Wayne C(layson) Booth

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Mark Roberts

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2771

[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 avowedly attempts to make the reader share his view of the story, he must argue—as he in fact does—that the notion that fiction can be a pure 'representation' of reality unprejudiced by a particular attitude on the part of the author is nothing but an illusion. Admittedly, this position is not difficult to establish beyond reasonable question: even if the author's consciousness could be regarded as a perfect mirror of reality, it would still be true that the direction in which the mirror is turned is the result of an act of choice, and that that act of choice results from the belief that the segment of reality chosen merits the writer's, and subsequently the reader's, attention. This belief, which amounts to a valuation, the reader must be enabled to share if the work is to be properly available to him.

Of course the 'pure representation' idea is a creation not of stupidity but of philosophical naiveté: it is scarcely possible to believe in it if one has either read, say, one's Collingwood, or thought connectedly about the implications of the idea. There is a tendency among writers today to embrace principles of general application upon instinct, to deny them their proper place in the world of thought to which they belong. Professor Booth has to demolish many such notions, as, for example, the notion that the artist creates his art-work for himself alone, ignoring any possible audience. It is one of the great merits of the book to recall the reader to the fact that such notions involve consequences, and to show that those consequences are such as almost certainly to be unacceptable to those who propound these notions. Professor Booth, though he never overtly philosophises, has a proper (and, in these days, immensely salutary) sense of the interconnections of ideas.

I am tempted to say that it is here that the chief value of this excellent book lies. It is true that 'philosophy and criticism do not mix' if we mean by this that the critic who approaches works with a preformed 'philosophy' designed to supply criteria which will show whether a work is good or bad commonly disables his own judgment. But the philosophical habit of mind can be of immense value if it leads us to try to relate the different explanations we give of the various judgments we actually make in the course of our critical practice. (pp. 323-24)

In refining our theoretical apparatus we are not, then, aspiring after a complete abstract system of criticism; on the contrary, one of our chief objects is to see more clearly what we are actually doing when we are operating as critics, and to increase our perceptiveness by removing implicit theoretical preconceptions which, because they are inadequate, are often barriers to clear vision. If,...

(This entire section contains 2771 words.)

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for example, we tend to believe deeply in the 're-presentation' conception of the novelist's task, we may well fail to notice the deep 'commitment' of many ostensibly 'uncommitted' works…. (p. 324)

It is, of course, not essential that the critic should be a 'consecutive' man; but it is certainly most desirable: the more so because literary principles have a bad habit, if they are not kept firmly under control, of extending their influence beyond their proper sphere, of lending themselves to subtle yet vitiating misunderstandings, of blurring the distinction between good writing and bad. All these things have occurred in the case of the notion that a novelist should 'show', rather than merely tell his readers about, the people and events he describes, a notion that Professor Booth devotes his first chapter to discussing. Professor Booth does not deny that the demand that the novelist should 'show' rather than 'tell' has produced great gains—in dramatic immediacy, in 'realistic' intensity, and so forth. But he does argue that these gains have only been made at a price. The 'omniscient-author' convention, which has naturally tended to lose ground as 'showing' has prevailed over 'telling', has great advantages for certain special purposes: it can help greatly in the production of dramatic irony, and it allows a writer to establish the intended view of his narrative with the greatest economy. And although the distinction between 'telling' and 'showing' can help us to discriminate between some kinds of good novel-writing and some kinds of bad novel-writing, it is a distinction that is always liable to break down in particular cases. It is characteristic of Professor Booth that in due course he offers us a number of convincing examples of this. (pp. 325-26)

When Professor Booth, in his earlier chapters, has shown sufficient reason to doubt most of the arbitrary 'general rules' which are at present in circulation, he turns to his principal task of discussing the kinds of means that novelists use in the pursuit of given effects, though by way of introduction to this discussion he gives us an interesting chapter arguing in detail the contention that the writer must use rhetorical means, means of guiding the reader's reactions to his narrative, unless he is willing to risk being misunderstood, simply because no writer can take it for granted that a reader's unprompted view of the bald series of events he may have to narrate will be sufficiently similar to his own.

