Wayne C. Booth and The Rhetoric of Fiction

In his 1979 study, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, Booth argues that there are five ways of approaching novels, or literary texts. The critic James Phelan summarizes these as follows: as an imitation of the world external to it (the mimetic approach), as an event in time (the historical approach),

as an autotelic object (the objective), as an expression – and revelation – of its author’s psychology or experience (the expressive or biographical), as a communication to an audience (rhetorical or reader-response). (Phelan 1988: 63)

The New Critics saw the text as autotelic, as a structure of words independent of its context, but Booth’s emphasis is on a textual environment of communication and reception. In his ‘Afterword’ to the second edition of The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth makes it clear that (unlike Trilling’s) his project is trans-historical and non-political: ‘studying the rhetoric of fiction is one thing and studying the political history of novels . . . is another’ (Booth 1983a: 413). Whether such a project is possible, productive, or welcome is another matter.

Booth’s entire approach to the novel is determined by his conviction that ‘[t]he novel comes into existence as something communicable’ (1961: 397). It is, or rather should be, an ‘essentially public’ form (1961: 395). Throughout The Rhetoric of Fiction and The Company We Keep, the focus is on fiction ‘viewed as the art of communicating with readers’ (1961: xiii). In terms of our communication model of narrative (p. 16), itself mainly derived from Booth, it is not just that the key elements in The Rhetoric of Fiction are the author, text, and reader; the concentration is on how these interact (or are thought of as interacting) in the process of writing and reading a novel. As Booth acknowledges, ‘James began at a different place entirely, with the effort to portray a convincing mind at work on reality’ (1961: 43). It is worth issuing a health warning at this point: an enormous amount of fiction is discussed or referred to by Booth, and there can be no expectation that his readers (or the readers of this book) can have read and assimilated all this material. Everything is to be gained, however, by reading more of the novels that surface in his argument.

Booth sees the author’s central task as that of transmitting to the reader a clear sense of a fictional world and its moral problems. Crucial to this act of communication is the extent to which the forms of rhetoric it adopts are effective to its purpose. There is no time in The Rhetoric of Fiction for what Booth projects as solitary, self-regarding, experimental novels that privilege the complex and meandering visions of idiosyncratic writers. Retreating to a ‘private world of values’ may be one response to a ‘fragmented society’, but the purpose of the novel in such a world should be to ‘mold a new consensus’ (1961: 393). If Trilling’s antagonists in The Liberal Imagination are novels committed to social realism and political propaganda, Booth’s are works of fiction that offer peculiar and confused social and moral perspectives, or novels that distinguish themselves as ‘pure’ because they strive for a seemingly impersonal style with no detectable perspective at all. The reader is offered little guidance in a world of moral complexity often intensified, for the sake of entertainment and technical display, by the multiplication of unresolvable ambiguities and interminable symbolism.

Booth has in mind novels such as the Austrian Franz Kafka’s (1883–1924) The Castle (1937) where ‘[n]o one tells us . . . what K’s goal is, or whether it is attainable, or whether it is a worthwhile goal in the first place’ (Booth 1961: 287). He saw ‘deliberate confusion’ (1961: 285) as a disease of the modern novel, and the Irish writer James Joyce (1882–1941) as one of its first proponents. Booth also criticizes James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) for its muddled and muddling narrative and absence of any clear moral position. It will become clear as the book proceeds, however, that Booth’s enduring legacy is less his rather inflexible views on morality, and much more the vocabulary and concepts he developed in order to explore what he sees as the gains and losses of impersonal narration.


