Wayne C(layson) Booth

Start Free Trial

Jonathan Culler

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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: for any two positions the critic must ask "Are they rivals or are they not? If a critic concludes that they are not, can we not say that he is only a monist after all, disguised as a pluralist? But if they do compete, how can anyone really claim to believe them both?" If one sees two positions as complementary, one implicitly treats them as parts of a higher synthesis, a single comprehensive view; but if one finds them in conflict, can one seriously claim that both are true?

This problem proves inescapable. As a theoretical position pluralism is impossible…. Practically, however, pluralism is presupposed in all critical debate….

Critical writings have no impact unless some of their readers can follow their arguments and are convinced by their formulations. We have thus a pluralism without boundaries: critics are free to take their readers as far as they can. But Booth wants a pluralism with boundaries, one that sanctions some kinds of criticism and provides grounds for rejecting the critical writings of Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida (to name the opponents most frequently mentioned in this book). The second half of the book is devoted to this problem. Having failed to define a coherent pluralism, Booth turns to moral argument….

What follows is a confusing showdown as Booth blazes away, straight from the hip, with moral principles. He invokes "three inseparable values"—vitality, justice, and understanding—to promote pluralism over monism … and to define the standards for admission to his pluralism (critics must do justice to every work they treat, must welcome readers into a common endeavour, must seek true understanding). As might be expected of one who is defending at all costs an unshakeable conviction, Booth defines each value in ways that beg the important theoretical questions. The key value, understanding, "is finally what defines us as human beings", "is always in itself a good thing", "a universal norm". After preliminaries, Booth gives "a stricter definition of the understanding that deserves, for me, such high honors, Understanding is the goal, process, and result whenever one mind succeeds in entering another mind, or, what is the same thing, whenever one mind succeeds in incorporating any part of another mind" (his italics).

We have been warned not to expect conceptual clarity, but this is still a surprise: a definition that ignores all the problems of the status of the text and textual patterns, the relevance and accessibility of authorial intentions, the relationship of a work to other texts, their conventions, and the tacit assumptions of a society. Forget all that! Enter the author's mind.

Booth is doubtless aware that his definition begs crucial questions, but he proceeds on the conviction that morality is served if texts are treated as persons. And by its very vagueness, this definition of "understanding" permits a limited pluralism….

Booth's pluralism authorizes several approaches by a restrictive definition of the task of criticism....

(This entire section contains 790 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

This model of a limited freedom made possible by barriers that exclude the wayward, the subversive, and especially the foreign is familiar, but it does not necessarily produce justice and vitality. Few of the works that have recently contributed to the vitality of literary studies could be defined as attempts to enter the author's mind, and Professor Booth's own work has been valuable in the past precisely because it did not adopt this goal but asked "improper questions", developing theories of narrative technique or of irony. To urgereaders to enter the mind of the author is quite possibly a good idea. To make this the definition of criticism is a pointless imposition.

Critical debate already presupposes a certain pluralism, but Booth's attempt to lay down rules is both conceptually confused and oppressively moralistic. His vision of a community of critics, working together within strict limits to enter the mind of the author, is doubtless well-meant but would make critical writing an anodyne activity.

Jonathan Culler, "The Critic as Mind-Reader," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4005, December 21, 1979, p. 156.


John Ross Baker


William E. Cain