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The New, Weirdly Racist Guide to Writing Fiction

The book taking MFA programs by storm preaches ‘separate but equal’ by another name

Naomi Kanakia
February 28, 2023
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
‘If it was true that Western literary craft simply didn’t apply to work from other cultures, then the obvious solution would be segregation’GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images
‘If it was true that Western literary craft simply didn’t apply to work from other cultures, then the obvious solution would be segregation’GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

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 University 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.

Most of his generalizations concern people from Asia (Salesses is of Korean descent): Chinese people write stories that center cooperation, not conflict; they write stories that are fantastic and aren’t meant to be psychologically realistic; they write stories that, to a Westerner, would seem dull.

What makes the idea so compelling, I think, is that it both flatters PoC writers—our work isn’t bad, and it isn’t failing to meet its mark, it’s simply “in a different tradition” from white writers. At the same time, it emancipates white workshop participants from needing to do any further work. They are allowed to dislike stories by PoC, because they’re not meant to like those stories. (As an aside, I’ll note here that I am Indian American, since it inevitably becomes an issue in the reaction to an essay like this.)

Graduate writing programs aren’t large, but millions of kids take writing workshops at the undergrad level, and almost all those programs are taught by MFA graduates. Our universities, newspapers, and magazines are also filled with MFA graduates, and many of the most-discussed novels and memoirs (at least in mainstream literary culture) are written by MFA graduates. And, to me, it’s disturbing that these graduates are increasingly being taught that people from other cultures are simply inscrutable and alien.

And if that was true, if people in other cultures really did tell stories so radically different from our own that we are, by virtue of our ethnicity, simply unable to appreciate them, then that would indeed have troubling implications for a liberal society. For one thing, it means that being hostile to stories from other cultures wouldn’t be racist, it would merely be good taste. If I were to instinctively flip past Black people on television or Korean books on the shelves, I’d be perfectly justified, because, after all, those books aren’t for me.

The only problem is that Salesses’ notions fly in the face of both common sense and my own experience. Different cultures tell and conceptualize their stories differently, yes, but if you listen to an Indian legend or read The Tale of Genji¸ they certainly do not come off as unreadably alien. We live in a world where a Korean movie won the Oscar for best picture and every kid you know is playing Japanese video games, so how can this book get away with making such broad generalizations about other cultures? What, in fact, underlies these analyses?

In Salesses’ telling, disagreements or misunderstandings in workshop most often occur because the default point of view is that of the white person and the white reader (most workshops, like our nation, are at least half white). But some writers, he says, aren’t white and aren’t writing for white readers. Moreover, he says when a nonwhite writer produces work intended for nonwhite readers, he or she or they might be using entirely different expectations about what constitutes a good story. He says:

Expectations are shaped by workshop, by reading, by awards and gatekeepers, by biases about whose stories matter and how they should be told. […] [T]hose expectations are never neutral. They represent the values of the culturally dominant population: in America that means (straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class) white males.

What he is saying, in other words, is that whatever you learn in a writing workshop about what constitutes a good story is culture-bound. That these ideas are the values of the culturally dominant population. And that if another population was culturally dominant, these values could be entirely different.

In Craft in the Real World. Salesses claims that the rules of Western fiction are unhelpful (and perhaps even detrimental) to people writing in other traditions. He explicitly rejects the argument that a writer working in another tradition might learn something if the standards of the dominant, white-centered tradition are applied to their work. He states, “Writing that follows nondominant cultural standards is often treated as if it is ‘breaking the rules.’ But why one set of rules and not another? What is official always has to do with power.” For instance, Salesses often says, throughout the book, that stories don’t need to have tension: In writing about traditional Chinese fiction, he flatly states that “conflict is not necessary.”

The most common piece of received wisdom from Craft in the Real World, and the part that, to me, rang the most false, is the dictum that Eastern fiction doesn’t center conflict. This idea has become extremely prevalent in recent years, but whenever I try to chase down its provenance, I’m led into a warren of popular blog posts and books that often cross-reference each other (it seems to have had its origin in a burst of scholarly research into Japanese culture by English professors in the mid 20th century). But, at least for Salesses, this idea has become a touchstone: In a viral tweet last year, he criticized his daughter’s elementary school for telling kids that stories need conflict: “My daughter is writing a story about a farm for school, but she isn’t allowed to write just any story—the story has to have conflict if she wants a good grade. Tell me: are we teaching our kids to make stories or are we teaching our kids to make conflict?”

I was very interested in this notion that traditional Chinese fiction requires no conflict because I’ve read three of the four foundational Chinese novels: Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin, and Cáo Xuěqín’s Dream of the Red Chamber, and none of them is conflict-free. Two are literally about war and fighting, and Dream of the Red Chamber is about the collapse of a noble family. Its main storyline—a doomed romance between the hero, Baoyu, and the sickly cousin, Daiyu—is a mystic drama wherein their spirits are fated to cause each other pain.

