A Review of ‘Craft in the Real World’ by Matthew Salesses

This is a book about writing, however it is not a how-to manual or a book of advice. Instead, this is a sociological commentary about the writing and publishing industry, in hopes of offering insight and reform for a stagnant industry. I found this to be a very insightful book, which forced me to reflect upon many of the habits and techniques I myself have used in my reviewing process.

In short, this nonfiction book provides commentary on writing workshops, and how they frequently fail to help authors come to their full potential. This is most true for minority authors and authors who write in genres outside of the normal genre of the writing workshops cultural group.

  • As an example, in a writing workshop made up entirely of military fiction fans, a romance author would not get useful critique from that workshop. The military fiction fans would read the romance novel, and offer suggestions which would make the book more appealing for military fiction readers as opposed to romance novel readers. The resulting book would most likely appeal to neither romance readers or military fiction readers.
  • The same is true for other books by real-world minority authors, with an intended audience of real-world minority readers. A nonwhite author in an white critique group would not get very good advice.

I am a book reviewer, and while this work of nonfiction is targeted mainly at improving critique groups and writing workshops, it applies equally to book reviewing. The author made very coherent and convincing arguments that a lot of what I would consider to be good storytelling is in fact a cultural assumption of what I think good storytelling is. To explain this…

  • The common refrain of ‘show, don’t tell,’ is a modern and Western assumption. There are many storytelling traditions for which telling and not showing is considered to be more aesthetically appropriate.
    • Premodern Western books are perfectly happy telling not showing, and that doesn’t make them bad books. We hold many of them to be classics to this day.
    • Modern nonwestern books tell and not show, and they have millions of people read them and enjoy them around the world. No one in their right mind would argue such a popular book is a bad book just because it tells and doesn’t show.
    • Therefore, when I review books and complain about ‘show, don’t tell,’ I might not be taking into account the fact that this book might be part of a tradition outside of the modern Western literary tradition. You can write good books which tell and it don’t show.
  • Similarly, the modern Western fascination for writing ‘realistic’ characters is a very modern and Western tradition.
    • Going back to my fantasy roots, let’s look at the characters of ‘the Lord of the Rings.’ From a modern perspective, none of them are particularly ‘realistic.’ none of them have substance abuse problems, none of them are dealing with grieving a loved one who died of cancer, none of them are particularly morally gray.
    • And yet the characters of ‘the Lord of the Rings’ are still widely loved by millions of people. They aren’t bad characters.
    • Therefore, when I review books and complain about mediocre characters, I need to take a step back and challenge my assumptions. The character might not be bad; instead, I might just have been trained to value the modern Western ‘realistic’ character ideal too much.

The list of ‘ideals’ goes on. The author is very clear to state that modern Western writing isn’t bad; instead it is only one of many options. If you are a writer or book reviewer, I do think you should read this. It’s difficult having your preconceptions challenged, but if there’s one thing a scholar loves it’s being proven wrong. To be proven wrong, is to become less ignorant.

Judgement: Well worth reading


Genres/Tagwords: nonfiction, Academic, Writing

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

1 Comment

  1. Oh wow, those are good points, actually. I love reading books on the craft, and even though this isn’t a how-to, I am now very interested in checking it out. Thanks for sharing!


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