Wayne C(layson) Booth Essay - Critical Essays

Booth, Wayne C(layson)


Wayne C(layson) Booth 1921–

American critic and editor.

Booth is a critical pluralist; he believes that there is more than one valid way to evaluate works of art. Booth's position has been denounced both by dogmatists, who claim that there is only one way to view artworks, and by skeptics, who think that neither side can be reconciled and that every critical opinion is based on certain fallacies. Booth's criticism is characterized by clear, concise prose, a strong argumentative technique, and a wittiness which relieves the heavy intellectualism of his topics.

The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth's first book, immediately established him as a true "Chicago Critic," a designation which indicates that Booth follows the neo-Aristotelian thought championed by R. S. Crane, Booth's instructor at the University of Chicago. The Aristotelian critics believe that art must contribute something to life beyond immediate pleasure; it has a function of the highest order, to instruct as well as to entertain. Art, as Aristotle believed, is essentially imitative; it is, as Booth says, "a living out of how some problems of life can be represented." The Rhetoric of Fiction discusses the way in which the author's meaning is expressed and conveyed to the reader. Booth's key concept involves the "implied author," or the reader's conception of the author's values and attitudes. A Rhetoric of Irony also analyzes authorial intention and the bond between reader and writer that occurs when the reader understands both literal and ironic meanings in works of literature. Booth's recent book, Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, explores the pluralism of Crane, Kenneth Burke, and M. H. Abrams, and the implications of their beliefs on modern criticism.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3.)

Milton A. Mays

Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction has had exceptionally favorable reviews. These reviews, it seems to me, fall into two classes; the merely unintelligent, and the invalid. I say invalid because even those reviews worth reading are somewhat beside the point, in that what they find to praise is mostly Booth's criticism of individual works. His analyses are, admittedly, sometimes very good (although they are sometimes bad as well); but The Rhetoric of Fiction asks to be taken as a contribution to the theory of fiction, not merely as a collection of critical essays. A work of theory must be tested by criteria including the clarity and usefulness of its terminology, the consistency with which terminology is employed, and the logic of the overall argument. In these respects I think that The Rhetoric of Fiction fails. That good criticism can be—we need not say produced by, but only associated with—the most inadequate of theoretical preconceptions will not, of course surprise anyone very old in the game, although it will always be a cause of despair to the aesthetically pure of mind.

The Rhetoric of Fiction is dedicated to Ronald Crane, and acknowledges as its basis the "critical pluralism" of Richard McKeon. Some readers have apparently considered this work to have all the strengths and none of the weaknesses of the Chicago school. Without any comment on the strengths of that school, I would say that the degree to which this work embodies the characteristic weaknesses of the Chicago school is in fact rather striking.

Despite Booth's occasional insights and staggeringly wide reading in world fiction and the criticism of fiction, The Rhetoric of Fiction is a rather confused work, and one more liable to engender confusion than to spread light on the theory of fiction. The effort to comprehend the failure of this book will, however, force the reader to face most of the major issues for an aesthetic of fiction. He who survives will be a better man.

While holding the traditional schemes of point of view inadequate, it is with point of view in some sense that The Rhetoric of Fiction is primarily concerned, and with the way in which point of view is employed in fiction to express the author's values, or meaning. The particular aspect of point of view which most interests Booth is authorial commentary, the intrusive (if you think it is) "telling" voice of the narrator, anathema to what might be called our classic tradition of the criticism of fiction, that stemming from Henry James, formulated by Percy Lubbock, and including the late Joseph Warren Beach and, as a current representative, The House of Fiction of Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate. (pp. 84-5)

This accepted system of point of view is not only descriptive, but prescriptive. Following the prejudices of the Old Master, Henry James, "limited point of view" is deemed more viable than the unlimited point of view, or the omniscient author in which the author knows all, and often "tells all" as well, imposing his own opinions, evaluations, or just plain chat on the reader from above and outside the fictional world…. Limited point of view has come to mean something like "dramatic" or, even looser, "objective," and is thought to ensure works which are "shown," not "told" (which gets us into deep waters indeed). (p. 85)

