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The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction

3.9 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1555975043
ISBN-10: 1555975046
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In clear, charming prose, novelist Boswell delivers a satisfying exploration of the craft of writing fiction, drawing from an array of well-chosen examples. In one instance he offers a full-bodied analysis of Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich to illustrate his argument about the use of social paradigm in fiction; in a chapter on politics in the novel, he helpfully streamlines a Noam Chomsky essay into an explanatory list of the political responsibilities of the intellectual. Boswell's defense of his concept of the half-known world—the idea that there must be a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension—is spiritedly articulated and defended, and the book feels written for the serious writing student rather than the beginner. However, while addressing a sophisticated audience, he is direct—a chapter on omniscient narrators answers tough narrative questions in an easy-to-follow manner. Throughout, Boswell presents autobiographical moments and brief vignettes of his own devising to illustrate his concepts, reinforcing the fact that, like his great predecessor in craft writing John Gardner, he is a working fiction writer who knows his material. (Aug.)
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The Half-Known World is both brilliant and helpful to readers and fellow writers alike. This book on fiction writing avoids every form of technojargon and brings its subject matter back to where we live, to how we live, and to what we know (and can never know). It's rare for contemporary criticism to have moments of grace and beauty, but this book has many, which is what anyone might expect from a writer as accomplished and humane as Robert Boswell.” ―Charles Baxter

Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (July 22, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555975046
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555975043
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #230,311 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had one play produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, a Lila Wallace/Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards was a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award in Fiction. What Men Call Treasure was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Nonfiction Spur Award. Both the Chicago Tribune and Publisher's Weekly named Mystery Ride as one of the best books of the year. The London Independent picked The Geography of Desire as one of the best books of the year. Virtual Death was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and was named by the Science Fiction Chronicle as one of the best novels of the year. Boswell has published more than 70 stories and essays. They have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Esquire, Colorado Review, Epoch, Ploughshares, and many other magazines and anthologies. He shares the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing with his wife, Antonya Nelson. They live in Houston, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Telluride, Colorado. They also spend time in a ghost town high in the Rockies.

His novels: Tumbledown (forthcoming from Graywolf Press), Century's Son, American Owned Love, Mystery Ride, The Geography of Desire, Crooked Hearts.

His story collections: The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, Living to Be 100, Dancing in the Movies.

His nonfiction: The Half-Known World, a book on the craft of writing, and What Men Call Treasure: The Search for Gold at Victorio Peak, a book about a treasure hunt in New Mexico (co-written with David Schweidel).

His cyberpunk novel: Virtual Death (published under the pseudonym Shale Aaron).

His play: Tongues.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Unlike some of the other Amazon customers who have reviewed The Half-Known World, I have never been fortunate enough to be Robert Boswell's student, nor have I ever met him. But after reading the book, I understand some of the reasons for their praise and loyalty. These essays are not only well-written and therefore quite entertaining in their own right; they are also very useful.

To give one example, I was very taken with "On Omniscience," an essay about the uses of the omniscient point of view. Here is the provocation the essay wraps itself around: "Omniscience and half-knowledge would seem to be adversarial terms, but it turns out they're not." Boswell follows up with a list of "twelve planks in my platform on omniscience," which clearly and, so far as I can tell, for the first time in literary history clearly identify the parameters and possibilities of the omniscient point of view as clearly as they have been many times (in many ways, by many writers) been articulated for points of view limited to the consciousness of a single character.

For the reader of fiction, this is an interesting thing to think about, and it certainly enriches the process of reading stories rooted in omniscient strategies. But for the writer of fiction, this is a hugely useful analytic tool that can help the writer find the right form, the right voice, the right distance, and the right balance of characters in order to create organically a container and working method suitable for the story and thematic concerns of his or her project.

The only other contemporary writer I know who has grappled so helpfully with omniscience is Richard Russo, in an uncollected essay I can't find anywhere.
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I was fortunate to work with with Robert Boswell as a graduate student and know, first-hand, what a brilliant teacher he is. I've read or heard portions of a few of these lectures over the years and have been eagerly awaiting the publication of this book. I devoured it as soon as it came out, immediately began re-reading it, and will certainly include it as a text in the undergraduate and graduate fiction writing courses I teach. These essays--frequently funny, always provocative--deftly combine first-rate and lively analysis of classic and contemporary fiction with a master storyteller's understanding of craft and an artist's understanding of process. These essays fall squarely in the tradition of books by brilliant writers--Henry James, E. M. Forster, Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter come to mind--who know how to excavate and articulate the mysteries of the art of fiction in a way that is enlightening, witty, and, quite frankly, deeply moving. If you're a serious reader of fiction or a writer of it, buy this book. It might very well, as the title of the last essay suggests, change your life.
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This book is a fresh narrative from one of the best writers in America today. His fiction is spot-on and breathtaking. Boswell teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Writing Program, and he does a fine job of taking you with him to explore what makes for great writing. It is almost like you are in class with him and you are listening to his views on writing. His book resonates with all writers, beginning or otherwise. This is a great "go-to" book for reference when the writer in you gets bogged down and is trudging through the mush and needs a fresh perspective. Boswell eliminates the "techno-jargon," and gets in your face with ways to create fiction that works. Each chapter discusses in essay format many present and past works, referencing such diverse writers as Chekov and Tolstoy, Jean Thompson and Peter Taylor, and many others. In my view, the first essay and title of the book, "The Half-Known World," has a section in it that tells readers about five categories of failure, and this is worth the price of the book alone. Many times, writers get stuck in these categories, and Boswell offers a way out of the sludge pile to better writing, lively characters and imaginative settings. Highly recommended and a great book to have around when you write your next novel or short story.
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Writing fiction requires a combination of expertise, talent, experience, and imagination. In "The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction", Robert Boswell (the published author of five novels and an instructor in creative writing at the New Mexico State University, the University of Houston, and in the Warren Wilson MFA program) draws upon his more than twenty years of personal experience and earned expertise to compile nine compelling informed and informative essays on the craft issues facing every literary writer and author. Comprising this extraordinary compendium of observation, insights and advice are Process and Paradigm; Narrative Spandrels; On Omniscience; Urban Legends, Pornography, and Literary Fiction; The Alternate Universe; Politics and Art in the Novel; Private eye Point of View; You Must Change Your Life; and the title piece, The Half-Known World. Enhanced with a two and a half page listing of referenced works at the end, "The Half-Known World" will prove to be a fascinating and educative read for anyone who aspires to literary success as a writer of deftly crafted fiction.
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