Wayne C(layson) Booth

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John Ross Baker

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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 broadening of Neo-Aristotelian theory that amounts to wholesale revision. Nevertheless, The Rhetoric of Fiction opens with the particular distinction among literary "kinds" most fundamental to the Neo-Aristotelians. The very first paragraph of the Preface, with its insistent differentiation of "didactic" from "non-didactic," employs Chicago terminology, even though for the orthodox "imitative" Booth substitutes "non-didactic"; the works he cites as "didactic" are among the handful cited in earlier Chicago criticism as convenient examples of the "didactic." (pp. 137-38)

Booth's aim in The Rhetoric of Fiction was of course much more specific than I have indicated—he was working with the problem of "the author's voice" in fiction—and I cannot claim that he was consciously attempting the radical "broadening" of Neo-Aristotelianism I have stressed. Given his care to argue that his concept of "rhetoric" is merely an expansion of Aristotle's,… Booth obviously sees his own work as the sort of extension and refinement of Aristotle's method that Crane has urged and has asserted The Rhetoric of Fiction has helped to supply. What I am concerned with, however, is the actual effect this work has on Chicago theory. The problem of "the author's voice" that Booth grapples with provides the most convenient way not only into his conscious aim but also into the actual reorientation of Chicago theory he brings about, for although he appears to be reacting to fiction criticism deriving from James, he is in reality challenging what for Crane is central, "the imitative principle itself." (p. 138)

[Booth's main interest is] apparently hermeneutic—how the novel is "communicated" to the reader, by what devices and features of the work the reader is able to grasp the novel. Hence anything and everything in a novel—but especially point of view—may become a "rhetorical" element in Booth's expanded sense of the term. But this hermeneutic interest—because of the prevalence of "impersonal" and "unreliable" narration since James, and before James, too—quickly comes to rest in what is for Booth the problem of discerning the novelist's "norms." Although these "norms" resemble what for a hermeneutic theorist like E. D. Hirsch, Jr. would be the sense of the "whole" into which the particulars fit, they are for Booth much more specific than merely "what the work means": they involve "the reader's need to know where, in the world of values, he stands—that is, to know where the author wants him to stand."… There is of course little problem when the author "tells" him where to stand, but in fiction which "shows" the action—in fiction which adheres closely to Crane's "imitative principle itself"—and does not "tell" him where to stand, the problem may become acute. The problem is compounded, too, because as a Neo-Aristotelian and a sensitive reader Booth must see the work as an artistic whole somehow detached from its author: how can the author tell the reader where to stand when the author should not be in the...

(This entire section contains 2337 words.)

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work in the first place? Booth's way out—the invention of the "implied author"—is difficult to regard as anything more than a verbal evasion of a problem that remains insoluble in Neo-Aristotelian terms, and perhaps in other terms, too. (p. 142)

The concept of the "implied author," with its air of being an inference from the work and thus as it were, like plot, an objective feature of the work, enables Booth to talk about the author under the guise of still appearing to talk about the work. Besides, to return to Booth's emphasis on "rhetoric," when the critic begins to search into the novel for the means by which it is communicated to the reader, he is in fact looking for what the author has done—"rhetorically"—to communicate with the reader…. [When] Booth invents the "implied author," it is to be able to write about the "norms" of this "implied author," which—though nothing more than inferences from the work—become the "norms" of the real author. Like many things we think of as objects of our experience, the "real author" as well as the "implied author" is of course a construct, and such constructs may be heuristic: if we are interested in "rhetoric" and "communication" yet still have scruples about intentionalism, what better way out of the dilemma than to invent an "implied author" as a feature of the work, especially if this construct can perform the same function as a construct of a different order—the "real author" demanded by a naively realistic theory of rhetoric?

Booth's "norms" begin merely as a means of "communication." If for some reason they are not clearly discernible within the work, the "communication" Booth seeks between author and reader breaks down. So Part II of The Rhetoric of Fiction is devoted largely to the help "the author's voice in fiction" provides the reader in discerning the "norms," Part III to the obstacles that "impersonal narration" sometimes puts between the reader and the "norms." But, because they will finally contribute to the shift Booth effects in Neo-Aristotelianism from an aesthetic to a frankly moral interest, what is important for our present purposes is the sort of thing they involve. Quite simply, they are the beliefs of the author that the reader must grasp if he is to grasp the novel or if "communication" is to take place. But even though Booth has expanded "rhetoric" to encompass this sort of "communication," he has not altogether abandoned its older sense of persuasion, for not only must the reader grasp the norms but he must share them as well. In fact, Booth speaks of "some great works" of Shakespeare as able "to win readers of all camps," as if Shakespeare were a classical rhetorician…. The "norms" turn out to be standards of moral judgment whereby the reader knows whether to condemn or sympathize with a character and his attitudes. (pp. 143-44)

Although near the beginning of The Rhetoric of Fiction … Booth mentions the Horatian "instruction and delight" formula as a general criterion of an earlier age, he demonstrates with startling clarity elsewhere—but perhaps nowhere more forcefully than … in his discussion of The Sound and the Fury—just what a long time that formula has taken in dying. If we might find slightly embarrassing in the original Neo-Aristotelians the emphasis on pleasure (even though it is the pleasure appropriate to particular kinds of art), the pleasure is here tamed by collocation with an end no moralist could object to: "mature moral judgment." (pp. 145-46)

