culture where 'queried' is an invisible term, then 'ask' would draw attention to itself--it would lose its value as invisible." (4) "Do I raise my hand to object or even ask questions? It is possible that my objections will lead to an interesting discussion about what a 'type' is and does. But it is also possible that I will feel mocked or attacked or at least condescended to." (8) "Writers of color in a workshop where the craft values are implicitly white, or LGBT writers in a workshop where the craft values are straight and cis, or women writers in a workshop where the craft values are patriarchal, and so on, are regularly told to 'know the rules before they can break them.' They are rarely told that these rules are more than 'just craft' or 'pure craft,' that rules are always cultural. The spread of craft starts to feel and work like colonization." (10) Excerpts from What is Craft? 25 Thoughts "1. Craft is a set of expectations. 2. Expectations are not universal; they are standardized. ...In her book Immigrant Acts,theorist Lisa Lowe argues that the novel regulates cultural ideas of identity, nationhood, gender, sexuality, race, and history. Lowe suggests that Western psychological realism, especially the bildungsroman/coming-of-age novel, has tended toward stories about the individual reincorporated into society--an outsider finds his place in the world, though not without loss. Other writers and scholars share Lowe's reading. ... Some of these protagonists end up happy and some unhappy, but all end up incorporated into society. A common craft axiom states that by the end of a story, a protagonist must either change or fail to change. These novels fulfill this expectation. In the end, it's not only the characters who find themselves trapped by societal norms. It's the novels." (16-17) "Craft is also about omission. What rules and archetypes standardize are models that are easily generalizable to acceptable cultural preferences. What doesn't fit the model is othered. What is our responsibility to the other?" (18) "Craft is the history of which kind of stories have typically held power--and for whom--so it also is the history of which stories have typically been omitted. That we have certain expectations for what a story is or should include means we also have certain expectations for what a story isn't or shouldn't include. Any story relies on negative space, and a tradition relies on the negative space of history. The ability for a reader to fill in white spaces relies on that reading having seen what could be there. Some readers are asked to stay always, only, in the negative. To wield craft responsibly is to take responsibility for absence." (19) "6. In his book on post-World War II MFA programs, Eric Bennett documents how the Iowa Writer's Workshop, the first place to formalize the education of creative writing, fundraised on claims that it would spread American values of freedom, of creative writing and art in general as 'the last refuge of the individual.' The Workshop popularized the idea of craft as non-idealogical, but its claims should make clear that individualism is itself an ideology. (It shouldn't surprise us that apolitical writing has long been a political stance.) If we can admit by now that history is about who has had the power to write history, we should be able to admit the same of craft. Craft is about who has the power to write stories, what stories are historicized and who historicized them, who gets to write literature and who folklore, whose writing is important and to whom, and in what context. That is the process of standardization. If craft is teachable, it is because standardization is teachable. These standards must be challenged and disempowered. Too often craft is taught only as what has already been taught before." (20-21) "7. In the West, fiction is inseparable from the project of the individual." (21) Chinua Achebe on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (22) "Craft is never neutral. Craft is the cure or injury that can be done in our shared world when it isn't acknowledged that there are different ways that world is felt." (22) "8. Since craft is always about expectations, two questions to ask are: Whose expectations? and Who is free to break them? Audre Lorde again: 'The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.' " (22) "9. Expectations belong to an audience. To use craft is to engage with an audience's bias. Like freedom, craft is always craft for someone. Whose expectations does the writer prioritize?" (23-24) "10. In his book The Art of the Novel,Don Quixote and goes through Franz Kafka. ...Kundera wants to decenter internal causation (character-driven plot) and (re)center external causation (such as an earthquake or fascism or God). He insists that psychological realism is no 'realer' than the bureaucratic world Kafka presents in which individuals have little or no agency and everything is a function of the system. (This is also a claim about how to read history.) Only our expectations of what realism is/should be make us classify one type of fiction (which by definition is not 'real') as realer than another. Any novel, for Kundera, is about a possible way of 'being in the world,' and Kafka's bureaucracy came true in the Czech Republic in a way that individual agency did not. Another advocate of Kafka's brand of 'realism' is the author Julio Cortázar. Cortázar is usually considered a fabulist or magical realist. Yet in a series of lectures collected in Literature Class, he categorizes his own and other 'fantastic' stories as simply more inclusive realities." (24-25) "13. Craft, like the self, is made by culture and reflects culture, and can develop to resist and reshape culture if it sufficiently examined and enough work is done to unmake expectations and replace them with new ones. (As Aristotle did by writing the first craft book.)" (29) "14. To really engage with craft is to engage with how we know each other. Craft is inseparable from identity. Craft does not exist outside of society, outside of culture, outside of power. In the world we live in, and write in, craft must reckon with the implications of our expectations for what stories should be--with, as Lorde says, what our ideas really mean." (30) Chinese literary traditions, seen as formless by Western critics--"Chinese narrative comes from a tradition of gossip and street talk" (30-31) "16. Chinese American author Gish Jen claims in Tiger Writing that her fiction combines Western and Eastern craft. She makes a case for Asian American storytelling that mixes the 'independent' and 'interdependent' self: the individual speaker vs. the collective speaker, internal agency vs. external agency." (31) "17. 