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The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  343 ratings  ·  42 reviews
A rigorous examination of the workings of fiction by the novelist Robert Boswell, "one of America's finest writers" (Tom Perrotta)

Robert Boswell has been writing, reading, and teaching literature for more than twenty years. In this sparkling collection of essays, he brings this vast experience and a keen critical eye to bear on craft issues facing literary writers.
Paperback, 176 pages
Published July 22nd 2008 by Graywolf Press
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Apr 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
Robert Boswell's The Half Known World is a great read for anyone interested in writing "literary" fiction and the first two chapters are a great read for anyone period. Chapter one is the book's cornerstone. Here Boswell inveighs against creative writing classes that have students making character lists, about birthdays, jobs, etc. This reminds me very much of Flannery O'Connor who insisted on the "mystery of personality" as the core of good stories. Anything that kills mystery for readers and ...more
Jan 11, 2009 marked it as on-hold-for-now
The following anecdote will tell you next to nothing about the content of this book.

Once I had a boyfriend that was freakishly worried that I would, "run off with a librarian or a writer". I, of course, acted extremely insulted by this assumption and found myself to be quite convincing at times.

And then tonight, as I'm sitting in my daughters room waiting for her to fall asleep this book fell open and I noticed one of the notes I'd jotted in the margin of page 1. The note is a small
John Sundman
Apr 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
One of the best books I've read on technique in writing fiction.

Boswell specifically addresses himself to those of us trying to create literature: "a slippery term, but for the moment let's call it 'fiction that aspires to be art'." Thus this book is at the opposite end of the spectrum from how-to-write-a-blockbuster-novel type books, the the tomes filled with story-plotting algorithms and character-trait spreadsheets. Literature, Boswell says, in words echoing those of Flannery O'Connor in
Jul 23, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Some of the best and most thought-provoking craft essays available, period. Boswell deftly weaves personal narrative with lessons on the mysteries of literary fiction in a way that asks me to return to this book again and again, for inspiration and direction, but also because, as I grow and change as a writer, so the essays and what they mean to me change as well. There are three that are essential reading, in my humble opinion: "The Half-Known World", "Process & Paradigm" and "Narrative ...more
Jocelyn Paige
May 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: writers
One of the best books on writing fiction that I've ever read. Boswell's essays approaches each topic with self-deprecating wisdom, and gives practical and accessible advice for any level writer. I found his essay "Politics and Art in the Novel" especially enlightening.

Highly recommended.
Mary Lynn
Apr 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: writing-books
Great series of essays on some of the more subtle elements of the writing craft. My favorites were: "The Half-Known World", "Narrative Spandrels", "Private Eye Point of View", and "You Must Change Your Life."

Definitely recommended for fiction writers seeking something new in a craft book.
Anna Vincent
Sep 03, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: how-to-guides
The worst part about this book was the author's notion that a writer should not be organized.

Like Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, Boswell emphasizes that the writer should not have a clear understanding, and certainly not an outline, of characters, plot, themes, etc. One page 21, Boswell notes, “A story may fail because the writer has made up his mind about the characters before any words reach the page.” Can neither Boswell nor Dillard comprehend an author who is able to imagine the
Dec 18, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: school-books
This book was weird because as I was reading it, I didn't really care for it and didn't think the advice was that helpful. However, afterwards, when thinking about writing and writing a paper on writing, I found Boswell's words creeping into my head and on to the paper. His book proved to be the most helpful and his words stuck with me without me even knowing it. After writing a paper, I found a lot I too away from his book. Always half know the worrld you are writing about. To fully know it is ...more
Jun 24, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Charming, straightforward and good-humored like Boswell himself. Keeps his ideas about writing fiction grounded in the texts of stories and novels he loves, resulting in my to-read and to-re-read lists growing. "Politics and Art in the Novel" and "You Must Change Your Life" were my favorite essays. "On Omniscience" seemed to lack the power (and not just emotional power) that I remembered from when Boswell's delivered it as a lecture.

