The Half-Known World On Writing Fiction

Robert Boswell

Graywolf Press



176 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
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. Examples from masters such as Leo Tolstoy, Flannery O'Connor, and Alice Munro illustrate this engaging discussion of what makes great writing. At the same time, Boswell moves readers beyond the classroom, candidly sharing the experiences that have shaped his own writing life. A chance encounter in a hotel bar leads to a fascinating glimpse into his imaginative process. And through the story of a boyhood adventure, Boswell details how important it is for writers to give themselves over to what he calls the "half-known world" of fiction, where surprise and meaning converge.


Praise for The Half-Known World

"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
"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 . . . [Boswell] manages to prove his points with clarity and poignancy . . . He certainly opens the door to new conversations and debates—the mark of an effective book . . . 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."—Benjamin Jacob Hollars, Bookslut
"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."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Robert Boswell is the author of five novels, most recently Century’s Son. He teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University, the University of Houston, and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program.
Read the full excerpt


  • Robert Boswell

  • Robert Boswell is the author of five novels, including Century's Son. He teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University, the University of Houston, and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program.