A man at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting tells a story woven from clichés, every beat and twist as familiar as the refrain of a popular song.
A follower of Francis of Assisi tells the story of the night Francis ordered Friar Leo to tell him that his sins were so grave that he deserved “the deepest hell.” The baffled but obedient Leo opened his mouth to proclaim his beloved Francis accursed, but God filled his mouth instead with praise for the good works the Lord would do through Francis, who would surely attain paradise.
A classic Chinese author tells a story through a series of melodramatic episodes adorned with digressions and repetitions. The episodes are linked not causally, but by themes and associations.
None of these stories were intended for the audience of a contemporary American writing workshop: the place where students in MFA programs learn what it means to write well. Matthew Salesses’s recent book, Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, argues that most writing workshops would label work modeled on these examples as “bad writing.” Salesses’s foremost concern is the way that the behavioral and artistic norms of writing workshops suppress or distort the voices of writers of color, but his deeper purpose is to suggest that the question “What makes a story ‘good writing’?” can’t be answered until you know who the story is for.
Salesses is himself both a product of the fiction-industrial complex and embedded deep within it. He has a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing, and an MFA in Fiction; he teaches creative writing in the MFA/PhD program at Oklahoma State University. And Craft bears the hallmarks of good teaching: it’s curious and exploratory, it makes sure to explain things from several different angles, it understands itself simultaneously as an intellectual endeavor and as a professional act of service. Like the Asian literary traditions Salesses often cites as a counterpoint to Western models, Craft is multivocal and episodic. Salesses even offers “Four Things to Grade,” because he knows that writing teachers who make dramatic changes in their approach to workshopping fiction will still need to present certain products to their employers at the end of each term.
He opens with the fairly intuitive argument that “‘Pure Craft’ Is a Lie.” Different audiences create their own cultures of good and bad craft, and if a writing workshop doesn’t know the tradition in which an author is working or the audience to whom she intends to speak, their ability to improve or even understand her craft will be sharply limited. Workshop culture often requires the author to stay silent while everybody else critiques the story (or parades their own intelligence), making it harder for authors to explore aspects of their stories that their peers don’t immediately grasp. Members of minority literary cultures find themselves translating, warping, or discarding the stories that make sense to them in favor of a whole new set of values and expectations. Meanwhile, the majority are writing for an audience much like themselves, which is defined as the normative audience: Salesses is scathing on the practice in which workshop participants attribute their personal judgments and preferences to “the reader,” as if there’s only one kind. A writer working within a literary tradition that is dramatically underrepresented in workshops, whether that tradition is Chinese literature or genre fantasy, will find herself criticized in terms designed to make her work more intelligible and familiar…to majority-culture fiction workshoppers.
This is an acute alternative to the standard complaints about the rise of “program fiction.” Mark McGurl’s ambivalent 2009 The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing argues, “The rise of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in postwar American literary history.” As more and more of the authors we know come from these Play-Doh Fun Factories, everybody tries to define what makes “program fiction” recognizable. But these laments usually overstate their case, whether they focus on broad characteristics (“program fiction” experiments with point of view; programs turn writers into joyless darling-murderers), psychological damage (programs breed narcissists and trauma-mongers), or prose tics (my own least favorite is the weird adjectives hitched together by a series of “and”s: “Her smile was thin and raw and ritualistic”). Salesses cuts deeper because he’s assessing the process and its norms, rather than generalizing about the products.