Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on The Half-Known World

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at the last book on my list for this project: The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell

Boswell is actually a writer I encountered earlier in this project but didn’t realize it until about halfway through The Half-Known World. In Bringing the Devil to His Knees, there was a memorable essay about something the author called “narrative spandrels.” When I started reading a chapter in The Half-Known World on the same subject, I didn’t realize they were by the same person until he used the same example of a narrative spandrel used badly.

Narrative spandrels, if you’re wondering, are elements of a story that “come to guide and shape the story, and give the writer the opportunity to create a beautiful and meaningful whole.” The thing about narrative spandrels is that even though they are the key to creating an “elaborate, harmonious, and purposeful story,” you can’t plan for them. They have to happen by accident.

In both Bringing the Devil and The Half-Known World, Boswell holds up the Jennifer Aniston movie Picture Perfect as an example of a forced or bad attempt at using a narrative spandrel. (He doesn’t name the movie but he mentions that it stars Aniston and discusses enough of the plot that I was able to Google which movie he was talking about.) I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the movie, but the spandrel in question has something to do with a Cinderella watch that the character’s love interest gives her at the end. According to Boswell, this is a bad or forced use of a narrative spandrel because the seeds for the plot development are deliberately planted earlier in the movie so that it could become a cheap payoff at the end. Or something.

Back when I was reading Bringing the Devil, this really frustrated me. It seemed like what Boswell was describing was just yet another element of craft that was available only to those with special genius. Narrative spandrels are key to telling a meaningful story but if you deliberately try to create one, as the writers of Picture Perfect apparently did, then you’re doing it wrong.


But reading about the subject again in The Half-Known World, I felt I understood a little better what Boswell was trying to say. Narrative spandrels are happy accidents that can happen to any writer. But only some writers are able to recognize them when they happen and then use them to, as Boswell says, guide and shape the story. It’s really more about harnessing the magic of writing than it is about unattainable genius.

The other essay in Boswell’s book that stood out to me was one about detective novels and mystery fiction. As a reader, Boswell says that he avoided detective novels for a long time because, I guess, they weren’t literary enough. Then he discovered Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and realized that, in the right hands, genres and forms can be used in the name of creating literary fiction. I mean, Boswell is still pretty dismissive of any genre fiction that he doesn’t consider literary in nature but at least he’s willing to make a little more space for the value of genre than most of the other writers I’ve read as part of this project.

Still, though. I can’t help but think of the spandrels thing. In the essay on genre, Boswell is willing to give a pass to mystery stories that might qualify as literary but the ones he gives a pass to all represent a distinctly male point of view. Meanwhile, when he needs to hold up an example of bad writing in his spandrels essay, he chooses a romantic comedy aimed at a female audience. Now, I’m not about to try to defend the quality of a movie like Picture Perfect, but it does bother me that so often in these books on writing, the stories and genres that are enjoyed primarily by women—like romance novels—are the ones being held up for this kind of critique, which at times (not necessarily in Boswell’s case) borders on ridicule. Writing book authors accuse romance writers (and to some extent their readers) of being lazy but frankly I think it’s lazy of those who write writing books to keep taking shots at the romance genre. For one thing, it’s a genre most of them never seem to have read.(1). For another, none of them seem to have anything new to say about what it is that’s supposedly so bad about romance.


The Half-Known World ends with an essay on Boswell’s journey from being a student of writing to being an actual writer. As a student, he earned a C in one of his writing workshops (he makes certain to put the emphasis on “earned” here) and once had a story of his ridiculed as purple prose by a writing instructor in front of his entire class.(2) That same writing instructor later hired Boswell to a position among the creative writing faculty at his university. When Boswell asked his former instructor if he remembered him, he said, “Of course I do…You got a C. You were quite the numbskull.”

For whatever reason, I thought that was quite a touching (and funny) story. I’m glad that after the frankly exhausting experience of reading fourteen books on writing in the space of just a few months, that was the note I got to end my project on.


(1) In fairness, Boswell does actually seem to have seen Pitch Perfect, so at least he has some knowledge of the text he’s critiquing. I’m still waiting to find out if Charles Baxter has ever actually read a Danielle Steele novel.

(2) Somehow, this same experience didn’t traumatize him the way it would have traumatized me if I’d been in his shoes, but I guess that’s kind of the point.

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