Wayne C. Booth

For Booth, the main tool for the writer and critic of the novel is rhetoric, the means by which a particular author’s fictional world and its moral norms are communicated to the reader. Booth sets out to consider ‘whether rhetoric is compatible with art’ (1961: xiv) and ends up concluding that every move a writer makes is rhetorical: fiction is rhetoric. Booth demonstrates that despite the claims of the purists, each element of a novel (including dialogue, setting, symbolism, and so on) is part of its system of persuasion. As we have seen, there are two extremes in the spectrum of rhetoric available to the novelist: the use of garrulous narrators who obstruct at every opportunity the reader’s own access to the fictional world; and the elimination of such narrators to the point where the reader is left drifting. An example of the former would be the narrator in Henry Fielding’s (1707–54) novel, Tom Jones (1749), and the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet’s (1922–2008 ) Jealousy (1957) is offered by Booth as an example of the latter (1961: 62). Although Booth feels able (grudgingly) to ‘endure’ its ‘unmediated, mindless sensation or emotion’ because it is ‘less than 35,000 words long’ (1961: 63), he was generally repelled by the development in the 1950s of the nouveau roman in France. By the mid-twentieth century, in the culmination of that process which started with Flaubert and others in the mid-nineteenth century, only novels in the ‘pure’ category were regarded by many critics and readers as ‘realistic’, or convincing. What The Rhetoric of Fiction sets out to deny is the validity of any distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ fiction.

For Booth, ultimately, distinctions between ‘pure form’, ‘moral content’, and the ‘rhetorical means of realizing for the reader the union of form and matter’ are arbitrary because novels are ‘human actions’, and ‘moral judgments . . . are implicit whenever human beings act’ (1961: 397). It is almost impossible to detach any move Booth makes on the novel from his overriding moral concerns. It is worth noting here that the inseparability of form and content, and form and morality, is specified by Booth as inherent to novels that communicate successfully. This inseparability is formulated in organic terms (‘the unions of form and matter’) shared by Trilling and that reach back to James’s The Art of Fiction.

For those who abhor ‘the modern love of generalization’ (1961: 29), and Booth is at one with James and Trilling here, the novel is the most appropriate form of art. Booth endorses James’s insistence on the absurdity of applying general laws to the writing of fiction. Novelists are not, or should not be, bound by one method. They can create ‘peculiar literary kinds’, each of which, like James’s ‘subjects’ in The Art of Fiction, entails its own appropriate technique (Booth 1961: 35). In a biological framework – also occupied, again, by James – a novel is like an organism whose shape is determined by its purpose (not the other way round), a purpose that also includes the effect it is designed to have on its readers. The three main ‘variables’ of the novel are ‘subject-matter, structure, and technique’, and these ‘depend finally on notions of purpose or function or effect’ (Booth 1961: 57). In the same way that James refuses to accept any pre-existing, predetermining ways of writing the novel, and Trilling repudiates Parrington’s insistence on political and social relevance, Booth argues that only the novel’s purpose within the context of its specific conception can define and shape its form and content.

This sense of the limitless possibilities of novels restricted only by their initial choice of subject seems to correspond with Trilling’s celebration of the variety to which the form gives rise. But Booth sees Trilling’s recommendation of the ‘novel of ideas’ in The Liberal Imagination as an example of exactly the kind of extraneous constriction, or ‘normative’ approach, he wants to resist in favour of being ‘descriptive’ (Booth 1961: 31). There is an incoherence here, however, that comes close to wrecking the whole edifice of The Rhetoric of Fiction, and to which we shall return at the end of the book. Booth is close to rejecting rules established elsewhere in order to smuggle in his own. ‘The ultimate problem in the rhetoric of fiction’, he asserts, is ‘that of deciding for whom the author should write’ (1961: 396). But regardless of whether he writes for his peers, or fellow-novelists, ‘himself as imagined reader’, or his wider audience (1961: 397), he is involved in an act of communication that cannot be other than moral because, again, the human activity of communication can only ever be a moral act; one available, that is, for approval or condemnation. Towards the end of The Rhetoric of Fiction, the approach hardens into the normative view that technical innovation should always be subordinate to the ‘obligation to be as clear about’ the ‘moral position’ as possible (1961: 389). It seems at this point as if Booth is much more interested in a ‘conscious moral purpose’ (James 1884: 62) for the novel than either James or Trilling.

Booth is certainly a long way here from Trilling’s commitment to the liberating potential of ambiguity. Although he shared a belief in the need for novels to conduct a complex investigation of the disparities between illusion and reality, he had a firm view of the moral certainties such an investigation ought to yield. ‘Pure’ narration has ‘fouled’ our ‘lines of communication’: ‘we have looked for so long at foggy landscapes reflected in misty mirrors that we have come to like fog’ (Booth 1961: 372). The task of the novel, as Booth insists on it, is not to create the fog but to issue fog warnings. The ‘deliberate confusion’ of ‘fundamental truths’ (1961: 285) ought not to be the purpose of the novel.