We have witnessed in Booth's "rhetorical" criticism a change not only in critical approach but—more importantly—in the object the critic studies. The original Neo-Aristotelians discern two large kinds of poetic wholes, the "imitative" and the "didactic." In the "imitative" kind the completeness and the unity of the artistic whole depend on the action "imitated." In the "didactic" kind, however, although it may use certain devices of the "imitative," the completeness and the unity of the whole depend not on the action but on the "doctrine" to be inculcated. Booth of course recognizes this basic distinction when he finds that the indecipherability of the "norms" in the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels is "paid for by a loss of satiric force,"… for satire is a "didactic" species in which "doctrine" is central. But what are the "norms" in presumably "imitative" fiction if they are not the same as the "doctrine" that Booth and the other Chicagoans find in the "didactic"? The "imitative" part of fiction remains important for Booth, but it gives way before the "norms"—the "doctrine." If "doctrine" is to be inculcated, "norms" are to be "communicated." In short, what had formerly been the "imitative" kind has now become the "didactic" kind. As if he were a latter-day Horace, Booth finds the "pleasure" afforded by "imitation" combining with the moral utility of "doctrine" to provide a new—or a very old—view of literature. (p. 147)

[The concluding paragraph of The Rhetoric of Fiction is] an impressive defense of fiction, but are the "norms" enabling one to sympathize or to condemn in the same fashion as the author—real or "implied"—actually the sort of "norms" which might enable readers to "see what they have never seen before," to move "into a new order of perception and experience altogether"? Since the "norms" Booth worries about in The Rhetoric of Fiction are so much a matter of commonplaces, even when they are the "norms" in King Lear, the defense is hardly earned. Probably such a defense, even if more systematically pursued than Booth's other interests seem to permit, could not be launched from a position which focuses on "rhetoric" and "communication." Booth, at any rate, often gives the impression of wanting the author's "norms" to be cut down to manageable size, as when those in Lear turn out to be the eternal verities. Who needs the "norms" of Lear, no matter how intense the "pleasure," if they are platitudes? Undeniably many of the works Booth deals with move us "into a new order of perception and experience altogether," and Booth is a serious and sensitive enough man to know this, but with his approach to literature he is actually unable to argue the point….

Not only does Booth's emphasis on "rhetoric" cause the novel to shift from the "imitative" to the "didactic" kind, but along with this comes what is for Neo-Aristotelian formalism a surprisingly new view of the writer. Although he is still an "imitator" in his making of "plots," he is more importantly the source of the "norms" to be "communicated" to the reader. The "norms," the "rhetoric" tend to grow as the work, the "imitation," the form, diminishes. That last paragraph of The Rhetoric of Fiction—together with the concern throughout the book with the "author's voice" and the "secret communion" necessary when the demands of the "imitative principle" silence that voice—is enough to make us conclude that Booth has managed to give Neo-Aristotelianism a clearly expressionistic coloring. (p. 148)

But if Booth's theory has this strong didactic, even expressionistic emphasis, it still retains much of the appearance of Neo-Aristotelianism. If the work as "imitation" is diminished, Booth is still enough of a Neo-Aristotelian formalist to want to see it as "a unified work of art," even though the unity turns out to be dependent not so much on the action "imitated" as on the "doctrine," the "norms" expressed. Thus what Crane, with his purer formalism, must regard as the "intrusive," "ornamental" essays in Tom Jones can become for Booth, on the other hand, a "subplot" involving the "implied author" and the reader….

If this interpretation of Booth's argument about Fielding's narrator appears extravagant and unfair—his special interest here is after all in defending the presence of the narrator—it is nevertheless consistent with what we have seen the focus on "rhetoric" and "norms" and "communication" making of fiction. Booth himself makes the author the book, and the book the author…. So, here as elsewhere, the "implied author"—who in Tom Jones happens to be the same as the narrator—may as well be the man who wrote the book. (p. 149)

If one accepts Booth's argument about the "genuine harmony of the two dramatized elements," one has no need "to keep one's enthusiasm for Fielding's achievement within reasonable bounds," for the "essays" now are truly an integral "part" of the novel. Booth, then, makes a better case for the novel than Crane, although—or because—he sees it as a different kind of novel. It would appear that the critic's initial "hypothesis" about the kind of work it is serves in large part to determine what he will find in it. Crane begins with the assumption—a reasonable assumption, no doubt—that Tom Jones is an "imitative" work, and finds it flawed, but not seriously so. Booth begins with the assumption that it is a "didactic" work—though of course the "assumption," running counter to his statement that he is dealing with "non-didactic" fiction, is discoverable only through the sort of analysis of "rhetoric" and "norms" I have engaged in—and finds it virtually perfect…. If the work is more important than the criticism—as surely it must be—then Booth's sort of criticism would seem superior to Crane's. But as soon as we grant the superiority of Booth's "rhetorical" criticism and preserve Tom Jones as unflawed, we may have to sacrifice at the least, say, many works of James, and many of the works thus saved we will value for such "norms" as we have seen. But surely we will question the enormous amount of "imitative" embellishment in the essentially "didactic" Tom Jones.

Hence Crane's sort of criticism, looking for "imitative" rather than "didactic" wholes, may after all be preferable to Booth's: even if we must see Tom Jones as flawed—we can, like Crane, apparently read the essays as essays, wishing they were not in the novel but also not wishing them away either—we need not sacrifice works in which the author's "norms" are not perfectly clear. (p. 151)

John Ross Baker, "From Imitation to Rhetoric: The Chicago Critics, Wayne C. Booth, and 'Tom Jones'," in Towards a Poetics of Fiction: Essays from "Novel: A Forum on Fiction," 1967–1976, edited by Mark Spilka (copyright © 1977 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1977, pp. 136-56.∗


Philip Stevick


Jonathan Culler