The Half-Known World – a review

BuddhaSnowdrops55 copyRobert Boswell’s, The Half-Known World – On Writing Fiction, is yet 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 byproduct of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct result of it. Boswell suggests we be on the lookout for these opportunities to help mutate our stories into something better. These devices, perhaps a physical object, or maybe an idiosyncrasy, can be an at-the–moment event, but then go on to service the larger function of the story.

They can be an effective “ticking symbol” but he warns they must be spontaneous, even unconscious and not obvious “plants”.

In my latest novel, The Big Picture, my protagonist wears a cheap watch with a dead battery. Every time she looks at it, forgetting that it doesn’t work, it symbolizes how broke she is, how reluctant she is to be ruled be the clock, and how insignificant these types of personal belongings are to her. When it appeared on her arm I had no idea the significant role it would play.

The other advice that was worthwhile was Boswell’s conviction that if you’re going to write politics into your fiction you must do it from the point of view of the antagonist, the aggressor. This way you can fully explore both sides of the argument and, if you insist on the truth, avoid the work becoming clichéd propaganda in favor of the victim – your protagonist.

Boswell suggests that exploring political issues is important work for writers. “Writers cannot pretend to be helpless,” he says.

Helpless, no. Impotent, probably.


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