Realism in The Rhetoric Of Fiction

Early in The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth considers the idea that the difference between the ‘intrinsic and extrinsic’ is central to any definition of realism in fiction (Booth 1961: 93). As we discussed in Chapter 1, by rhetoric Booth means the devices used by an author as part of that act of communication, or persuasion, which he sees as constituting all novels. ‘Extrinsic rhetoric’ is one way of labelling the overt commentary of conspicuous narrators. Where the narrator is much less conspicuous, or even seemingly invisible, judgements about the characters and issues involved are intrinsic to the novel, or embedded (for example) in the scenes between characters. Partly on the authority of Aristotle, no less, the New Critics, in particular, tended to castigate the extrinsic approach as impure, or unrealistic, and to celebrate the intrinsic, on the other hand, as being pure and realistic.

Plato made an important distinction, further pursued by Aristotle, between ‘simple narrative’ (or ‘diegesis’) and ‘narrative conveyed by imitation (mimesis)’ (Plato 1972: 60) which does indeed, at first sight, appear to correspond with that between the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Furthermore, Aristotle seems to favour the intrinsic approach over the extrinsic when drawing on Plato’s terminology. He praises Homer for speaking in his own person ‘as little as possible’ (Aristotle 1972: 125) and for avoiding, thereby, too many elements extraneous to the imitated action. Booth sees this dispute as central to the consideration of realism in the novel. But before turning to it, he offers a useful taxonomy, or list, of the elements involved in the concept of realism itself. Booth proposes that there are three variables, three areas over which any author has to exercise control, in producing the effect of realism: subject-matter, structure, and narrative technique.

The subject-matter can involve a commitment to doing ‘justice to reality outside the book’, or to society (reverting to the narrative model on p. 16), or ‘social reality’ (Booth 1961: 55). When Trilling concentrates on the representation of Lady Bertram’s integrity to the self in Mansfield Park, Booth would term this ‘metaphysical’ reality or ‘truth’ (1961: 55). Some writers regard their subject-matter as the ‘sensations’ aroused by objects and people in the world of experience, the task being the ‘accurate transcription’ (1961: 56) of such sensations. Finally – although Booth admits that he is passing over, among many others, ‘economic, psychological’, and ‘political’ (1961: 56) programmes – there is the broad subject-matter of character and how much of any particular character should be included, or described, and how, for the purposes of realism.

Writers who ‘have tried to make their subjects real’ usually seek ‘a realistic structure or shape of events’ (1961: 56). The key issue here is that of probability in relation to cause and effect. Some novelists have concluded that it is ‘unrealistic to show chance at work’ in what readers always know is actually a ‘fictional world’, whereas others reject ‘a careful chain of cause and effect’ (1961: 56) as artificial. If life-likeness is to be a gauge of realism, the ‘soaring climaxes or clear and direct opening expositions’, in fact plots in general, are to be ‘deplored’ (1961: 56).

It is narrative technique, however, that takes Booth back to the main object of his attack: the privileging of the intrinsic over the extrinsic in the interests, mistakenly, of realism. Where a novel veers towards focusing on the metaphysical, technical dogmatism is likely to be the result. A writer dealing with the ambiguities of the human condition, the lack of certainty about anything in the world, for example, is likely to insist on the exclusion of the ‘authoritative narrative techniques’ (1961: 56) of the extrinsic method. Whereas this kind of realism often results in ‘creating the illusion that the events are taking place unmediated by the author’ (1961: 57), other writers require that stories should be told as they ‘might be told in real life’ (1961: 57). Joseph Conrad’s (1857–1924) The Heart of Darkness (1902) would be a case in point, even though there can be nothing realistic about the phenomenal powers of recall and narrative control with which Conrad imbues Marlow.

