“Pure Craft” Is a Lie (Part 2)


This is a continuation of last week’s Part 1 post of “‘Pure Craft’ Is a Lie.” The series continues in Part 3 and Part 4.

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Some of you may be thinking, fine, what’s wrong with teaching student writers to write using cultural norms? Why shouldn’t we teach writers to reach a “wide” “mainstream” audience? And if people want to experiment, then they should know what they’re experimenting “against.” In other words, “you have to know the rules in order to break them.”

I’ve heard those things plenty of times as well. But why should a writer have to know the rules first? Whose rules are they? Why are those the rules they have to learn?

Going back to our old example of the cultural value of “say” and “ask” versus other dialogue tags–culture makes these dialogue tags effective since we’ve learned to read them as “invisible”–why should we teach a hypothetical student who comes from a “query” and “comment” culture to use the terms “ask” and “said” instead?

Here’s what we’re doing if we do that (to make this simpler, let’s call the writer from the hypothetical “query” culture q-writer from q-culture).

  1. We’re assuming that the q-writer is going to write to people from “our” culture. *Or* we are assuming that the q-writer needs to learn how to write to people from our culture in order to write to people from q-culture.
  2. We’re asking the q-writer to accept something that doesn’t seem true to her. While other people in the class are probably much more receptive to the lesson of “say” and “ask.”
  3. We’re asking the q-writer to learn a new culture on the fly without teaching the culture itself, only the terms the culture uses.

Of course, this is a simplified version of what happens in a creative writing workshop when some people are not as familiar with the dominant literary culture that the craft is taught from. I’ll give you another example, one many creative writing teachers have probably experienced.

Say someone is teaching a workshop where most of the people in the class are interested in writing “literary” fiction but I and maybe a few other people are interested in writing “high fantasy” (I’m not totally familiar with fantasy, but I am familiar with this situation). The people who like literary fiction have also read a lot of literary fiction but not much fantasy. The people who like fantasy have read a lot of fantasy but not much literary fiction. (I’m using literary and fantasy as very sweeping terms here, terms I don’t like, but I do so for the sake of the example.)

The instructor sets out to teach characterization and assigns a literary story with “complex, three-dimensional characters,” and says something like, characters should not be “types.” However, I the fantasy-writer am sitting there thinking that types are normal and pleasurable in fantasy and I’m even thinking “types” is a weird word, what about types as in wizards versus elves versus whatever. In those cases, doesn’t the type dictate how someone acts and behaves? Plus, I hate this literary story the instructor assigned and I don’t know why I should like it other than that is literary.

I find it hard then to accept the lesson based on the example.

Do I raise my hand and speak up? It’s possible that I do and my objections lead to an interesting discussion of “types.” But it’s maybe more likely that, if I do speak up, we get into an argument. It’s probably even likelier that I don’t say anything at all. After all, I’m trying hard to keep up with what my instructor means by “types” and why I should like this literary story and what literary even is, while my classmates are well-versed in this stuff. I also feel like the “literary” is being valued and I feel kind of offended or I feel inadequate or shamed somehow, and so I stay quiet because of that feeling.

I’m also scared of this whole workshopping thing where these literary writers who know about what we’re talking about and the terms we’re using are going to critique me.


Many teachers might want the interesting discussion that could arise from the fantasy writer voicing her objections, but the (hypothetical) class is already set up to make an interesting discussion difficult.

Most of the class prefers literary fiction, and all of the class has read a literary story as the example text, and the teacher is talking more to the rest of the class than to the fantasy writer. How does that writer catch up to people who’ve had so much more experience reading the things the class is talking about? She starts at a disadvantage to the other students, and that disadvantage is widened when the class discussion builds on the culture she doesn’t yet know instead of acknowledging (or even teaching) that culture.

I’ve been in this class, and I’ve taught a version of this class, though I do think the instructor can help take the class into an interesting discussion if the student does speak up. I know many creative writing teachers will think (and I do too) that if the fantasy writers can learn some of the literary techniques, it will probably help their fantasy writing. But in this scenario, at least, everything’s already stacked against those students. Even if the creative writing teacher wants to convert the fantasy writers to “literary” writing (not my goal), this goal isn’t being made available to them, either. It’s not teaching them to incorporate “literary” strategies, it’s teaching them that their knowledge of the world isn’t useful in this discussion and needs to be discarded. The instructor is teaching to the rest of the class.

The “literary” writer enjoys a lot of privilege in this lesson. The rich get richer. She has a foundation of knowledge with which to immediately process the craft being taught (culturally). She is invested in the craft and the culture the craft is taken from, and she is invested in making more of that culture, for the people who are already reading it.

The fantasy writer has to learn a whole “culture” before she can start learning the craft the instructor is teaching. And she has to learn a whole “culture” and its craft before she can apply that craft or not to the context of high fantasy.


This isn’t just a problem of genre, though. Of course it isn’t. Imagine a workshop with twelve students all interested in “literary” writing, but three of those students are writers of color. Imagine that the readings are all by white writers, and the instructor is white and is teaching that a short story can’t prioritize a political perspective.

I’ve been in that course, too. Many times.

I’ll return to this scenario in Part 3 of this post, and then try to get to why writers of color aren’t writing “pure craft” essays.


In Part 3 I’ll return to the issue of race and craft, and why the writers of color don’t write “just craft” essays.

In Part 4 (if there is one) I’ll think about what can be done to combat all of this. I’m not sure. As always, write to me if you have comments or want to contribute something to this teaching creative writing series: m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].

Photo: Flickr/Global Justice Now

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