Wednesday, November 02, 2022

Episode 37: Craft in the Real World

I promised you new content and here it is: The long-awaited return of the Secrets of Story Podcast! James and I reunite to discuss Matthew Salesses’ book Craft in the Real World. I am worried about offending anyone and James is less so!

You can pick up the book here!  Here’s their description:

This national bestseller is a significant contribution to discussions of the art of fiction and a necessary challenge to received views about whose stories are told, how they are told and for whom they are intended (Laila Lalami, The New York Times Book Review).

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.       


Harvey Jerkwater said...

Glad to have you back, my dudes.

The book sounds worth a read and I agree that examining one's preconceptions and unconsious ideas to see how culturally constructed they are is very, very valuable. I also agree with your argument that his drawing of boundaries between writing traditions and cultural backgrounds sounds sloppy. Arguments rooted in vast generalities and abstractions are very hard to make well, and it's easy to slip into "white people talk like this, while black people talk like this" like a hacky '80s standup. If the exceptions to your generalities are too plentiful, it's not good for your credibility.

Regarding Matt's concerns over what Salesses would have to say about Matt's assertion of human nature as A Real Thing, I don't think the concept of "human nature" is itself a contentious one. The question is not is there such a thing, but rather what is it. Human nature contains so many possibilities, but each culture will shape its members to believe some of those possibilities are "natural" while others aren't, and we should understand that. Be the fish who recognizes water.

I'm a little curious what his positive suggestions were, since you tantalized us with "they sound awful" but didn't explain them. A workshop conducted entirely in song? Critiques can only be given in the form of a question (i.e., "Trebekian criticism")? Only verbs can be discussed, with nouns off limits, and feedback can only given through hand puppets? Ooooh, so many potential bad ideas.

For what it's worth, I've been told that "St. Augustine" is pronounced "Saint August-een" if you're talking about the city in Florida and "Saint August-in" if you're talking about the Bishop of Hippo.

Also, I bought and read both The Secrets of Character and Dare to Know, and enjoyed both. Whoever designed the dust jacket for Dare deserves a bonus, because the pattern jumps off the shelf and pokes your eyeballs like a dayglo Moe Howard.

Matt Bird said...

Great to have *you* back, Harvey. You must have been checking every day all these months.

His positive suggestions were things like "Workshop the workshop".

I had no idea the bishop and city were pronounced differently.

Thanks so much for getting The Secrets of Character. I agree that Dare to Know has a great eye-popping cover (but I like my cover too)

James Kennedy said...

It's good to be back!

Harvey, thanks for buying and reading Dare to Know and Secrets of Character. I really appreciate that! (I love that cover too. Real Saul Bass vibes.)

I knew my Catholic upbringing hadn't led me astray about the proper pronunciation of St. Augustine.

On re-listening to this episode, I'm afraid I come across a bit more contentious and cranky than I'd like, especially towards the end when talking about MFA programs. I don't know why I have such a chip on my shoulder about them! Anyway, I recognize that it's not a good look, and I wish I had made those points a little more gracefully and with less rancor.

We should have gone into Salesses' positive suggestions, yes. But the episode was already running long, and I felt I had already been critical enough about the book. Like I said in the episode, I agree with most of the book. It's necessary and overdue. I think anyone who likes our podcast would definitely like Craft in the Real World.

McL said...

Glad to have you guys back! Interesting episode.

For those interested in the Japanese 4-act structure, this is a good play to start