In the course of the ensuing discussion, Professor Booth makes much use of a concept that he introduced earlier in the book—the concept of the 'implied author'. The term refers to the idea we form of 'the author', his values, beliefs and attitudes. It must be stressed that this is not an invitation to 'inductive biography', to the use of the book as a source of evidence for non-literary enquiries about the actual author as a person. The 'implied author', Professor Booth contends, is part of his book, part of its total effect: our consideration of the 'implied author' is a consideration of an aspect of the book, not a covert attempt to leave literary criticism and indulge in something else. The terminology has a number of uses: for example, Professor Booth comments on Lady Chatterley's Lover

Those of us who reject this side of the book [Mellors's belief in physical love of the right kind as the means of salvation] do so finally on the grounds that what Mellors says implies for us a version of D. H. Lawrence that we cannot admire; there is an unbridgeable disparity between the implied author's proffered salvation and our own views….

This seems to be equivalent to saying that the book presents us with a mode of sensibility that, at least as here realised, we cannot respect, and I wondered on first reading why one needed the elaborate concept of the implied author, which seemed to involve a greater degree of inference from the text than was necessary. The point is, however, not that this particular comment cannot be made in other ways, but that the concept of the implied author is the one which serves to unify a great part of Professor Booth's argument. In replying to those who insist that all authorial comment in fiction is bad, Professor Booth first of all produces evidence of authorial comment that is clearly fully successful and justified; and he then goes on to argue in effect that in some books the implied author is a most important person in the book even if he is not an actor in it. The authorial intrusions in Tom Jones, for example, as Professor Booth contends in a most interesting section, are not mistakes, but enable Fielding to do something that he could probably not do as effectively in any other way. It is not that the 'real life' Fielding cannot keep his fingers out of the artistic pie and therefore spoils it; it is, rather, that the 'implied author', the aspect of Fielding himself that in Tom Jones he allows us to see, is part of the artistic effect of the whole. I cannot hope to do justice here to Professor Booth's discussion of Tom Jones: it must be enough to say that it is one of a number of essays on particular works (others are Tristram Shandy, Emma, The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers, A Portrait of the Artist) which serve to keep the book steadily in touch with literary realities. I think Professor Booth is to be particularly congratulated on this: these critiques always advance his argument, and the works he deals with yield so naturally the larger conclusions that he wishes to elicit that one could almost feel they had been written especially to illustrate his thesis. But throughout the book the use of examples is masterly: whether he is putting side by side three pieces of Shandean prose, one genuine and two bogus, or whether he discusses the two versions of Tender is the Night to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of the 'flashback', Professor Booth never seems to be at a loss for illustrative material precisely and compellingly appropriate to his needs.

The 'implied author' concept enables Professor Booth to regard the 'objective' novel—the novel that 'tells itself'—and the novel full of 'authorial comment', not as two different kinds of narrative, but simply as narratives which are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Novels don't in fact write themselves: we always form some impression of an author, however he may efface himself; novels are not artistic Topsies, and we know it, even as we read. So that a novel like Tom Jones, where the 'implied author' exists in the book to lead us by the hand, a sort of guide, philosopher and friend, differs only in degree from the most 'authorless' novels of the twentieth century.

There is, however, the complication that the 'implied author' is not necessarily identical with the ostensible narrator. When Conrad uses Marlow, for example, there is a clear disjunction between the Conrad-who-writes-the-book, the 'implied author' behind which we cannot go without leaving the literary realm, and Marlow the narrator, behind whom we can quite properly go for the most strictly literary-critical purposes, to see—for example—how adequately he reflects the 'reality' he is called upon to describe. This, of course, leads us to the further point that if there is an ostensible narrator different from the 'implied author' he may be 'reliable' or 'unreliable'

For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author's norms) unreliable when he does not….

