Alternate Structures for Fiction (etc.)

How A Writer’s Craft can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part 8

Matthew Salesses’ chapter from Craft in the Real World, “An Example from East Asian and Asian American Literature,” begins to really get into some of the detail I’ve been looking for in terms of alternate structures and ways to rethink creative writing. I am particularly struck by the long list of alternatives that the Chinese literary tradition can provide.

For instance, when talking about the use of well-rounded, rather than flat characters in Western writing, Salesses notes that flat characters are usually discussed in terms of postmodernism’s challenges to psychological realism, which is the main way I write about them in A Writer’s Craft, acknowledging that there are ways of writing that make use of flat characters instead of “realist” portrayals. Like Salesses, I acknowledge that postmodernism is probably inaccessible to the typical Intro to Creative Writing student, but what I would like to do more after reading Craft in the Real World, is to explore other literary traditions that use them. Actually, much of pre-20th Century European and American fiction used flat characters as well, so it’s not exactly a foreign concept. But Modernist ideas of fiction have become dominant, at lease in the teaching of creative writing.

Similarly, Salesses mentions the four-part plot stucture of kishotenketsu that involved introduction, development, twist, and reconciliation. In A Writer’s Craft, I acknowledge four-part structures as a possibility, and this could be a great example of one to include.

Salesses challenges the (modernist) idea of showing versus telling, arguing that telling emotion in Chinese fiction is common. Rather than relying on psychological realism and character motivation, the narrator is used to explain the action or arbitrary events are imposed to create the narrative drama. The story is not about character growth, but about an exploration of a theme. It is less about the individual character’s growth and more about the oneness of character, narrator, and reader’s experience. The lines between fiction and reality are blurred from both directions.

Salesses also hints at the different structures of episodic narrative, as opposed to the plot-driven story (or drama) privileged by Aristotle in his Poetics. This leads to “a ‘kaleidoscopic’ quality” and “pattern-based” structure.

Salesses’ list of things to learn from East Asian and Asian American literature is provocative, and raises challenges to the view that literary modernism is somehow the ‘right’ way to write. This is a challenge that I’ve tried to remain open to in A Writer’s Craft, and Salesses and to a lesser extent Chavez (whose focus is more on the workshop than on craft issues), provide compelling ways to frame that discussion more in anti-racist terms. While reading this chapter, my constant thought was that I’d like to read a whole book on the subject and dig into more detail on each of these issues. Fortunately, Salesses does not disappoint — he credits Ming Dong Gu, Chinese Theories of Fiction.

Obviously, there are other literary traditions, such as African, Middle Eastern, Native American, Latinx, etc. to draw on. European literature, as I mentioned above, is also far from monolithic. European Romanticism uses different structures than modernism, and Medieval lais, ballads, or romances are also quite far from Modernism, obviously. Bringing in other cultures’ literary traditions is both a way to challenge modernist preconceptions and a way to validate other cultural experiences. Salesses is clear that he draws from American modernism and Asian American story-telling techniques in his fiction — that modernism (or traditional American workshop ideas on craft) isn’t inherently wrong any more than it is inherently right. We expand our understanding of craft when we expand our horizons for how to look at craft.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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