Booth believes that it is important to bear in mind the different agendas of writers who think that realism is an end in itself and those who see it as the means towards some other end. There are openly didactic writers for whom realism is only the means by which their particular message is transmitted; such writers are likely to fracture the illusion of realism where necessary. An example of this would be the constant interruption of the story by George Eliot’s narrator in Middlemarch (1871–2). For Henry James, Booth argues, the illusion of realism, rather than realism itself, is the objective. The creation of this illusion ‘as an effect to be realized in the reader’ (1961: 58) is subordinate to all other considerations. A writer such as Dickens may have prided himself on his mimesis, his relentless imitations of action (although he often included narrative asides), but he was always willing to sacrifice realism for the sake of comic effect or entertainment.

Like James and Trilling, Booth is vigorously opposed to prescriptions in advance about realism. Booth sees James as committed to that ‘dissimulation’ discussed in the first section of this chapter. Yet James certainly did not have a one-size-fits-all narrative strategy. In a nutshell, Booth’s position is that there should not be ‘a general rhetoric in the service of realism’, but ‘a particular rhetoric for the most intense experience of distinctive effects’ (1961: 50). Horses for courses, we might say. In the same way that Aristotle did not rule out diegesis, objecting only to its excessive use, Booth argues that extraneous commentary may be necessary for the sake of clarity and clarification in some narrative situations, but obtrusive and unwelcome in others. This takes us back not only to the concept of organic form, but to one of its first proponents, Aristotle. The unity of a text was critical for Aristotle. As a biologist, his model for that unity was the body. Plays in particular, which is what he had in mind in his Poetics, should represent, or imitate, a ‘unified action’, so that they produce their ‘proper pleasure like a single whole living creature’ (Aristotle 1972: 123). The point about bodies, or organisms, however, is not just that they are organized, but that they are organized for diverse purposes and can adapt, physically and mentally, to particular environments.

There are few, if any, rules that can be handed down in advance for the unique experiences an individual encounters. The same goes for the novel. The blanket rule that the intrinsic method will always serve the purposes of realism better is absurd: it implies that realism (in ways that Booth’s taxonomy has falsified) is a monolithic category and overlooks the extent to which communication, again the main purpose of the novel for Booth, should have as its goal successful transmission and reception in particular contexts. For Booth, every element of the narrative model on p. 16 is part of this overall transaction. But as we saw at the end of the last chapter, Booth’s flexibility is a form of the dissimulation of which he accuses James. By the end of The Rhetoric of Fiction, as will emerge in the final chapter, it is clear that Booth prefers the extrinsic to the intrinsic method, even though he wants to deny the validity of the distinction. This is why he attacks James for wanting to conceal the illusory nature of his realism.

Key Theories of Wayne C. Booth

Antczak, Frederick J. (ed.) (1995) Rhetoric and Pluralism: Legacies of Wayne Booth, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press
Baker, John Ross (1977) ‘From Imitation to Rhetoric: The Chicago Critics, Wayne C. Booth and Tom Jones’, in Mark Spilka (ed.) Towards a Poetics of Fiction, Bloomington, IN and London: Indiana University Press: 136–56.
Bialostosky, Don (1985) ‘Booth’s Rhetoric, Bakhtin’s Dialogics, and the Future of Novel Criticism’, Philosophy and Literature 4: 257–65.
Comstock, Gary (1984) ‘Wayne C. Booth, Pluralist’, Religious Studies Review, 10: 252–7.
Kilham, John (1966) ‘The “Second Self ” in Novel Criticism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 6: 272–90.
Phelan, James (1988) ‘Wayne C. Booth’, Modern American Critics Since 1955 (Dictionary of Literary Biography 67), ed. Gregory S. Jay, Detroit, MI: Bruccoli Clark Layman: 49–66.
Richter, David (1982) ‘The Second Flight of the Phoenix: NeoAristotelianism Since Crane’, Eighteenth Century, 23: 27–48
Schwartz, Daniel R. (1985) ‘Reading as a Moral Activity’, Sewanee Review, 93: 480–5.
Stecker, Robert (1987) ‘Apparent, Implied, and Postulated Authors’, Philosophy and Literature, 11: 258–71.
Source: Rawlings, Peter. American Theorists of the Novel. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

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