[As] the ostensible narrator departs more or less from the 'implied author's' norms, a novelist requires us to evaluate the attitude of his unreliable narrator, and hence to evaluate the probable validity, particularly in a moral respect, of his telling of the story.

This can, of course, create large misunderstandings, particularly in an age none too sure of agreement in matters of moral principle. Indeed, from a rhetorical point of view, it is strange that unreliable narrators have become more common as the area of possible moral disagreement, and therefore of misunderstanding, has widened: one wonders whether unreliable narrators are not sometimes a refuge of authors uncertain what their own real values are. (pp. 328-31)

The rhetoric of the novel exists primarily to communicate the writer's implied valuation of his material, the implied valuation which appears to be, for Professor Booth, the important thing. So that when a particular person in the story is not merely made the locus of the narrative viewpoint, but is also made the narrator, it is a matter of great consequence on this view whether the ostensible narrator's values and attitudes are those of the author or not. One might ask what point there can be in using an ostensible narrator whose norms are not those of the 'implied author', and indeed this is a question that Professor Booth considers in detail. It is notable, however, that in the chapters on reliable narration and the use of authorial commentary (an obvious means of minimising misunderstandings between author and reader) the emphasis in the chapter-headings is mainly on the uses of these narrative techniques, while in the chapters on unreliable narrators the corresponding emphasis is strongly on the dangers of this approach. Professor Booth points out that the chief thing about a narrator who is also part of the action is the enhanced, even sometimes excessive, heightening of sympathy with his outlook that this generally brings about: we are ready to make, for such a narrator, the kind of over-partial excuses that we make for ourselves. So that once the unreliable narrator enters, there appears a whole new field of possible misunderstanding. The 'implied author's' views are now more than ever a matter of inference because the implied author must efface himself to make way for the ostensible narrator, and there is the possibility that we shall not be able to see the 'implied author' clearly because we see him only through the ostensible narrator. In so far as the ostensible narrator convinces us of the plausibility of his attitude—as to some extent he must or he will cease to be credible—we are on the way to misunderstanding the 'implied author's' position. Here again we see the effect of Professor Booth's underlying view: what matters is the attitude of the 'implied author'; unreliable narrators too easily become part of a rhetoric of confusion.

In view of all this it is not to be wondered at that Professor Booth's last chapter is called 'The Morality of Impersonal Narration' (by 'impersonal narration' he means narration from which the 'implied author's' effaces himself—as far as possible, at all events). This chapter deals chiefly with the grounds of the outlook that has been implied all along, and it seems to me that they are most cogently presented…. (pp. 331-32)

It will be apparent that I find myself very largely in agreement with Professor Booth's view. But let me hasten to add that he is not anxious to throw out, for example, unreliable narrators and start in some 'healthy' pre-Jamesian way. On the contrary, his view is eminently sensible: there is no question of pretending that certain things have not happened; technical developments cannot be wished away, nor is it desirable that they should be. What is wrong is not with our techniques, but with the use we make of them. Fundamentally, for all its detailed examination of the novel's techniques, this is a book which recalls us to the moral bases of literature.

So much for the argument. But something must also be said about the manner of it—and the manner is certainly worthy of comment. This is a delightful book to read. As a piece of expository prose it seems to me magnificent: the texture of the writing is of just the right density for pleasurable reading: Professor Booth achieves an admirable clarity without lengthily labouring the obvious. The logical construction of the book is admirable. And the writing is lively…. (p. 333)

This is a most important book, which seems, however, to have slid into the world with altogether too little notice, to judge at least from the reviews that I have seen so far. It covers so much ground, is based on such wide reading, organises so much diverse thinking about fiction and the novel into a coherent and illuminating whole, that I feel few people seriously interested in fiction from any point of view could afford to neglect it. When a new voice has made such an important contribution to the critical conversation, subsequent voices must surely reflect their awareness of it if they are not to risk seeming irrelevant, or at least ill-informed. (p. 336)

Mark Roberts, "Means to Ends in the Novel," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XII, No. 3, July, 1962, pp. 322-34.


Milton A. Mays