There's definitely a bias to realist, psychologically-driven
missy jean
Mar 23, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: craft-books
This is a really, really good craft book. The basic premise--that in writing fiction, we should start by writing a half-known world, giving the story time to teach us what it wants us to say before we start imposing our ideas onto it--really resonated with me. Boswell de-emphasizes "practical" suggestions (like lists and writing exercises) and encourages the writer to let the story take the lead.
Nov 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I read most of this in 2009, so I guess it's legit.
The best book on writing I have read in a long time. Maybe ever? I love his discussions of published works. Everything he says is very straight forward and insightful. It made me think differently about many elements of fiction.
Highly recommended.
Zach VandeZande
Nov 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is a really fine book on craft, up there with Charles Baxter's Burning Down The House but geared more toward practical application. A couple of the essays are too specific to be helpful to everyone (there's one on detective fiction and one on political fiction), but overall I found the book to be thought-provoking, warm, and full of good advice.
Jun 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks they ever want to write anything. Seriously. Non fiction, fiction, short stories, memoirs, novels, anything that has something resembling a plot. And also people who feel like they have no idea what they're doing in their lives. And at the end of the day, isn't that kind of all of us?
Jan 02, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I read one essay the day I processed this book at the library and liked it so much that I ordered the book from my local bookstore. I cited the essay in my own essay, too. Fucking fantastic orientation -- very clear cut yet sparse, beautiful prose. Yeah, I have yet to pick up the book, because I have no money. But I will. Sorry, Walden Pond. I know it's been there for weeks.
Mike Mullin
Apr 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Exactly the book I needed to read now. Rereading it confirmed the decision I made over the weekend to step back from my 300 page first draft of ASHFALL #4 and try a different approach. If the final book is any good, Boswell gets some of the credit.
Jul 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
Extremely readable book about writing. Good for us writing neophytes.
Feb 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A book about writing literary fiction that is not only informative but a work of art in itself---a demonstration of the blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction.
Oct 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Loved his essays on craft. Inspiring. I'm getting my pen and paper out right now.
Oct 30, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book on the art of reading and writing the sublter forms of literary fiction. Great analysis, great examples, great writing. Worth reading whether you're writing or not. No formulas here.
Jul 24, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful. Next best thing to being in class with Boswell, whether or not you've been so lucky.
William Adams
May 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing-how-to
Robert Boswell presents 9 personal essays exploring different aspects of the craft of writing fiction, addressing the idea that you should be writing about something that escapes complete comprehension.

If you describe and show all aspects of your fictional world, then you are writing genre, or possibly a technical manual. Literary fiction is supposed to confront regions of human experience that are not fully susceptible to rational understanding. You don’t need to say it all, you can't, and you
Lauren Roland
Aug 24, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays
This book is composed of several essays that have to do with the craft of writing fiction. In the first chapter, Boswell rails against “normal” creative writing classes, where professors have students make lists of characters, settings, etc., and so on and so forth. I understand his meanings behind it, but I still feel like knowing things about my character helps me write the books.

Several of these chapters had me shaking my head and disagreeing, particularly when he praises Alice Munro. I know
Jan 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
There is some good writing advice here, despite the lack of diversity in the examples used. You can tell the age of the author by the over-reliance on cannonical works--the usual suspects such as Melville, O'Connor, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Indeed, this book is very much written like an old-school English professor wrote it--it veers more academic than something suitable for a popular audience. The prose might be too dense/analytic for someone just starting out as a writer, or someone without a ...more
Philip Demers
Mar 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Robert Boswell is a good fiction writer, but this is a great book, and by a very long measure, the best one with his name on the cover.

Don't let the subject matter confuse: this is not just a volume for aspiring writers. Anyone can pick it up and find much wisdom, amusement, and upper-tier pop philosophy. I blew through it in three days.
Rod Raglin
Mar 18, 2014 rated it liked it
This is another book written by an instructor of a Creative Writing Program likely under the threat of publish or perish.

Boswell’s got some interesting concepts and he delivers them in a self-deprecating voice which is refreshing coming from an academic. One gets the impression that writing likely saved Boswell, who unabashedly admits he failed at just about everything else he tried.

Two things were gleaned from this thin book. One was the use of “narrative spandrels” in fiction.

A spandrel is a
Jun 15, 2015 added it
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Feb 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
I read it twice. I'm reading it again. I love Robert Boswell. I think he's brilliant. These are the best essays on writing fiction that I've ever read. Do you want to be a creative writer, or a literary writer? I think all literature is creative writing, but not all creative writing is literature. Boswell knows the difference. Literature is art. " art--has to work to alter the vision of the audience," he writes in the essay "Urban Legends, Pornography, and Literary Fiction". And in ...more
Editor Chiron Publications & innerQuest
Aug 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: writers and others interested in this mysterious craft
This book evoked something "half-known" in me that I count as having inestimable value. Had Boswell completely satisfied my appetite I might have felt good right away but in the end, I would not have had the same rich, lingering aftertaste that made this book worth reading. Writers will appreciate this book. Those who wonder about the process whereby writers bring characters to life so that sometimes they become more meaningful to us than some of the persons who populate our world, will be ...more
Oct 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
While mainly written for writers of fiction, The Half-Known World is almost like a literature class in a book, as each chapter references certain novels or stories, indicated at the beginning, though reading them is also not necessary to understand the concepts presented in the essays. I hadn't read most of the referenced pieces, or hadn't read them recently, but can see how that may have elevated the experience. Read more on my booklog
Jenny Maloney
This one requires some digestion. Boswell's points are brilliant, and his examples are necessary to illustrate the arguments he makes, but I'd be lying if I said that there weren't some tedious sections.

However, I've taken quite few notes and highlighted passages and decided to read a few new there's a lot worth pursuing in this one little book. It packs some really useful insights into a small space.
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Robert Boswell is the author of eleven books, including The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, a story collection with Graywolf Press, in April 2009. His novels: Century's Son, American Owned Love, Mystery Ride, The Geography of Desire, and Crooked Hearts. His other story collections: Living to Be 100 and Dancing in the Movies. His nonfiction: The Half-Known World, a book on the craft of writing, ...more