Key Theories of Wayne C. Booth

Writing just over two decades after the publication of Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Shlomith Rimmon Kenan ponders the relationship between the actual author of a text and its ‘implied author’ as described by Booth; writing about narrative and film four decades after the initial publication of Booth’s text, Jakob Lothe theorizes the implied author, as a construct assembled by the reader, or viewer, of a written or visual narrative.These examples reveal just two ways in which one of the terms either invented or developed by Booth, has become common literary theoretical currency.

boothBorn in 1921, Wayne C. Booth was the George M. Pullman Professor of English and Distinguished Service Professor at The University of Chicago, where he had come under the influence of R.S. Crane (1886–1967) as a graduate student. Crane was leader of the Neo-Aristotelian School of criticism, an approach that was sceptical of New Criticism’s interest in language. The Neo-Aristotelian approach is based upon Aristotle’s four causes of literary works: 1, the poet (efficient cause); 2, the effect on the reader (final cause); 3, the language (material cause); and 4, the mimetic content (formal cause). This holistic approach to literature acted as a counterbalance to New Criticism; however, the focus on language continued in later movements such as Deconstruction, Semiotics or Structuralism, whereas the Neo-Aristotelian School is now defunct.

9780140552218-uk-300The Rhetoric of Fiction, republished in 1983 with an expanded second edition, combines the holistic approach of the Neo-Aristotelians with the precision of the New Critics; the resulting text has been widely influential, and even as the book has also more recently gone out of fashion, the analytical tools developed therein have simply become part of an everyday critical or narratological discourse. Booth’s mission in The Rhetoric of Fiction is a defence of the author (either ‘real’ or ‘implied’), that is to say, the author as an interplay of judgements and observations that give ‘ironic complexity’, ‘intensity of illusion’, ‘portrayal of moral ambiguities’, ‘revelation of truth’ and ‘prophetic vision’. Critics and modern writers such as Jean Paul Sartre had argued that literature should be autonomous, that all traces of authorial intervention should be removed; Booth responded by revealing what is gained, and what is lost, when authorial intervention is minimized or effaced. Overall, any choice that has been made in a text, argues Booth, is a sign of authorial judgement: ‘though the author can to some extent choose his disguises, he can never choose to disappear’. Important literary devices theorized by Booth are the showing/telling binary opposition, and the notion of the unreliable narrator.

Percy Lubbock (1879–1965) in his influential The Craft of Fiction (1921) argues that there is aesthetic value in ‘showing’ whereas direct ‘telling’ is a crude narrative device: in effect, Lubbock is saying that ‘showing’ is an autonomous and subtle mode of ‘telling’. Think of time passing in a novel: the statement ‘ten years went by’ is an example of telling; to show ten years passing by would involve describing changes, the aging of people or their belongings, shifts in fashion, and so on. Booth, in effect, deconstructs the showing/telling opposition: he argues that all showing reveals interpretive choice and critical judgement, and that, at times, ‘telling’ can be more successful and interesting than showing. In other words, the boundary between showing and telling is arbitrary and highly permeable. The ‘unreliable narrator’ is another important literary device: a reliable narrator is a relatively trustworthy source of information about the fictional world and its characters as depicted, whereas the unreliable narrator is, to put it mildly, ‘economical with the truth’. The latter may be deliberate, or because of some factor outside of the narrator’s control, such as restricted vision, ideological intensity or mental incapacity. Booth’s classic example of unreliability is the Governess in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw; a more recent example is Margaret Atwood’s narrator in her popular novel Surfacing. In James’s novella, the reader never knows if the narrator is deceived or deceiving; in Atwood’s novel, the unreliable narrator gradually reveals ‘the truth’ about her own unreliability (although ambiguities remain). Booth runs through the arguments for and against the reliability of the narrator in The Turn of the Screw, i.e. those arguments that attempt to analyse the psychic ‘deficiencies’ of the narrator, and those that take her judgements at face value; the resulting ‘unintentional ambiguity of effect’ found in such modern novels is seen as endlessly proliferating. An examination of ‘confusions of distance’ created in earlier eighteenth-century fiction enables Booth to prepare the way for his analysis of modern fiction. He argues that there are a number of causes that problematize the question of distance, these are: ‘lack of adequate warning that irony is at work’; ‘extreme complexity, subtlety, or privacy of the norms to be inferred’; and ‘vivid psychological realism’.3 In relation to The Turn of the Screw, the latter cause is of most interest, because it appears from this perspective to diminish the capacity for sound judgement in the reader, and it is the one that Booth argues creates sympathy for protagonists who may not morally deserve it:
“The deep plunges of modern inside views, the various streams-of- consciousness that attempt to give the reader an effect of living thought and sensation, are capable of blinding us to the possibility of our making judgements not shared by the narrator or reflector himself.” (Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago, IL: The University of
Chicago Press, 1983, pp. 316–322.)

The pre-eminent form for such a ‘deep plunge’, according to Booth, is autobiography:

let us finally bind the reader so tightly to the consciousness of the ambiguously misguided protagonist that nothing will interfere with his delight in inferring the precise though varying degrees of distance that operate from point to point throughout the book. (Ibid., p. 324.)

Resisting the relativism of infinite co-present interpretations of any one text, with especial reference to Joyce’s work, Booth is reminding the critic that certain ‘factual’ bases must exist in a text for judgments to be grounded; while this appears immensely outmoded after postmodernism, it is not outmoded in relation to a general theory of functional perception, for example, as developed by Edward Pols in his Radical Realism: Direct Knowing in Science and Philosophy (1992). The pedagogic aspects of The Rhetoric of Fiction point towards Booth’s wider concern with teaching, ethics and the impact of literature (Booth was president of the Modern Languages Association in 1982, reflecting his standing in the field and interests in teaching, and was one of the founding members of the influential journal Critical Inquiry). The ethics of literary ambiguities are explored by Booth in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (1974) and the conflictual nature of the heterogeneous literary theoretical field comes under attack in Critical Understanding (1979). But it is the more recent The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988) that develops more rigorous theoretical tools, in particular Booth’s concept of ‘coduction’, which is a process of evaluation and ongoing conversation based upon previous experience of texts. Coduction also attempts to explain the process of encountering the Other in a literary context, and the ways in which the reader’s value system is affected and even transformed by this encounter. Booth also engages with Reader Response Theory in The Company We Keep, arguing that coduction implies a set of values embedded in a text regardless of the need for a reader to respond to them. It is this notion of ‘a set of values’ in literary texts that Booth has explored in various ways throughout his career and via all of his publications.


Source: FIFTY KEY LITERARY THEORISTS by Richard J. Lane, Routledge Publication.

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