Wayne C(layson) Booth Milton A. Mays - Essay

Milton A. Mays

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 2590 words.)