The "James-Lubbock tradition" is, according to Booth, "dogmatic" in its insistence on authorial objectivity, on "showing" rather than "telling" as the norm for fiction. Booth argues against this dogma by extending it to its logically absurd limits. If we agree to expunge every sign of the author, says Booth, not only must direct addresses to the reader be sacrificed, but also every "shift of point of view," every "inside view" into a character's mind, "every pattern of myth or symbol; they all implicitly evaluate"—everything, in a word, must go which betrays the fact that we are in the presence of literature, not "life." Now this strikes me as a bit silly: of course an author is implied by a work, and the taking of the rule of "authorial objectivity" to lengths which no sane critic ever took it does not prove that, properly applied, it has not much to recommend it. And to say, as Booth seems to, that there is no essential difference in degree of "authorial intrusion" from one work to another is obviously a mistake. We are told that "the author's voice is as passionately revealed in the decision to write…. Madame Bovary as it is in the most obtrusive direct comment of the kind employed by Fielding, Dickens, or George Eliot." Of course: no one ever supposed that Madame Bovary was spirit-written. But Flaubert's "voice" is sublimated to tone, while George Eliot's is frequently heard "as voice." The difference in technique is inescapable, whether or not one wants to attach the value to Flaubert's method that Allan Tate does, or to George Eliot's that, it seems, Wayne Booth does.

Booth counters this "limited point of view dogma" with what he refers to as "rhetoric," a term nowhere explicitly defined (despite a claim to this effect in the index) and the exact nature of which it is impossible to infer from context. The first uses of the term in the preface illustrate this difficulty. When Flaubert "barges into" his action to explain the workings of Emma's mind, we are in the presence of "overt, distinguishable rhetoric," Booth claims. But there is also a "disguised rhetoric," such as James's use of the device of the ficelle, which has nothing to do with authorial instrusion. Both forms of "rhetoric" are used in "the effort to help the reader grasp the work"; rhetoric, then, is "the art of communicating with readers." This is too broad a definition, but at least it seems to point to elements of form. A little further on, however, in speaking of the Decameron, Booth refers to the work's "shifting rhetoric," which seems to be equated with Boccaccio's "standards of judgment" which "change so radically" from one part of the work to another that "it is difficult to discover any figure in Boccaccio's carpet" (though whether this means Booth finds the work aesthetically incoherent or not I cannot tell). "Rhetoric" here seems to mean "moral values" rather than any element of technique.


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Mark Roberts

[The following is a primary concern in The Rhetoric of Fiction]: How does the writer of fiction (and Professor Booth does not ignore types of fiction other than the novel, though most of his book is about novels) ensure that the reader takes the intended view of his story? But there are, of course, other questions to be got out of the way before this central question can be asked: for example, we must consider the case of the writer who denies that he intends the reader to take a particular view of his story, who says that he aims to present life as it is and leave the reader to draw what conclusions he wishes. Unless Professor Booth is willing to restrict himself only to that fiction in which the author...

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[The Rhetoric of Fiction] makes good the claim on the dust jacket that it offers "the most significant analysis of the novelist's art" since Percy Lubbock's Craft of Fiction. But it differs from that classic study, indeed from much of the criticism of fiction which it ably surveys, in that it is written with no overspecific commitment. Whereas since Lubbock there has been a tendency to be more Jamesian than James, the present study shows a catholic taste and a practical empiricism. It is refreshingly free from arrogance and special pleading, and it avoids the cryptic and the dogmatic. Yet it does not undertake a survey of the many mansions of fiction, or offer a formal classification by kinds, or proceed...

