What Are the Downsides to the Way We Tell Stories?
Matthew Salesses Guests on the Book Dreams Podcast
Book Dreams is a podcast for everyone who loves books and misses English class. Co-hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Each episode explores book-related topics you can’t stop thinking about—whether you know it yet or not.
What are the downsides to the way we tell stories? Do we need to reimagine the craft of writing and the way it’s taught? This week on Book Dreams, author and professor Matthew Salesses talks to Eve and Julie about how the format of traditional writing workshops was defined by straight, white, able, cis men; how greater diversity in workshops today necessitates a more mindful and empowered approach to the teaching of writing; and how we, as readers and writers, can break free of the oppressive cycles of privileged assumptions and expectations.
Julie: Do you have any idea why the [usual writing workshop] model [where the author must keep silent for most of the time] came to be? Was it about power?
Matthew: I have a pet theory. It’s that when you take, you know, 12 middle-class Christian Protestants probably, white, straight, able, cis men, and they’ve been reading almost exactly the same canon of literature, and you put them in a room—and they’re also kind of empowered in outside life all the time, right? They’re used to being able to speak their mind and being heard. Then it might make sense in a workshop setting to have somebody in that position of power in their outside lives be silent and listen to other people who actually represent exactly their ideal audience and who have a very similar background and literary taste.
That model maybe makes sense in that situation. It’s just that we have moved so far past that, and workshops are far more diverse. One of its greatest tools is its diversity, which is really hurt by the silence model.
Another large reason I think is just the writer’s workshop was trying to establish its place within academia. It was trying to establish a set of rules that could be easily recreated from workshop to workshop. And those kinds of things are so wrapped up in institutional power and the power of a dominant majority that it’s kind of no question that it might get [set] into the workshop.
Matthew Salesses is the author of Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping, a national bestseller and Esquire Best Book of 2021. He’s also the author of the bestselling novel The Hundred-Year Flood; and the PEN/Faulkner Finalist Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. His previous books include I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; and The Last Repatriate. Salesses is an Assistant Professor of English at Coe College.