Leanne Ogasawara writes for The Millions; the main focus is on creative writing workshops and MFA programs (everyone told her “Whatever you do, don’t get an MFA”), and there is some (to my mind) crap about the “pit self” of the Western world versus the “flexi-self” associated with “collectivistic societies,” but she has some interesting things to say about differing structures of storytelling:

After 20 years in Japan, where for the last decade I thought, dreamt, and read mainly in Japanese, my thinking and writing now reflects Japanese storytelling styles. I prefer more meditative writing with constant pivots and turns. I love surprises, and prefer the lyric over the concrete, the “nobility of failure” over the hero’s journey. And more than anything, I love books that refer to other books.

[Matthew] Salesses [author of Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping], who was born in Korea, reminds us that not all traditions favor conflict, or character-driven models, like the hero’s journey. He cites Chinese, Korean, and Japanese stories, which “developed from a four-act, rather than a three- or five-act structure: in Japanese it is called kishōtenketsu (ki: introduction; sho: development; ten: twist; ketsu: reconciliation).” The kishōtenketsu structure informs fiction, nonfiction, theater, and even the movements of the tea ceremony. It is a profoundly different aesthetic system from the Western model, with its primary focus on conflict. Perhaps the most common critique I hear from Western readers about Japanese fiction is that nothing ever seems to happen. […]

In workshop, “Nothing happens” is always meant as a criticism, an inherently bad thing. This can be stifling for a writer who doesn’t read for urgency or conflict in everything.

I too love books that refer to other books, not to mention books that openly discuss ideas — Matthew Salesses, criticizing the workshop model and the cookiecutter prose it produces, says of such stories: “Instead of a political argument, a character might angrily eat a potato.”


  1. “The kishōtenketsu structure informs fiction, nonfiction, theater, and even the movements of the tea ceremony.”

    Odd that this list omits poetry, given that the concept was originally used by the Yuan Dynasty poet Yang Zai to describe principles of poetic composition (particularly for Tang-style quatrains (jueju) and regulated verse (lüshi)). Its extension to essay and narrative writing seems to have been a 20th-century phenomenon, so the claim that “Chinese, Korean, and Japanese stories… developed from a four-act, rather than a three- or five-act structure” strikes me as rather dubious.

  2. I had a strong suspicion the account was oversimplified, but I figured more knowledgeable people would weigh in.

  3. a character might angrily eat a potato

    That sounds like something that might happen in one of Zola’s tales. Or maybe not so much angrily as mournfully resentful.

  4. I must say, her description of the American writing workshop culture makes it sound immensely unappealing.

  5. Yes indeed. I have no desire whatever to try it.

  6. @Bathrobe: She may be exaggerating, but the key concern:

    Salesses wonders: if only one type of writing is held up as “good” and the programs remain highly insular, how can an artist articulate a unique vision?

    definitely rings true to me. Obviously, I have never been through a writing MFA program, but my brother has. I mentioned his experience as a writer of genre fiction in such a program here, and that whole thread is instructive.

    I don’t know whether the situation overall is getting better or worse. At South Carolina, the writing program used to offer graduate seminars in writing fantasy/science fiction, children’s literature, and other less-well=regarded genres. However, those seem to have disappeared in more recent years.

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