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Scott Elledge

[Wayne Booth does not predict in Now Don't Try to Reason with Me] how the great confrontation [between those who want to capture the universities and those who want to continue to hold them] will turn out. The revolutionaries' ammunition is inexhaustible, their potential numerical superiority overwhelming, and the fuel to feed their motives plentiful and explosive. The academic establishment's weapons (like those of the law) are few and cumbersome, its positions and strongholds almost untenable against current modes of attack, its ranks weakened by a few who wish they were young enough to be fighting with the guerrillas, and its reactionary supporters on the outside even more dangerous than its professed...

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Thomas W. Benson

Anyone who has written so useful a book as The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) deserves an especially attentive audience from readers of this journal. But rhetoricians looking into Now Don't Try to Reason with Me … will moderate their admiration for Booth's courage in taking up the big questions with a familiar disappointment that the questions go, once more, unanswered. Things get under way briskly enough with the announcement that the author's concern is to renew the force of reason in an age given to gullibility and misdirected sincerity. But the pieces are occasional, the audiences often inexpert, and the author gyrates in a continual process of discovery, development, and restatement, so the solid...

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Kenneth Burke

It is gratifying to read so calm and academically mellow a book [as A Rhetoric of Irony] in days like these when so much is hurried and harried and always going awry. But A Rhetoric of Irony is hard to review. For besides its saying so much so well, the appeal of the subject matter makes the reviewer, like Jimmy Durante's everybody, want to get into the act….

By "rhetoric" [Booth] has in mind the ways whereby the use of irony establishes a bond of "communion" between writer and reader. When a sentence would be interpreted one way if taken straight, quite as it says on its surface, and a wholly different way if read with the proper ironic discount, then ironic writer and ironic reader...

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Denis Donoghue

Professor Booth spends some time on the definition of irony [in A Rhetoric of Irony]: it is present, according to his account, when the surface meaning of a passage must be rejected, and another, incongruous, and "higher" meaning must be reached by reconstructing the evidence. He finds unacceptable any definition which is too wide to be specifically useful; such as Cleanth Brooks's in The Well Wrought Urn, where irony is "the most general term we have for the kind of qualification which the various elements in a context receive from the context". Professor Booth disapproves of this account because it makes every day an open season, sets every reader hunting. He prefers a strict definition, partly in the...

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Even though Wayne Booth claims only a secondary concern for critical theory, [The Rhetoric of Irony] is bound to interest us because of the importance of his Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) and of his stature as an elder statesman of the educational institution. In his preface he … denies being an Aristotelian, sheds doubt on the category "Chicago Critics," rejects general systems or critical schools, and declares himself, in private at least, "an addicted ironist." All of this is surprising, particularly the last, for in The Rhetoric of Fiction Booth found little to praise in the pervasive irony of some of the greatest modern writers. To write ironically about irony, to come from Chicago and...

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Robert Buffington

In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent Booth engages the modern mind and its dualisms. It is an exciting book, not in the way that it proceeds—though much expanded, it suffers in several ways from its original lecture format—but in its good news. (p. xxxiv)

Booth does not attempt to establish an epistemology or even, despite the systematic appearance of the book, a systematic rhetoric…. What he attempts is to reestablish as intellectually respectable, roughly under the classical rhetorical heads of ethical proof and emotional proof, some of the other good reasons there are to assent to an argument besides empirical and logical proof: for example, the reason of expert testimony. It...

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William Empson

[A Rhetoric of Irony] is a good book. It quotes a number of long examples, arguing from them in detail "how we manage to share ironies and why we often do not," with mild discouragement for current follies on the subject; and the literary judgments (as apart from philosophical or historical ones) seem to me right every time…. I found it all the more extraordinary that what I had long thought "irony" to mean does not get mentioned at all.

The basic situation for the trope of irony, without which it would not have been invented, involves three people. There is a speaker, "A," an understanding hearer, "B," and a censor who can be outwitted, a stupid tyrant, "C." A successful use of the pure...