Salesses doesn’t engage with any of these books. He doesn’t even mention them. Instead, he repeatedly says that East Asian literature in particular will read as “vulgar” or “flat” to the Western reader. Salesses makes assertions about how work from a certain culture will read to people from a different culture. And those assertions could be true, but he certainly doesn’t prove them.

The thing that stands out most about Craft in the Real World is how little it actually discusses works of fiction. Most books about craft are full of the names of short stories and novels. My favorite, Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing, has strong opinions about Henry James and Ursula K. Le Guin and scores of other writers. Almost every page of Stephen King’s On Writing uses examples drawn from the novels of Steinbeck or Chandler or Dickens or some other favorite writer.

The first mention of an actual work of fiction in Salesses’ book occurs on page 51, when he discusses three Japanese authors who, he says, embrace the pathetic fallacy—their world reflects the emotions of their characters. Except, on the previous page he mentions that the pathetic fallacy is a predominant mode in Western literature (albeit one “coming under question”). His next mention of a specific work of fiction is Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea, a novel written by a white American woman, which he calls out for racist choices. On page 97, he discusses several short stories by American writers who are embedded in the academic system: Jhumpa Lahiri and Manuel Gonzales. Later in the book, he writes briefly about No-No Boy, a powerful Asian American novel that was also written in English by a native-born American (of Japanese descent), John Okada. And aside from glancing mentions of other Asian American writers, that’s largely it. He never mentions reading a single novel or short story that significantly departs from Western notions of craft.

In fact, in the bibliography of 24 “works of fiction referenced” that he helpfully includes at the end of the book (the number is not impressively large), only four (including Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights) weren’t originally written in English, and more than half of the authors are white. Of the nonwhite authors, almost all are American. The only one of the 24 works to take place in Africa is the Curious George movie.

So, if Salesses doesn’t discuss actual works of fiction, then what fills the pages of his book? The most energetic part is the second chapter, “What Is Craft? Twenty-Five Thoughts,” which attempts to pull together his ideas into a sort of manifesto. This essay, like most of the book, is composed of quotes from and discussion of other books about writing pedagogy. Examples include “Chinese American author Gish Jen […] makes the case for an Asian American story-telling that mixes an ‘independent’ and ‘interdependent’ self” and “author Ming Du, in his book Chinese Theories of Fiction, describes writing as something more like ‘transmission’ than like ‘creation.’ More collective and less individual.” (Du’s book, by the way, is the source of almost all of Salesses’ thoughts on Chinese fiction.)

Salesses’ rhetorical technique consists almost entirely of argument from authority. He quotes other literary critics who make an assertion about a national literature, then he follows that up with a maxim that expands this idea (as in the above “more collective and less individual”). After a quote about how Chinese fiction values digressions, Salesses then writes, “What is considered ‘good writing’ is largely a matter of who is reading it.”

Salesses signposts early on that he isn’t going to provide many specifics, saying: “This book does not present a representative range of perspectives, cultures, and narrative techniques, nor does it mean to.” Then he goes on to say that his examples will be from Asian American literature, because that is what he knows. However, even his extremely brief and glancing mentions of actual books almost never support his ideas. Almost all the books he references are mentioned as examples of Western craft, rather than alternatives to it.

Indeed, it is tempting to interrogate his reading of No-No Boy precisely because it is so singular. The book is about a Japanese American who refuses to serve in the U.S. military during WWII, is then shunned both by white Americans and by many of his own people, and wanders around Seattle in a rage. Salesses says, “Like traditional Chinese fiction, the work has been criticized for its ‘flat’ characters and for its mix of more formal language with the vernacular.” The book is fantastic, and its recent republication as a Penguin Classic is well-merited. But, to me, it’s much more clearly influenced by protest novels, in particular Richard Wright’s Native Son, which also is frequently criticized for its purported flatness, and works like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, where characters are used as archetypes.

Given that the author was born and lived in America at a time when these books were popular, and that he spoke, wrote in, and was educated in English, it’s at least as likely he was influenced by Western as by Eastern literature. Moreover, early-20th-century Japanese literature—Okada was Japanese so it’s unclear why he would be more influenced by traditional Chinese literature than by contemporary Japanese literature—was also heavily influenced by the West.

Many of Salesses’ other assertions also ring false or are unsupported by evidence within the text. For instance, he quotes another book that says, “African literature is unfairly criticized by Western critics as lacking round characters.” Does he agree that the characters in African fiction are flat? What books, specifically, are we talking about? This certainly doesn’t describe the African books I’ve read, such as Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a thriller about a woman who can’t help enabling her murderous sister.