'Know your audience' is craft. Language has meaning because it has meaning for someone. Meaning and audience do not exist without one another. ...African fiction is written for Africans--what is easier to understand than that? Not that other people can't read it, but, as Chinweizu et al. tell us, it might take 'time and effort and a sloughing off of their racist superiority complexes and imperialist arrogance' to appreciate it." (32-33) "18. There are many crafts, and one way the teaching of craft fails is to teach craft as if it is one." (34) "20. Adoptee stories also frequently feature coincidence and reunion. Maybe that is why I am drawn to external causation, to alternative traditions, to non-Western story shapes. Like Jen, I grew up with fiction that wasn't written for me. My desire to write was probably a desire to give myself the agency I didn't have in life. To give my desires the power of plot." (35) "21. Craft that pretends it does not exist is the craft of conformity or, worse, complicity." (36) Achebe on Conrad: "Conrad isn't able to see the prejudice in his craft: he shares it and expects his audience to share it. Achebe sees the racism because he can't give over his real beliefs to the beliefs in the text. Conrad never, at any point, considered what an actually anti-racist audience would think about the book. A truly anti-colonialist book would have to decolonize its idea of whom it is for." (45) "For a marginalized writer writing to a normative audience, the writer has to be wary of normative craft. Much of what we learn about craft (about the expectations we are supposed to consider) implies a straight, white, cis, able (etc.) audience. It is easy to forget whom we are writing for if we do not keep it at a conscious consideration, and the default is not universal, but privileged. To name the race only of characters of color, for example, because that is how you've seen books do it before, is to write to a white audience. It is to write toward the expectations of how white people read the world. We might think of it as one small concession, but it has real consequences about whom readers must become to read our fiction. And if we start to mix audiences, it quickly becomes difficult to tell what the theme and purpose are at all. To name race for no characters, for example, might seem a tempting solution, but is it a solution for no one except those who know that not naming race is an active choice against naming color. I've gotten into the habit of naming every character's race, since this seems how race operates when I talk to other people of color. It's a choice about whom my fiction is talking to." (46) "As Kurt Vonnegut says...the Cinderella story makes money. People consume it and reproduce it. This means something. There are all sorts of interesting theoretical reasons for this, and most of them boil down to: the story says that there is hope of becoming powerful in a system by accepting your powerlessness within it." (64) "To say a work of fiction is unrelatable is to say, 'I am not the implied audience, so I refuse to engage with the choices the author has made.'" (75) "If the Workshop is supposed to spread American values without looking like it is spreading American values, what better craft for the job than the craft of hiding meaning behind style?" (101) "There is no universal standard of craft--this can't be emphasized enough--but this in no way means that fiction can be separated into on the one hand Western realism and on the other hand various exceptions to it (genre or foreign or experimental or so on). Instead, we must view other standards as exactly that--not as exceptions but as norms. Diversity, in the parlance of our times, should not be tokenism." (101) "Eventually, the author Nami Mun explained to me that she leads each workshop differently since each story is different." (118-9) "Typically, when fiction writers employ the term 'the reader,' they do so to refer to a generalized reader (not even a specific or even an intended one.) This means that the term rarely makes a distinction between a male reader or a female reader, a white reader or a Black reader, a cis straight reader or an LGBTQ+ reader--and even acts as a shield sometimes for the person talking. To refer to 'the reader' in this way is to flatten audience to a single group of readers who share a single group of cultural expectations. Different readerships are overlooked or othered, the result of which is to make difference an exception. Difference becomes a burden, one that falls upon writers already burdened by their difference in the world." (119) "As craft is a set of expectations, the workshop needs to know which expectations, whose expectations, the author wishes to engage with, if the workshop is to imagine useful possibilities for the story. And if the main benefit of workshop is reading stories in progress/process, then we need to acknowledge and utilize the benefit of hearing about that process. Why do we let this opportunity go when it can be used to better interpret a story? To silence the author is to willingly misinterpret the author. It is to insist that she must write to the workshop." (120) "The real danger is not a single story, it's a single audience." (120)

