Review: May Ngoon Matthew Salesses

Making Craft Conscious

‘Pure craft’ is a lie.

Matthew Salesses’s book Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping takes the often-assumed neutrality of fiction writing techniques – what the rules are, how it is taught – out of an imaginary social and political vacuum, and places power at the centre of how we understand and practice the craft of writing.

‘Make no mistake – writing is power,’ Salesses states. His thesis is that the craft of fiction writing comes out of the ‘real world’, so rather than being ‘neutral’, reflects the values of the culturally dominant population. Questions of style, tone, character, plot and other conventions are actually laden with cultural expectations, but assumed to be universal.

Techniques often taught in Introduction to Fiction classes (I have taken many and can attest to this), such as plotting by cause and effect, relying on characters’ actions to move the plot forward, emphasising conflict, and the golden rule of ‘show don’t tell’ express a particular way of being in the world. Salesses explores how the dominant way of teaching writing today was developed during the post-WWII MFA programs in the U.S, spearheaded by the prestigious Iowa Writers’ 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”’. Creative writing was galvanised as a strategy against Communism, while at the same time popularising ‘an idea of craft as non-ideological, but its claims should make clear that individualism is itself an ideology.’ Although the MFA workshop model has its origins in the US and is without an equivalent in Australia, the idea of craft as neutral and many of the writing techniques it emphasised has had a much broader influence on contemporary literature.

If, like Salesses, we adopt Milan Kundera’s notion that a novel is ‘about a possible way of “being in the world”’, then fiction-writing techniques support, cultivate and construct a certain worldview. They express not only how it feels to be in the world, but also what it means to be in the world. For example, inherent to much writing that centres on psychological realism and character-driven plot are particular notions of the individual, human agency and will – elements which not only have primacy in how we tell stories in the West, but are indicative of how particular ideas of the self have spread across the globe through histories of colonialism, imperialism and globalisation. The craft of writing, then, cannot be separated from the power that produces it. Tools of craft are ideological.

Salesses asks what forms of fiction writing, and hence ways of being in the world, are marginalised in conventional understandings of craft? Conversely, how do different ways of being in the world – that is, not being part of the culturally dominant population – express themselves in a writer’s craft? In Craft in the Real World, Salesses reconsiders elements of fiction writing to problematise their universality. In the process, he redefines various terms– including plot, tone, conflict and character – to open up possibilities for rethinking how these elements can operate in fiction. For example, instead of plot being a causal string of events rising out of characters’ actions, it becomes a character’s acceptance or rejection of consequences; rather than characters’ actions being an instigator of plot, the emphasis is shifted onto a characters’ response to events often beyond their control. Setting becomes redefined as ‘what is noticed,’ because the awareness a character has of their world says something not only about the character but also about the world they (and us) inhabit; it says something about ‘what is worth noticing and who is worth noticing.’ Conflict for Salesses becomes less a matter of what stands in the way of the character’s desire (whether internal or external) and more a choice made by the author in their representation of conflict as being mostly a matter of fate or of free will. This has consequences for meaning, because ‘conflict presents a worldview, along a spectrum from complete agency to a life dictated completely by circumstance,’ and ‘has every implication for how to read the contexts of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, etc.’

He also characterises the traditional writing workshop specifically the MFA model – as a space in which power dynamics favour the white male writer, and elaborates on ways workshopping can be done differently to foster diverse kinds of craft and conventions that stand outside Western literary traditions. In his view, a great deal of anglophone literature that is touted as ‘experimental’ is still part of the white literary tradition, in that it is a response to that specific tradition. Indeed, he writes, ‘the American writer of color who wants to break free of the white literary tradition might unsurprisingly think her only option is experimentalism. To experiment against a white literary tradition, however, is not to free oneself from white tradition but to face the whiteness of the American avant-garde.’ By way of alternative, he points to Chinese theories of fiction that are completely outside of this tradition and indeed anticipate many of the conventions in Western fiction by hundreds of years, or to the four-act structure often found in East Asian stories, commonly known by its name in Japanese kishotenketsu; or Asian American fiction, which ‘has its own tradition and experiments, into which an Asian American writer enters–if she is able to see that tradition as a possibility.’ The book is also full of practical exercises, methods and suggestions for syllabi for teachers that aims to shake up the ways that fiction is traditionally taught.

