The Rhetoric of Fiction Paperback – 1 Feb 1983
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About the Author
Wayne C. Booth (1921 2005) was the George Pullman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. His many books include "The Rhetoric of Fiction," " A Rhetoric of Irony," " The Power and Limits of Pluralism," "The Vocation of a Teacher," and "For""the Love of It," all published by the University of Chicago Press."
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Top Customer Reviews
Rejecting critical attempts to remove the author from consideration when discussing textual meaning, Booth argues that any text must necessarily imply an author; that every choice made - from the simple act of writing about this subject rather than that one, to the arrangement of characters and incidents and right down to the selection of the words themselves - is the author's and that to pretend this is not so is to deprive author and reader of an essential means of common understanding.
To quote the author himself `When human actions are formed to make an art work, the form that is made can never be divorced from the human meanings, including the moral judgments, that are implicit whenever human beings act. And nothing the writer does can be finally understood in isolation from his effort to make it all accessible to someone else - his peers, himself as imagined reader, his audience. The novel comes into existence as something communicable, and the means of communication are not shameful intrusions unless they are made with shameful ineptitude'.
Happily, there is nothing inept about the arguments Booth and advances.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The title's reference to "rhetoric of fiction" makes this book sound obscure and academic, but I found Booth's inquiry into fictional "rhetoric"--that is, the techniques used by authors to persuade readers to accept what they are reading--accessible and insightful. Starting from the old "show vs. tell" debate of fiction-writing (the relative merits of presenting action directly vs. summarizing and explaining), Booth points out that storytelling has always involved the artifice of the author's giving the reader information, as of the inner nature of a character, that is not available to us in real life. We accept the biblical narrator's description of Job as a man who is perfect, upright, and who eschews evil, when we would never accept any such statements made by one living person about another.
Taking examples from a variety of works, from "The Odyssey" to "The Decameron" to "Emma" to "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", Booth shows how writers' approaches to narration have evolved to the 20th-century situation of authors' attempts to efface the narrator altogether and give the impression that the narrator is not providing any point of view at all (Booth thinks this effort hasn't exactly worked--at least, not without large and perhaps unintended tradeoffs). A recurring touchstone in the book is Henry James, who Booth feels is a particular master of the subtleties of narration and its authority.
Booth is clearly a knowledgeable and perceptive reader, but his tone is common-sense and reader-friendly. He is not an ivory-tower lecturer; he comes across as someone who loves fiction and who enjoys delving into its mysteries. He is disarmingly candid about the lack of critical consensus on just about any aspect of literature, and what this implies about its so-called experts.
Of course, the more of the works you have read that he discusses, the more you can get out of the discussion, although I enjoyed reading about works I had not yet read, and indeed Booth's appreciation of them encouraged me to read some I might not have otherwise (in my case, Jane Austen's "Emma").
One of my main recurring thoughts in reading this book was, "Hm, I never thought about that..." This is a critical work that does not kill works of art through analysis, but rather stimulates a heightened appreciation by looking at new subtleties in fiction. My relationship with fiction--a relationship that is very important to me--was deepened by reading this book.
Everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice agrees that the author is telling us that it is good that Elizabeth gave up her prejudice and that Darcy gave up his pride. Even if there is a reader who does not agree with such sentiments, he or she cannot deny that Austen does express those sentiments.
Having made the point that a writing must express a value system, Booth goes on to ask what kind of values books generally endorse. He finds that writers almost universally endorse what most of us understand to be the good and dislike what we understand to be the bad. At one point, Booth asks if someone had written an excellent book from the viewpoint of a nazi officer for whom the end of the Third Reich was a tragedy, a book with wonderful language, sentence construction, imagery, etc. would we like it as much as we like Hamlet. Would we regard the fate of the nazi officer, death at the hands of allied troops, as great a tragedy as the fate of Hamlet? Unlikely. And what about a reader who knew nothing about the nazis? What if the writer said that he was not endorsing the nazi viewpoint but was careful not to state that explicitly. Would a description of nazi beliefs or actions be enough to make them repugnant to the reader? Booth's answer is no. He believes that unless the context has a definite message - this is bad (or good)- the writer cannot rely on the reader coming to that conclusion, no matter what the writer puts down on paper. Recording the action say, of putting people in death camps, will not necessarily lead to the conclusion that such is a bad action. The writer, including writers who deny any such intent, guides the reader in what and how to think. (I don't remember Booth talking about it, but has not Gone with the Wind for many decades given readers the impression that slavery was not that bad?)