  24. 4 out of 5

    Deedi Brown (DeediReads)

    All my reviews live at https://deedispeaking.com/reads/. TL;DR REVIEW: Craft in the Real World is really, really excellent. It should be required reading for anyone who writes or reviews fiction. For you if: You are a fiction writer, or you review books regularly (especially if your reviews have a following). FULL REVIEW: “A common complaint about the proliferation of MFA programs is that they breed generic writing. The real danger is not a single style, it's a single audience. It is effectively a All my reviews live at https://deedispeaking.com/reads/. TL;DR REVIEW: Craft in the Real World is really, really excellent. It should be required reading for anyone who writes or reviews fiction. For you if: You are a fiction writer, or you review books regularly (especially if your reviews have a following). FULL REVIEW: “A common complaint about the proliferation of MFA programs is that they breed generic writing. The real danger is not a single style, it's a single audience. It is effectively a kind of colonization to assume that we all write for the same audience or that we should do so if we want our fiction to sell.” First of all, a huge thank-you to Catapult for sending me a complimentary copy of this book. This book should be required reading for writers, yes, but I also think that it should be required reading for people who review books — especially literary fiction, and also especially reviewers who have an audience/platform, like bookstagrammers. What makes characters feel “round” or relatable? What makes a detail feel poignant and effective vs mundane and unnecessary? What makes the shape of a plot feel compelling? We tend to think of the answer to all of these questions as teachable, as a given, as “good craft.” But “good craft” isn’t universal — it’s cultural. And it’s time we remember that as we decide what is good and what is not. In this book, Matthew Salesses takes a concept that seems sort of obvious when you say it out loud — that whether a book is “good” is best judged by the audience it was written for — and picks it apart into its individual implications for the way we think about (and teach) the craft of fiction. He explains, over and over again in slightly different ways that really drive his point home, the danger of catering to what is conventionally considered “good” craft, and the erasure and bias that results when we do. He redefines many pieces of craft — like plot, setting, structure, and pacing — through this new lens and provides suggestions for how to be more conscious of biases as we write and judge fiction. Again, I can’t state enough how important this book feels for book reviewers, not just writers. The only part that may be less relevant if you aren’t a writer is the final section, in which Salesses provides (excellent) syllabus suggestions for teachers and prompts for writers. But it’s still more than worth it for the value and shift in perspective that you’ll get from the rest. Book reviewers exist to amplify the voices and stories that the world needs to hear. We have a responsibility to cast judgments that are as free from unconscious bias as possible so that we are not unwittingly silencing those voices and stories. Here is a tool to help us get better at it. “If I’ve gotten away from how to use setting, it’s because the effects of noticing are profound. What is noticed depends on who does the noticing. Cold weather affects someone not used to cold weather far more than it affects someone who is used to it. A strange man in an otherwise empty parking lot is a different setting for a female protagonist than for a male protagonist. A speed trap is a different setting for a Black protagonist than for a white protagonist. A staircase is a different setting for a protagonist in a wheelchair than for a protagonist who can easily ascend it. Etc. Perhaps one of the reasons a white author might have trouble writing a protagonist of color is that the author is noticing the wrong things. The author is thinking of setting as a character of its own rather than reliant on character.”

