It’s been a year since I signed up for a Masterclass.com membership, and I’m not renewing, so I thought it was high time I put together my final thoughts. (You can find Part One linked here.)
During the past twelve months, the platform has had a facelift (new logo and branding), they’ve added new instructors, and diversified the range of instructors they’re working with.
As with part one of this review, I’m going to be focusing on their writing content, so I cannot speak for other areas of the site, but having a mostly white, mostly male roster of ‘masters’ was something I had previously criticised, and I’m glad to see the imbalance is starting to be addressed.
New teachers include Roxane Gay, Walter Mosley, N.K. Jemison, Amy Tan, Salman Rushdie, and Issa Rae. Shonda Rhimes is on there, too but––unless I’m mistaken––her content’s not actually new, just newly recategorised under the writing section (both her and Issa Rae’s courses straddle the line between writing and filmmaking).
I initially set out to watch all the writing content that Masterclass had to offer, but after 315 video lessons consumed and 16 classes completed in their entirety, I’m actually pretty burned out on advice, especially when so much of it is the same, or at least in agreement (I’ll get onto notable exceptions in a minute).
I’m not renewing my membership in the first instance because of the price point, but being burned out on the content is the other big reason.
I’m worried that this will come across as arrogant, but I don’t think the platform has anything else to teach me. At this point, I’ve been writing for over ten years and have attended a lot of courses and workshops, not to mention read a lot of articles and books on craft, and so a lot of the things covered in the classes aren’t new to me. I’m not saying that I know everything there is to know about writing and cannot possibly learn anything more ever, because of course not. And I don’t mean it as a criticism of the classes, exactly, because a lot of people will find all that information put together in a single place incredibly useful, I’m just not sure that I’m their target audience.
To me, the concept of a masterclass is for someone who’s already doing a thing and wants to get even better, but a lot of the lessons I think are actually better suited to beginners, or people not long started out on their exploration of the craft. Other people’s mileage will undoubtedly vary, but that’s my personal feeling on the matter.
Speaking of personal feelings, I really didn’t gel with a couple of the instructors. Namely, Malcolm Gladwell and David Mamet. While watching video lessons from pretty much everyone else, I nodded along and knew exactly what they were talking about. But these guys… I confess to ranting at length to both my husband and online group of writing friends about them.
For illustration purposes, I have picked out three pieces of Malcolm’s advice that I not only fundamentally disagree with, but am genuinely baffled by anyone who does––yet these people do exist. I googled it, and he has some fans highly praising his teachings, so maybe it’s just me. See for yourself.
Malcolm Gladwell’s Writing Advice:
• When researching, look for irrelevant information you might never use.
• If your piece starts out with a question, don’t feel the need to answer it. Go on a tangent for three thousand words, then tell your reader you never did solve the problem.
• Great stories don’t have to be satisfying. An unsatisfying ending is sometimes what makes them great.
Regarding point two: If he’d said open endings can be great, which I think is perhaps what he meant, then I’d have seen some merit to the statement. I personally don’t think they should be used all the time, but they can be effective sometimes, sure. Except that’s not what he said. He specifically said ‘unsatisfying.’
…am I mad for hearing that and just thinking… what? Seriously?
Beyond these points, I didn’t feel like Malcolm had a lot to offer. (Besides a rambling anecdote about ketchup, for some reason?)
He seems like a really genuine guy, and I’d probably have a pleasant cup of tea with him in some post-pandemic bizarro world where we’d cross paths, but it’s fair to say we don’t see eye to eye.
That’s fine. I can live with it.
David Mamet, though… *takes deep breath*
He actually, actively pissed me off. Not just because he was saying things I disagreed with, but because he has this attitude that anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot and doesn’t know what they’re talking about. When, dude… have you seen the other masterclasses? They’re preaching some different sh*t.
An example: David said “there is no such thing as character,” and backstory is a waste of time. Another thing he doesn’t like is exposition. Or narration. Or “obligatory” heartfelt scenes. On one breath he says dialogue isn’t important… and then he says good dialogue is poetry, which feeds the soul.
Compare this to Judy Blume (oh, Judy! I actually fell in love with her over the course of her videos, not gonna lie).
She said she doesn’t really know what plot is, which perhaps is yet another odd statement on the surface, but she’s real about it. About not being a perfect author. About this only being her experience, and it maybe not applying to others. She got visibly choked up in a few spots and you could just feel how much she loves telling stories.
“Character is everything,” she says, and “backstory is interesting.” She is SINGING MY SONG! (Screw you, David!)
Margaret Atwood clears up the discrepancy when she said, “Which comes first, character or story? There is no such thing as first, because a person is what happens to them.” See how that thought works together with Judy’s?
Mamet later recommended watching movies with the sound off, then made a sweeping generalisation about most of them being awful.
He likes the gaming magazines his son reads, because they’re––according to him––written terribly.
“I don’t know what my process is…” he says, “but if you want, I’ll make something up.” And “Who cares?” he keeps asking.
“Me!” I kept wanting to scream at him, because Masterclass is pretty expensive. You’d be a fool to invest your time and money and not care. And so, yes, it makes me angry to think that he doesn’t. That he’s happy to just stand there and make stuff up, when the stuff is overwhelmingly negative and contradicts a lot of the teaching from the other writers, as I’ve said.
But I don’t want to leave this review on a sour note, or give him any more of my attention (lest I be accused of being overly negative myself), so I will instead say that most of the writers on Masterclass are great. I watched videos from all of them, even if I didn’t complete the serieses of a few.
My overall conclusion is that a newbie writer would likely find a subscription an amazing resource––so long as they take some things with a pinch of salt, and they can afford it.