Review: The Half-Known World

Two years ago, I sat in a large ballroom at the AWP Conference in Chicago listening to a panel on omniscience. The room was packed. It was easily capable of holding a lavish Victorian wedding reception for 750 people. I had no interest in omniscient point of view (and still sort of don’t, either writing or reading it), but I was there. I don’t remember paying attention to any of the panelists; if I did, it was forgotten quickly, because Robert Boswell took the podium. Mostly, he read a chapter from his book about fiction writing, The Half-Known World. I’m not sure anymore exactly what he said—he could have started with the same tale from his childhood that begins the chapter, or maybe he went straight for the meat of the essay. It doesn’t matter, because after the panel I immediately went downstairs to the Graywolf Press booth and bought his book. In fact, after Boswell finished speaking, I contemplated trying to sneak out of the panel to buy it before anyone else could get to it.

The Half-Known World exceeded all my expectations about insight into writing, chiefly by being a book that says, “Fuck it,” and lays everything out on the table. Here’s the opening lines: “Like sex, reading is both a simple delight and a complex one, a nearly effortless pleasure that nonetheless rewards study and labor. Writing falls within the same general category—an activity that provides immediate booty and yet stands up to years of investigation.” First page, the first impression the author has to make with his audience, and he tells them that writing is like sex and uses the word booty. It’s almost a challenge to the reader, as if Boswell is saying that if sex has no mystery for you, if fucking isn’t interesting or dirty to you, if there’s no passion or disgust for you in people making love, and you’re not more than a little creeped out by people that have relations, then there is no booty for you in writing. (I couldn’t resist. You try writing it. Or saying it. Booty! Good, now use it in a semi-academic context and get back to me.) Notice that Boswell does not say that writing is easy.

The book is the result of Boswell’s years of investigation, a collection of essays wrapped in personal narratives that traverse his life and the various lessons he’s learned about writing—some, the hard way. What sets the book apart is its focus on storytelling, subtext, genre, politics, and form. In its pages, there’s nothing condescending or descriptively dealing with the mechanics of writing. Boswell is a literary fiction author, or as he likes to call it, “fiction that aspires to be art,” yet he’s willing to dole out advice to his readers that comes straight from The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Superman comics, urban legends, pornography/erotica, Ursula K. Le Guin, Borat, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in addition to accepted masters of literary fiction. He not only points out storytelling tools in these works, but it’s clear that he holds accomplished writers in genre fiction in equally high regard as the champions of literary fiction. This may be one of the number one reasons that the book had such an impact on me directly: I was at the confluence of influences and sources that Boswell was using.

The book is capped by a chapter titled, “You Must Change Your Life.” It’s not an essay but a narrative that details the conditions that lead to Boswell making a major change in his life. It reads like a John Cheever story, as Boswell—the middle class, sports car driving man—breaks down because he’s been going about his life all wrong. It is Boswell saying, “Fuck it,” and telling the reader about what happened to him, what happened when he ignored what he needed to do to further his lifetime love affair with writing. It was exactly what I needed to read at the time, and what I need to keep reading over and over again.

Read an excerpt of The Half-Known World from Graywolf Press.

All rights reserved to Josh Wodarz


Cover credits:
Cover Design: Kimberly Glyder Design
Cover Photo: "Stephen Ascending" by Jade Nelson Boswell

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