May 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell

In The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction, author Robert Boswell attempts to untangle the mysteries of fiction writing. Throughout his essays, he explores the need for stories to hold back (“To make something fully known is to make it unreal”), to self-reflect (“Recognizing opportunities within a story… is a crucial step”), among various other truisms. But perhaps the most important lesson of all comes not from any conscious intention on the author’s part, but from his example: writing a book about writing is, perhaps, the most daunting task of all.

Boswell includes autobiographical flourishes reminiscent of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird while maintaining the scientific dissection of language as found in Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer. The combination is startlingly effective. While the close reader will initially bristle over the seemingly crude concoction, he manages to prove his points with clarity and poignancy. Often, we are left questioning the balance between autobiography and writing instruction, though the autobiography seems to function not as a mere indulgence, but as a means to an end, and therefore, indispensable for his case.

While the attempt to set down firm rules for a field as subjective as writing continues to be a preposterous pursuit, this does not keep writers from trying, nor should it. If the Holy Grail of writing rules was actually established, then the mystery of the craft would vanish. Writes don’t want the answers, they want the possibilities, and Boswell seems aware of this fact. While he doesn’t offer many earth-shattering revelations, he certainly opens the door to new conversations and debates -- the mark of an effective book.

For example, in his essay “On Omniscience,” he offers twelve “planks” by which he bases the use of an omniscient narrator. While few would find fault in his claim that “the omniscient narrator has to be definitive,” perhaps a few eyebrows will raise with his assertion that “An omniscient voice must be opinionated” and that “An omniscient narrator puts additional weight on scenes.” Undoubtedly, he substantiates his claims, but students of writing will take it as an invitation for rebuttal or further exploration.

This, of course, is the beauty of the book. Any book with the subtitle On Writing Fiction immediately opens itself up to a firing squad of critics. It must traverse the hazardous line between functioning simultaneously as an authority on the subject and a humble student of the craft. Boswell’s charm comes in his ability to find this middle ground, to state his case while opening himself up for further discussion.

As is the trouble with many writing-related books, a dependence on citing examples from outside texts often makes it difficult to hammer his points home. In the preface, he assures that the essays stand on their own, but even with his story summaries, the reader is often left feeling like the outsider unable to grasp the punch line of an inside joke. While Boswell makes efforts to reference the outside texts at the start of each chapter, only the most ambitious reader will track down all the referenced texts prior to reading the essay. It is nothing more than a logistical problem, but it is distracting all the same.

Undoubtedly, Boswell’s ruminations spark and enliven a never-ending debate on the “how tos” of fiction writing. He doesn’t give us the answers, but he gives us something better: the questions.

The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975046
176 Pages