Traditional Publishing

The New, Weirdly Racist Guide to Writing Fiction – Tuesday February 28, 2023

Since its 2021 publication, Craft in the Real World has attained immense popularity in the tiny world of graduate creative writing programs. On Twitter, other writers of color gushed about this book to me, saying it “opens your brain” and “decolonizes storytelling.” Its author, Matthew Salesses, was a professor at Oklahoma State when the book was published, but has since taken up a teaching position in one of America’s most prestigious training grounds for fiction professionals, Columbia University’s MFA program in creative writing. Salesses has also become a magnet for controversy: One of his Columbia Aniversity syllabi went viral several weeks ago (to both criticism and applause) because it requires graduate students in his workshop to name the gender and race of their characters upon “first introduction.”

But what does it mean to decolonize storytelling? In practice, a new strain of unease has crept into the discourse within writing workshops. This unease primarily manifests in a verbal tic: A student will give a reading of the story under discussion, and then immediately negate their own critique. For instance, they might say the pacing is too slow, then say: “But I dunno, maybe nothing really needs to happen in a story.” If they say the writing isn’t descriptive, they add: “But some cultures really prioritize telling over showing.” If they think the characters are flat, or even stereotypical, they might state this opinion, then perseverate: “Some audiences prefer their characters to be types, though.”

Seen in one light, this is a positive development. Students are taking into account the author’s intentions and reading the story’s purported flaws in the most generous light. They’re also making at least a gesture at interrogating received wisdom.

But the natural next question is, “What stories do you like where nothing happens? What good stories are mostly told in summary? What are some ways for a flat character to be appealing?”

To these questions, you’ll normally receive embarrassed silence. They have no idea. If asked to name an authority for their opinions, these students will often point to Craft in the Real World, which claims that Western notions of craft—the West’s ideas about what makes for a good story—are often inapplicable to nonwhite writers and people writing from non-Western traditions. For instance, Salesses’ book insists repeatedly that a writer who hews to Western notions of craft will likely consider Chinese stories to be boring or think that African characters are flat. As Salesses repeatedly says, some stories simply aren’t meant for white people.

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