In reality, Nigerian novels in particular are having a moment, with multiple Nigerian novelists achieving mass readerships in the United States (aside from Braithwate, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ayobami Adebayo also come to mind). But no novels or stories by African writers are ever named. If all you knew about African fiction came from this book, you’d think all African characters were flat. But there is no evidence that this is actually true. And Salesses includes no novels by Africans in his bibliography.

Salesses repeatedly says that Eastern stories don’t center conflict. But the most famous early Japanese novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, is largely about seduction and rape. Genji is a prototypical Romantic hero, often called “shining Genji.” The most famous early Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is a stirring chronicle of war about the collapse and reunification of China during the Three Kingdoms period, featuring a band of three best friends who become larger-than-life heroes.

I am absolutely willing to believe that Eastern novels are more likely to center cooperation, but Salesses’ only example is a hypothetical story involving a man finding a dog. Meanwhile, one can bring up numerous Western cultural products that don’t involve conflict. Minecraft or The Sims, for instance, the world’s most successful video games, are both relatively free of conflict and were developed in the West. There’s a long tradition of French experimental literature that seeks to eschew conflict, and yet in Salesses’ book we see nothing of Sarraute or Alain Robbe-Grillet or Michel Butor. Indeed, a common knock on all of modern Western literary fiction is that “nothing happens” in it. Is there much conflict in the novels and memoirs of Rachel Cusk?

Meanwhile, the most famous Chinese novel from the 18th century, Dream of the Red Chamber, has a clear protagonist—the spoiled heir to a family fortune—and a clear (if episodic) plotline involving the family’s fall from grace. If anything, it closely resembles, in form, content, and theme, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Other Chinese novels are intensely individualistic, like the 14th-century Water Margin (most famous in the West as the inspiration for the Suikoden video game series), about a group of bandits getting together and conspiring to overthrow the government. Now if you’ve only read Salesses, you would assume that China could never have a Robin Hood tale—their culture is just too collective. But that’s not true. Water Margin is one of the cornerstones of their literature.

Again, what Salesses says could be true, but he provides no evidence that it is. He merely gives quotes taken out of context from other critics, most of whom are writing from an academic rather than from a craft perspective. Writers are in a very different position from literary theorists: We look at stories in order to glean practical knowledge about how they are constructed and how they affect their readers.

When I chased down the main source for some of the claims on Chinese fiction, Ming Dong Gu’s Chinese Theories of Fiction, I soon realized that many of these assertions about Chinese fiction were much more qualified and nuanced in their original form. The purpose of Ming Dong Gu’s book is to study the standards by which Chinese authors composed and critiqued fiction—to study their narrative theory, in other words, which obviously developed more or less without reference to Western narrative theory. At its core, it’s an attempt to view Chinese fiction by its own terms, as Chinese critics would’ve viewed it before being influenced by Western narrative theories. It is an academic work, not a manual for writers.

Nothing in Chinese Theories of Fiction can support the rather sweeping claims made by Salesses. Ming Dong Gu is careful to note, indeed, that, as a practical matter, “Nowadays it is virtually impossible to distinguish Chinese and Western fictional works without the difference in language media.” Chinese fiction is so influenced by Western fiction that many of the differences between classical Chinese and classic Western novels have disappeared.

I think the argument in Gu’s book overstates the differences between the two traditions. He sees “mimesis” (replication of real life) as being the primary purpose of Western fiction, while almost all Chinese fiction is partially fantastic. Yet many early Western novels aren’t “realist” as we’d understand them (e.g., The Alexander Romance, Gargantua and Pantagruel, the prose romances in Le Morte d’Arthur). However, Gu is making a coherent and nuanced argument that he supports with evidence. Salesses in contrast neither acknowledges these nuances nor anticipates any of the reader’s potential objections.

I don’t know the solution to the problem of racism in American society or American letters, but I don’t think Salesses knows it either.

It is certainly possible that craft is not neutral or universal. And it is certainly possible that stories in other places work completely differently and that, by applying our standards to them, we might ruin them. We know that cultural differences exist, so it wouldn’t be surprising if different cultures liked different things in their literary arts. And we have all had the experience of seeing some other culture’s art and thinking, wow, this is really not for me, so in some ways it is intuitively obvious that cultures would differ significantly in their sense of craft. (Again, in my view, craft is simply our collected wisdom about what makes for a good story.)

But believing these assertions also requires ignoring a substantial amount of evidence that goes in the other direction. After all, if craft really was culturally incommensurate, we would expect, for instance, that big blockbuster tentpole movies—films composed primarily for a mass audience of white people, totally untutored in other notions of craft—would have no audience in the East. Yet this is demonstrably false. Despite government restrictions on the number of foreign films that can be screened in China, 15 of the top 50 all-time box-office hits in that country were made in the United States.