Just as there is no universal craft, there is no universal audience. When we evaluate writing for its clarity, relatability and believability, Salesses contends, we must ask: for whom? If craft is a set of expectations reflecting particular cultural values, then we must decide whose expectations matter to us (i.e. who is our audience) and then write towards them. Salesses’ intention is to make craft more conscious, by parochialising what is often understood and taught as ‘good writing,’ which he believes is shaped and defined by the culturally dominant. To me, Salesses’ central thesis – the link between power and the craft of writing – is actually so self-evident that I wonder why it isn’t acknowledged more when talking about not only how to write, but also how we teach and evaluate ‘good’ writing. But then again, this is how power works – it renders itself and its workings, invisible.

The relation between craft and how it expresses a particular way of being in the world is apparent in the plot / character dynamic and its relation to the question of human agency and will. Plotting by cause and effect where the character’s action moves the story forward says something fundamental about the human experience: ‘The plots of such books support the idea that human agency is how to make sense of the human experience.’

To drive this point, Salesses quotes Milan Kundera in his discussion of Kafka, who contends that psychological realism was no more realistic than the bureaucratic world Kafka represented in his fiction, where the system trumped individual agency. Similarly, Salesses mentions Julio Cortázar’s use of coincidence or fate as legitimate and believable plot devices, where his fantastical stories that include magic, fate and the warping of time simply meant for Cortázar that he was writing more ‘inclusive realities’, because they emphasised forces that were beyond human agency.

Bureaucratic systems, fate, coincidence and other external elements: for many people in the world the central force in their lives exists outside of their individual will, exists in structures or forces not of their own making. Salesses argues that the adage of cause and effect in fiction is a lie in the real world. Life is more arbitrary, decisions are not made, choices are not available. And although the experience of powerlessness is a theme in a lot of Western literature, agency may not necessarily be the most meaningful or even most important aspect of human experience for many. This is something that perhaps religious people already know – that God or the Gods are just as significant a force in their lives, if not more, as their own will. Salesses’ gloss on Aristotle is revealing in this regard:

Craft is part of the history of Western empire that goes back even to the Ancient Greek and Roman empires, upon which American democratic values are based. We still talk about plot the way Aristotle wrote about it over two thousand years ago, when he argued that plot should be driven by character. When we continue to teach plot this way, we ignore both the many other kinds of plot found in literatures around the world and even the context of Aristotle’s original complaint (he was fed up with the fate/god-driven plots popular with tragedians of his time).

But it is not only with plot that something is being expressed about the human experience – characterisation in fiction, in particular the focus on characters’ psychological interiority that is pervasive in Western literature, reflects the primacy and value we place on the individual. Indeed, Salesses contends that, in the West, fiction is inseparable from the project of the individual. However, ‘individualism does not free one from cultural expectations; it is a cultural expectation.’

What occurs in a work that engages in a cultural expectation other than individualism? In a magazine interview, the late Cambodian-American author Anthony Veasna So located agency outside the individual in his fiction writing. He stated that his interest was not in people, because ‘they’re not that complex – they’re very much created by the institutions and the forces around them.’ Rather than exploring a character’s interiority or uniqueness, So is interested in imagining different pathways that might be possible for characters whose lives have been shaped by outside forces: systems and structures that are often traumatic, but within which ‘liberating’ pathways might be imagined. ‘What I’m saying is you don’t get to just be yourself, whatever that means; you follow a path. This is what saved me. I wasn’t saved by someone empowering me, I was saved by having paths I could follow and imagine.’

So’s turn away from psychological interiority and towards characters as archetypes in his fiction points to a particular understanding of the individual and of freedom. Freedom is no longer a consequence of individual will or actions, as expressed in terms such as ‘empowerment’, but rather is located in structures or ‘paths’ usually built by others who have preceded us. It is a decidedly different definition of what it means to be a free individual and the role of human agency in this freedom.