Booth does not believe that it is possible to record a purely neutral action. Every word that is put to paper stakes out one position or another.
Booth provides a masterly discussion of how literature affects the reader.
Many people, the people among us that apparently have the highest IQs, deny any connection between values and art, much less morality and art. But Booth points out how we feel when we read a book that does not endorse our values. We feel repugnance. Many readers, for instance, find it hard to like Mansfield Park. They find it hard to accept that Austen is endorsing the conservative scheme of morality in the book.
All in all, Booth shows us, in very clear language, how fiction works.
In what was likely Booth's most-recognized book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, he argued that all narrative is a form of rhetoric.
The book can be seen as his critique of those he viewed as mainstream critics. Critics according to Booth, who cites an abundant array of sources, that beginning roughly with Henry James began to emphasize the difference between "showing" and "telling" in fiction. And who have placed more and more of a dogmatic premium on "showing."
Despite the realistic effects that modern authors have achieved, according to Booth, trying to distinguish narratives in this way is simplistic and deeply flawed. He argued, citing authors of a variety of stripes, that they invariably both show and tell. And he observed that they appear to choose between the techniques based upon decisions about how to convey their various "commitments" along various "lines of interest."
Booth's criticism can be viewed as distinct from traditional biographical criticism (still practiced, especially among popular critics), the new criticism which argued that one can only talk about what the text says, and the modern criticism which argues for the "eradication" of authorial presence. Booth claimed that it is impossible to talk about a text without talking about an author, because the existence of the text implies the existence of an author.
Booth not only argued that, whether or not an author -- as distinct from the narrator of a text -- intrudes directly in a work, that readers will always infer the existence of an author behind any text they encounter. He also claimed that readers always draw conclusions about the beliefs and judgments (and also, conclusions about the skills and "success") of a text's implied author, along the text's various lines of interest:
"However impersonal he may try to be, his readers will inevitably construct a picture of the official scribe who writes in this manner -- and of course that official scribe will never be neutral toward all values. Our reaction to his various commitments, secret or overt, will help to determine our response to the work."
This implied author (a widely-used term that Booth coined in this book; who he also called an author's "second self") is the one who "chooses, consciously or unconsciously, what we read; we infer him as an ideal, literary, created version of the real man; he is the sum of his own choices"
Booth also spent several chapters -- which include numerous referrals to and citations from widely-recognized works of fiction -- describing the various effects that implied authors achieve along the various lines of interest that he identifies, and the pitfalls they fall into, depending upon whether or not the implied author provides commentary, and upon the degree to which a story's narrator is reliable or unreliable, personal or impersonal.
Booth detailed three "Types of Literary Interest" that are "available for technical manipulation in fiction":
"(1) Intellectual or cognitive: We have, or can be made to have, strong intellectual curiosity about "the facts," the true interpretation, the true reasons, the true origins, the true motives, or the truth about life itself. (2) Qualitative: We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire to see any pattern or form completed, or to experience a further development of qualities of any kind. We might call this kind "aesthetic," if to do so did not suggest that a literary form using this interest was necessarily of more artistic value than one based on other interests. (3) Practical: We have, or can be made to have, a strong desire for the success or failure of those we love or hate, admire or detest; or we can be made to hope for or fear a change in the quality of a character. We might call this kind "human," if to do so did not imply that 1 and 2 were somehow less than human."
In the 1983 edition of The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which a lengthy addendum to the original 1961 book was published, Booth outlined various identities taken on by both authors and readers: The Flesh-and Blood Author, the Implied Author, the Teller of This Tale, the Career Author, and the "Public Myth"; and, the Flesh-and-Blood Re-Creator of Many Stories, the Postulated Reader, the Credulous Listener, the Career Reader, and the Public Myth about the "Reading Public."
 The Rhetoric of Fiction 71.
 The term "second self" was brought into prominence by Kathleen Tillotson (1959), see Tom Kindt, Hans-Harald Müller, The Implied Author: Concept and Controversy (2006) p. 50).
 The Rhetoric of Fiction 74-75.
 The Rhetoric of Fiction 125.
 The Rhetoric of Fiction 428-421.