Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Creative writing workshops, which train a significant number of writers and editors today, have long faced similar problems. The workshop model that started at the University of Iowa in 1936 and grew in popularity during the Cold War encouraged a view of fiction as separate from politics, racial or otherwise. Students were taught to produce concrete renderings of individual experience, with greater focus on personal agency than on social or historical circumstances. These principles were referred to as craft, and distilled to what are now considered universal truths: A good story should be driven by character, not plot. It should show, not tell. But, as Matthew Salesses argues in his book “Craft in the Real World,” “what we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations. … These expectations are never neutral.”
Salesses is the author of three novels, as well as essays on adoption, grief and parenting. In this new book, he dismantles a number of assumptions that underpin the teaching of craft in workshops. For example, students are often advised to choose striking details — what John Gardner called “the lifeblood of fiction” — and leave out others that are too familiar. The trouble is that what stands out to, say, a disabled white character will be different from what stands out to a Black trans character, which will in turn be different from what stands out to an undocumented character. Minority students may be told to scrap what is striking to them in favor of what is striking to the dominant perspectives of their workshops, which Salesses points out are overwhelmingly white and cisgender. As a result, the students’ artistic choices may be stifled rather than nurtured.
Well, there goes fiction I guess. It was already on its last legs, tbf.