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.

If the way a story is told tells us how to see the world, indeed tells us how to see the other, what are some of the ways that immigrant and diasporic writers, who straddle multiple cultures, tell us how they see the world through their craft? In a section in his book, Salesses explores Asian-American literature as a case study of a marginalised literary tradition that engages with multiple ways of storytelling and strategies of resistance to state-sanctioned history.

However, craft and writing cannot be separated from the real world of the publishing industry and global politics. Asian-American literature is part of an industry that wields cultural power on the global stage – I’m talking, of course, about the US publishing industry – and there is a lack of awareness in the book of the ways that Asian-American literature occupies a position that is structurally different from other diasporic literature, as well as literature from other countries. The American part of ‘Asian-American’ gives it enormous power.

So, what do challenging ideas about normative craft conventions in anglophone literature mean when a marginalised diaspora culture is attached to one of the world’s most powerful countries, with all the access and opportunities this entails? How does Asian-American literature also wield a certain kind of power in its craft, terms and positions, both literary and political – many of which get adopted by other diaspora – because of its visibility and global platform? Not all migrant experiences are the same; there are also unequal social, economic and political relations within and across the diaspora. These cannot be untangled from the power dynamics of global relations formed by the histories of imperialism and colonisation that continue to shape the present. There are relations of power and privilege among and within the ‘marginalised’ that map onto structures of global capitalism. A broader question might be, what ways are there hierarchies within literature published in the West among the marginalised, not only in terms of access and opportunities, but also in the craft of writing?

Salesses also neglects class. Although he admits that literature is a privileged pursuit – something ‘written by people in the middle class for an audience of people in the middle class’ – the relationship between class and the craft of writing is only given cursory consideration.

This is a glaring omission, since the literary world – its access, who gets to be a writer, what gets written about – is so determined by class. Class is directly linked to the structures and systems that So writes about; to examine class is automatically to move away from a focus on individualism and towards the external structures and institutions that limit human agency. In short, it is part of the ‘real world’.

There are novels that I’ve read recently, books that would be termed ‘literary fiction’ by the PR departments of their publishers, books whose authors are quite big names, whom I admire on the sentence level because the writing is gorgeous or engaging or absorbing. But what I also notice is that the main characters, those who are given a significant amount of space in the book, are always middle-class, often in professions similar to a writer – historians, academics, artists, lawyers etc. If there are any working-class characters, they are frequently used as a plot device or as background furniture. There is no weight to them in the same way that weight is given to other characters, or else they rely on stereotypes (good or bad). Working-class characters are ‘minor’ characters, rendered minor in more ways than one. Surely this too, is a question of craft.

If, according to Salesses’ thesis, craft reflects the dominant culture, then literature, like most arts, reflects middle-class culture. It mirrors the fact that most writers come from this dominant culture. What would a working-class craft of contemporary writing look like? Recent articles by Michele Freeman and Enza Gandolfo reflect on the issue of portrayals of the working class in writing, and the dominance of the middle-class in the Australian publishing industry. Beyond having working-class main characters, I think working class literature might also move away from individualism to using plots and characterisations that recognise the power of external forces and structures, as British working class writers such as Alan Sillitoe and Ann Quin do.

To analyse culture and cultural production outside of class is to miss something significant. It tends toward an essentialism of race, but also flattens our experience of racial and cultural identity, which is at all times mediated by class, just like our experience of class is also mediated by our racial identity. Middle-classness can also be a cultural expectation in literature.

Salesses’ argues that fiction matters in the real world. It has consequences for how we imagine our personhood, our social and political worlds. His concern is that a multiplicity of craft techniques and traditions be recognised in writing workshops and writing courses to reflect the wide spectrum of human experience and different cultural understandings of what it means to be human. Just as writing has come from the world, it also has an impact on the world – and writers have a responsibility in this. I completely agree, but would have liked to see a recognition of how literature is not only deeply embedded in cultural expectations, but also in structures of class inequality and unequal global relations.

Published November 18, 2021
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
May Ngo

May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who currently lives in Prague. She...

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