Conversely, if these ideas were true, we would expect that white American kids would be totally unable to enjoy Eastern forms of narrative art: They would have no interest in anime, manga, K-dramas, or Japanese video games. Yet while Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy and Dragon Ball Z, all extremely popular in Japan, were not built with an American audience in mind, an 11-year-old American white kid can easily understand them. One recent study found that 25% of Gen Z and 42% of millennials claim to be anime fans.

Moreover, there is another narrative that is possible. Perhaps craft advice is grounded in some genuine, albeit incomplete, truth about how human beings experience stories. After all, storytelling came first, and the craft came later. In that case, although people in other cultures might conceptualize and describe their storytelling differently, they would still see something recognizable in Western notions of craft, and we would see something recognizable in how they construct their stories as well.

Salesses doesn’t propose that instructors and workshop leaders move forward sensitively, read widely, and attempt to do their best. Indeed, nothing in his book promotes a deeper engagement with other national literatures. He simply says, in essence, that other literatures are different. And he doesn’t ask white writers to learn about and internalize those differences. In fact, he says that “the lesson of this book is not that any writer should be able to use any cultural expectation no matter her identity position.” In other words, if you are white, you must write stories using Western notions of craft. To do otherwise is to commit cultural appropriation.

The middle third of the book contains Salesses’ substantive proposals to reform the MFA workshop, and they involve just one thing: allowing the author to talk more during workshop, so they can explain the cultural background that informs their writing.

Salesses has presumably been engaging in this method for several years, and ought to have a fund of knowledge about how non-Western narratives work, but where this book tries to give actual positive creative writing advice, its almost always the same “Eurocentric” advice any MFA instructor would give. For instance, after all his opining about conflict or its absence in certain storytelling traditions, his syllabus has the following advice for students when they critique each other’s stories. He tells them to consider “Conflict: What is standing in the way of characters getting what they want? Does this conflict escalate/complicate as the story progresses? […] If there is no conflict, what does the work of conflict in the story? What changes how things are desired or how those desires are understood?”

In other words, after spending most of the book arguing that stories don’t necessarily need conflict, that this is an ethnocentric idea, the only practical advice on the subject Salesses offers boils down to: If a plot has no conflict, consider how the character’s desires change over the course of the story. Just a single line to answer the main question raised by his book! Indeed, it’s striking that Salesses has no specifics, anywhere in the book, from the hundreds or thousands of student stories Salesses must’ve run through his new workshop formats. Perhaps it’s because, in practice, the new formats reveal the same sort of problems and prescriptions as the old ones did.

Writers love to talk about how fiction can increase our empathy for others (a dubious proposition), but by making it acceptable in classrooms to caricature entire national literatures, they are actually reducing that empathy, and they are training a generation of culture professionals to be instinctively afraid of any fiction from outside their own culture.

On a personal note, in this essay I’ve repeatedly talked about classic Chinese fiction. Of course, I’m not an 18th-century Manchu noble, so I’m not in the target audience for Dream of the Red Chamber, but I am a trans woman, and I deeply loved this story of a gentle boy who’s only comfortable around the women of his extended household. However, according to Salesses, the characters in classic Chinese fiction are flat, so perhaps I’m not meant to see myself in Baoyu, to think about how, when I was a boy performing in plays at an all-girls school, I used to wish so deeply, without having the words to express my desire, that I could stay at that school as a student. But in this book that is ostensibly about writing and critiquing work from a “non-dominant” position, I’ve learned nothing about the thrills of reading a work like Dream of the Red Chamber.

I don’t know the solution to the problem of racism in American society or American letters, but I don’t think Salesses knows it either. Ultimately, I’m less concerned by the specifics of how Salesses would change workshop practice or the corpus of creative writing advice (as mentioned earlier, those changes are actually quite minor) and more concerned with the extreme pessimism about the ability of readers to read, appreciate and comment upon works from other cultures.

I know that some people on the left will hate this essay. They’ll accuse me of betraying one of our own and hurting someone who’s working to “decolonize creative writing pedagogy,” as a friend put it. But imagine a white supremacist opening this book. Imagine what their take away from it would be. They would be delighted by this book. They would say, it’s exactly as I always thought: Nonwhite people are inscrutably alien, they’ve rejected Western culture wholesale, and they have nothing to gain from it. So why bother having them in our classrooms at all?

This is the logic of separate-but-equal. If it was true that Western literary craft simply didn’t apply to work from other cultures, then the obvious solution would be segregation: A person of color should only be reviewed, edited by, published, and read by someone of their own race. That doesn’t sound very liberating to me.

Naomi Kanakia is a novelist living in San Francisco.