  25. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    The lesson of this book is that there is no universal "craft" that can be taught, even though writing teachers say they focus on craft-based instruction all the time. I love Salesses' anti-essentialist stance here. He's provided an illuminating look at how entrenched ideologies have circulated in creative writing classes and workshops, particularly via certain unquestioned verities about the "craft" that actually just cloak assumptions (mostly patriarchal/white) about reality and power. It match The lesson of this book is that there is no universal "craft" that can be taught, even though writing teachers say they focus on craft-based instruction all the time. I love Salesses' anti-essentialist stance here. He's provided an illuminating look at how entrenched ideologies have circulated in creative writing classes and workshops, particularly via certain unquestioned verities about the "craft" that actually just cloak assumptions (mostly patriarchal/white) about reality and power. It matches the rise of anti-racism in contemporary publishing, and therefore is a must-read for today's writers of all stripes and backgrounds. But I think it is important to note that it is NOT just about race/culture clashes -- but about the ways in which atypical creativity can become marginalized and bullied in dangerous ways, and I appreciated the way it included such areas as fantasy genre fiction and how the fantasy author is often "othered" by the literary focus of most MFA programs. YES. My only critique of the book is that it discusses the dogma of the workshop very well -- and is quite savvy about cultural studies -- but Salesses doesn't dig as deeply into the cultural history of creative writing workshops themselves, nor theories of essentialism, as I would have liked to see. (Thus, teachers might want to look into books like "The Elephants Teach" which outline the history of this "genre" of education as well, to see how historically-contingent some of these things about craft are). I LOVED this book, though, and really soaked up the examples of alternative ways of teaching writing through practical lessons in the second half of the book. It's so good I'm adopting it for a graduate course in the Teaching of Writing I'm running, and I'm confident it will lead to some sophisticated conversations and personal reflection for all.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lexi

    this is, hands down, the best book on craft.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sara Habein

    I want to shove this into the hands of every writer and teacher of writing that I know. So much good stuff in here — inventive, smart ways of thinking about both craft and revision methods. I will be using a lot of this in my own work.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lavanya

    Absolutely devoured this brilliant, funny, thrilling book. Mind blown by this new consciousness of craft, as tools that are neither pure nor neutral, but inseparable from who is writing, for whom, and in what cultural context. So much respect for Matthew Salesses!

  29. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    While there are some elements of Matthew Salesses' suggestions for workshop that I already implement in my own writing workshops (having the writer participate in the conversation on their work, no page limits), Salesses' argument about race/sexuality/gender/ableism as elements of craft is an important addition to how we discuss fiction within the workshop environment. And I love the revision exercises at the book's end. While there are some elements of Matthew Salesses' suggestions for workshop that I already implement in my own writing workshops (having the writer participate in the conversation on their work, no page limits), Salesses' argument about race/sexuality/gender/ableism as elements of craft is an important addition to how we discuss fiction within the workshop environment. And I love the revision exercises at the book's end.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Rachael Jordan

    Incredible book. With this plus The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, I've been totally changing the way I'm teaching my introduction to creative writing class this semester. Incredible book. With this plus The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, I've been totally changing the way I'm teaching my introduction to creative writing class this semester.

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