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Philip Stevick

Everything is to be said for working patiently through the stages of one's subject, especially when one's subject has been as shabbily done as Wayne Booth's. What, after all, exists explicitly and directly on the subject of irony, a subject so dominant in the critical writing on modern literature that, as Booth points out [in A Rhetoric of Irony], vast numbers of articles, dissertations, and books in the last thirty years have had "irony" in their titles?… Compare the critical work that surrounds any of the better known modernists and the volume of critical writing on irony seems, indeed is, pathetically thin, reason for Booth to throw up his hands, begin at the beginning, and work his way through his subject...

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John Ross Baker

In the past The Rhetoric of Fiction has been properly enough read mostly as a work about prose fiction, but the book's importance is such as to warrant an attempt at "placing" it according to its general critical and theoretical orientation. Although this procedure may seem to risk forcing Booth into a Neo-Aristotelian bed of Procrustes, it will actually turn out to provide a way of assessing his originality and independence. The late R. S. Crane has referred to The Rhetoric of Fiction as offering "a fuller development and more specific applications of the general approach to critical problems outlined" in his The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, but Booth has in fact achieved a...

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Jonathan Culler

Wayne Booth wants literary critics to be pluralists, not champions of a single method. A pluralist believes that "two or more conflicting positions may be entirely acceptable" but that many other positions are wrong; truth is plural but nevertheless there is truth. Critical Understanding investigates the criticism of three professed pluralists, R. S. Crane, Kenneth Burke, and M. H. Abrams, to see whether pluralism is possible. Are they, in fact, pluralists, or only disguised monists? Can Booth himself be a pluralist and accept all three on their own terms? He is scrupulous in argument here, shrewdly identifying monistic presuppositions, choices, or conclusions, and he repeatedly encounters an awkward problem:...

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William E. Cain

This review violates the first commandment of book reviewing: do not criticize an author for failing to give us a book he never intended to write. But I see no getting around the fact that Wayne Booth's Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism is misconceived. In my judgment, it is over-written, organized on highly questionable lines, and committed to solving problems that do not exist, at least not in the terms which Booth uses to describe them.

From one page to the next, Booth's writing is careful and lucid. But his book stretches over far too many pages, as he tediously returns to the same arguments in favor of a "limited pluralism," and, in the final chapters, offers...

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Morse Peckham

Professor Booth has written [Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism] in a relaxed, personal, and occasionally self-indulgent style, and I shall discuss it in the same tone. He concludes his book with "A Hippocratic Oath for the Pluralist," which ends with the notion that if the critical community used his "five simple ordinances, we would write and read only about one-fourth as many critical words." I would say about one-tenth. (p. 429)

Briefly in his ordinances and at length in his first chapter, Booth discusses not understanding other critical works adequately, with the result that attacks are constantly being made upon straw men. Quite true, and I should like to glance...

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Michael Fischer

Wayne C. Booth avoids anchoring his argument in the needs of criticism at the present time, but his fascination with critical freedom explains why he has to justify pluralism in [Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism]. Pluralism, as he defines it, does not resolve critical disagreements but gives them meaning. Against relativists like [Stanley] Fish, Booth argues that some reading may be wrong; against monists, he counters that more than one reading may be right…. Booth wants not to discourage variety but to foster it; the richness of literature calls for diversity in interpretation.

Booth's defense of pluralism, however, has a hard time getting off the ground or, more...

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Monroe C. Beardsley

[In the past], vigorous debates about what criticism is and ought to have been conducted under the rules of sporting competition: each combatant plays to win and the victors believe they deserve their laurels. What is noteworthy about the present scene is not only the unprecedented multiplicity and strangeness of criticisms but the resultant resignation: that is, the widespread conviction that somehow we must come to amicable terms with all of them and find some intelligible way of acknowledging that they are all victors, in their fashion. Hence the problem posed for [Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism]; and, admirably, it faces up to, comes to close grips with, this problem more...

(The entire section is 1564 words.)