In this new book, he dismantles a number of assumptions that underpin the teaching of craft in workshops. For example, students are often advised to choose striking details—what John Gardner called 'the lifeblood of fiction'—and leave out others that are too familiar. The trouble is that what stands out to, say, a disabled white character will be different from what stands out to a Black trans character, which will in turn be different from what stands out to an undocumented character. Minority students may be told to scrap what is striking to them in favor of what is striking to the dominant perspectives of their workshops, which Salesses points out are overwhelmingly white and cisgender. As a result, the students’ artistic choices may be stifled rather than nurtured ... In the first half of the book, Salesses redefines craft terms like plot, conflict, tone, character and setting, arguing that each needs to be understood in its sociocultural context ... Salesses is clearly a generous instructor, willing to share ideas for syllabus design, grading techniques and writing exercises. He brings to this work many years of experience as a writer and professor, along with palpable frustration at what he has witnessed or endured in these roles. The book is rife with anecdotes of insensitive or racist comments he heard during his training, experiences that will no doubt feel familiar to many writers of color ... 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.
... salient and instructive ... While the gambit of Craft in the Real World is decidedly unrevolutionary (adjusting the pedagogy of writers’ workshops is a pretty tame proposal), writers and readers alike stand to benefit from Salesses’s insights into literary production and the insipid ways in which the creative industries perpetuate milquetoast, dominant-culture artistic production ... Offering a fresh framework as well as concrete exercises and workshop paradigms, Craft in the Real World is an attempt to renovate what others might call to dismantle ... Salesses gamely redefines various craft terms...illuminating the assumptions and expectations implicit in the conventional, accepted reading of each term. He then goes one step further and proposes redefinitions that are both broader and deeper, and therefore more useful.
But this book also should be essential reading for others in the publishing industry seeking to understand how we marginalize, neglect, or discredit writers going against dominant and institutionalized western literary traditions. What things do we already know to be true? On some level, we’ve always known, though we may have struggled to find the right language to articulate it, that craft has never been about neutral, objective techniques. Instead, it is about — as Salesses unpacks them here — history, race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, and more. And about how all of these play into power, vulnerability, value systems, privileges, agency, expectations, biases, assumptions, choices, imperialism, and colonization of craft standards just as they do in our lives ... Salesses reminds us that it is because craft, as a set of standardized and teachable tools and techniques, is also about who gets to create those standards, why and how. Whether and how a writer is 'good' (that is, conforming to or complying with particular craft standards) has more to do with the writer’s place in the culture that creates and maintains those standards than it does with the writer’s actual skills. So, for the writer not wanting to conform to or comply with such craft standards, Salesses provides much guidance.