Last week I asked him what he was reading. His replied with an insightful review of:
The Half-Known World: On Writing FictionRead more about Steven Wingate and his work at his website, his blog, his Facebook page, and his MySpace page.
by Robert Boswell (Graywolf, 2008)
The litmus test for books in the writing-about-writing subspecies is usefulness. Can it push writers, whether self-taught or enrolled in organized programs, deeper into their work? Can teachers teach with it? In The Half-Known World, novelist Robert Boswell makes a strong (and useful) first foray into the genre by blending rumination, examples, and quite a bit of personal history. This last element pulls the book together into something much more than a handbook by describing Boswell’s wrestling matches with his chosen craft at various stages of his authorial life. Through these we see the challenges of writing—and the distinct challenges of being a writer—elucidated in their unglamorous, dirty-to-the elbows detail.
The Half-Known World is a collection of essays, not a step-by-step approach to the craft. It begins simply with the title piece, which lays out the fundamentals of Boswell’s approach: that the art of literary fiction requires us to face what we do not understand, and that “the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.” (5) He suggests that “You can measure how successfully you’ve revealed a character by the extent to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him, creating instead a character that is, at once, identifiable and unknowable.” (11)
Taken at face value only, this essay might produce a generation of creative writing students who would purposefully obfuscate their characters in order to “add” an element of the incomprehensible. Fortunately Boswell doesn’t leave this as a possibility, at least for those who read beyond his opening pages. As The Half-Known World moves forward, it digs in deeper and offers plentiful examples of the phenomena he discusses. He also takes the gloves off a bit; his early counterexamples of how not to write are drawn from Hollywood and television, but after a while he calls out a few authors for taking expedient short-cuts in the creation of their characters and narrative arcs. And as he moves on, he gets more likely to raise—particularly in a few key essays such as “Process and Paradigm” and “Narrative Spandrels”—the big questions of craft and intent that fiction writers at all levels of experience can and should debate.
Perhaps the strongest essay is “On Omniscience,” which I predict will have a long life as a photocopied (or digitized) handout in graduate programs throughout the creative writing field. In it Boswell ranges wide—John O’Hara’s BUtterfield 8 to Billy Budd to Anna Kareninia—but manages to keep all his balls in the air with a compelling, meaty essay that brings us face to face with a set of hard questions that writers must ask anew with every project (and often several times at different phases of the same project). Although the book does not focus on authorial strategies, Boswell doesn’t hold back from sharing some when the moment presents itself. In “The Alternate Universe” he suggests that “My advice is to go over your drafts and look for the shimmer… [L]isten to what you’ve already written and let it advise you.” (115) He follows that up with a discussion of Alice Murno and her ability to make the reader believe multiple and (on the surface at least) conflicting things about her characters—just the kind of texture that listening to your own work in multiple revisions can earn for you. This kind of interplay between craft advice and example makes The Half-Known World the kind of book one learns from (and teaches with) in a variety of ways.
Although Boswell does a fine job in talking about what one might do, he is at his best when talking about what he has lived through as a writer and human being. In “On Omniscience,” for instance, he describes a harrowing parental moment in which his fifteen-yea-old daughter goes missing in downtown Houston. In response to a cop’s suggestion that she fits the profile of a runaway, Boswell the father thinks:
I knew he was right, and yet I knew he was wrong. I wanted to tell him all he could not know. I wanted to tell him that she fit the profile only if he eliminated almost everything I knew about her, about myself, about our family, about the world. (83)
Boswell’s willingness to delve into the half-known aspects of his own life in this fashion allows him to put his money where his mouth is when he talks about fiction. He doesn’t sit back and pontificate, but sets himself on a level ground with his readers by stressing his humanity rather than his status as a celebrated author. Nowhere is this clearer than in the final essay, “You Must Change Your Life,” which covers a dissolute period in Boswell’s young adulthood when he made his first awkward commitments to the writing life. (He earned a C in his first workshop, by the way.) This capstone piece to The Half-Known World proves that you never know, no matter how inauspicious your beginnings, where your writing is going to take you if you follow it with sincerity and assiduous humility. It’s a must-read for aspiring writers who are thinking about giving up, or of not embarking on the journey at all.
Writers Read: Steven Wingate (July 2008).