Monday, November 9, 2009

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 writers is bad practice. Boswell describes wandering an unknown, forbidden territory as a boy, a destination he and his friend never successfully reach. To really write well and make evocative characters "the writer must suggest a dimension to fictional reality that escapes comprehension. The writer wishes to make his characters and their world known to the reader, and he simultaneously wishes to make them resonate with the unknown." It's this territory of the unknown, the mysterious, that is our true aim. I loved every moment of this first chapter.

Likewise, the second chapter captivated me. By telling a story of an encounter with a troubled woman at the bar, Robert Boswell describes his writing practice. I heard him read this aloud at the AWP convention a few years ago and was enthralled. It's something I could share with my undergraduate students. I also really liked his chapter on the "Alternate Universe" and his thoughts on omniscience are likewise indispensable.

Other chapters were intriguing, but a little troubling for me. Boswell's repeated use of the term "literary" is meant to establish a hierarchy in the fictional world and to make his points he sometimes dismisses the work of popular authors like Barbara Kingsolver or Sue Miller. He speaks of his own loves, for baseball and film noir, as "soft spots" that he wouldn't be able to write about in his fiction. This feels like bad advice to me. I think our core material often grows out of our obsessions, what we love. However, these are small quibbles. This one of the best books I've read recently on writing, one that has me longing for the free time to get writing again this coming month when school lets out, to once more set out to explore that mysterious terrain, the woods and iced over streams leading down to that unreachable river beyond.

You can read more about Boswell, including links to his stories, here: