Wayne C(layson) Booth

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Milton A. Mays

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2590

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...

(This entire section contains 2590 words.)

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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 important discussion of "rhetoric" in chapter four illustrates, finally, what we are up against if we attempt to use Booth's concept. Rhetoric, in an expanded sense, we find, is "inescapable," and can be found "in any successful scene, however pure." This "expansion of the term" one would judge to correspond roughly to the "disguised rhetoric" mentioned earlier. "Rhetoric in the narrower sense," Booth goes on, consists of "elements that are recognizable, separable, 'friends of the reader.'" A "narrower," "recognizable" rhetoric should correspond to the earlier category of "overt rhetoric," or authorial intrusion. This reading is reinforced by Booth's saying that "such elements may not, in fact, be found in every successful work." But "friends of the reader" refers, of course, to James's ficelle, which has earlier been called "disguised rhetoric." The "disguised" is somehow "recognizable"; the category which has earlier seemed broader is here "narrower." And though Booth has said that "recognizable rhetoric" may not be present in every successful work, he follows by saying that if anyone ever discovers a work in which it is not present, he will be "surprised." Nothing could surprise Booth's reader at this point; but he is certainly bemused. Is "rhetoric" always present, or only sometimes? In every sense, or only in a special sense? The one thing we know for sure is that, whatever "rhetoric" is, Booth is for it: "This first defense of rhetoric does not depend on showing that it is indispensable but rather in showing that in fact it has generally been not only tolerated but embraced by competent writers." (pp. 86-7)

To "define" is, by definition, to determine boundaries, fix limits, and make clear outlines. If, in literature, "rhetoric equals everything" the concept is not very helpful. And in his demonstration in chapter four that "rhetoric" is, and should be, always present in fiction Booth does seem to be positing, at least hypothetically, a something which is "prior" to rhetoric, and distinguishable from it. This is the bare "presented object," a quantity which Booth takes to be the desideratum of advocates of "pure" literature. His consideration of this quantity leads Booth onto very dangerous ground, theoretically. There are in fact various manifestations of the "form-content split" in The Rhetoric of Fiction. In the present instance the notion of literature as involving "natural objects" plus the author's "comments" upon them, which gives them their "meaning," stems ultimately, I suppose, from some Aristotelian notion of literature as a simulacrum of reality. One proof of the necessity of rhetoric advanced by Booth is the frequent presence in fiction of scenes which cannot be justified by their "completion of necessary details in the 'natural object.'" If they are not "necessary" to present the "object," they must therefore be necessary to the presentation of "meaning." Indeed, the efforts by authors to "purify" their works of such rhetoric may lead to "meaninglessness," or at least ambiguity, and this in no positive sense. The author cannot be sure of our reaction to his "presented object," "mere spectacle," "bare events," or "unadorned picture" unless he prompts us by the superaddition of his "values." Authors who fail in the provision of adequate road signs are asking too much of their readers. "Could I reasonably expect Faulkner, say, or Joyce," asks Booth, "to recognize my natural objects for what they really are, if I simply presented a fictional world to them with no clues as to how I viewed that world?" (I rather like the picture this conjures up: I see a confrontation of Booth, Faulkner, and Joyce, in the guise of academicians of Lagado, each with a back heavy laden with his bundle of "natural objects." Communication has broken down.) (pp. 87-8)

The one relatively clear aspect of "rhetoric" would seem to be authorial commentary. Though as an orthodox pluralist Booth is cautious about stating explicitly that he believes authorial commentary to be desirable in fiction, parts I and II of The Rhetoric of Fiction seem to imply this. And his taste for commentary leads Booth to make statements that sound rather strange in a work on theory: "The skillful author will, of course, make his rhetoric in itself a pleasure to read; it is thus often difficult to tell whether a passage about values is present for its own sake, as ornament, or for a larger cause." One might challenge the "ornamentalism" here; suffice it to say that this, too, bears the Chicago hallmark. And, stranger: "Much commentary that seems excessive if judged by narrow standards of function is wholly defensible when seen as contributing to our sense of traveling with a trustworthy companion, an author who is sincerely battling to do justice to his materials." The effect of George Eliot's interminable preachiness in Adam Bede "is to involve us on the side of the honest, perceptive, perhaps somewhat inept, but certainly uncompromising author in the almost overwhelming effort to avoid falsehood." This is over-generous, in the expansive manner of the nineteenth-century book chat. It is not very rigorous, however; and is not likely to win over to George Eliot the reader whose patience with honest ineptness is, like mine, limited. More important, Booth again obscures important theoretical issues. Statements of this order are in fact anti-theoretical; they refer the issue of commentary to individual taste.

"Pluralism," in fact, seems to allow the critic to have it both ways. For instance, at one point in his review of the uses of commentary Booth comes very close to electing commentary as a general norm for fiction: "There may be some fictional effects which are always ruined by any suggestion of the author's direct presence, though I can discover none." If authorial commentary is never objectionable, there is a strong suggestion (as there is throughout parts I and II of the book) that it is the source of aesthetic worth. It is with some surprise, then, that the reader in Part III, "Impersonal Narration," finds just how much there is to be said, after all, for authorial objectivity: "By the kind of silence he maintains, by the manner in which he leaves his characters to work out their own destinies or tell their own stories, the author can achieve effects which would be difficult or impossible if he allowed himself or a reliable spokesman to speak directly and authoritatively to us." Apparently in the approximately seventy intervening pages Booth has "discovered" quite a few new fictional "effects." At such a point, the author might better have started another book, one which would embody some higher synthesis of the presented facts than any found in The Rhetoric of Fiction. The question which hangs like a spectre over this whole discussion of commentary is finally, late in the book, asked by Booth himself: "Why do we sometimes allow, and even require, authorial assistance?" And he answers, "I cannot pretend to any very satisfactory answer to the question…."

One final difficulty of Booth's is worth considering, for it, too, is one to which the Chicago school is prone. It relates, predictably, to values and the form-content split. Unable to locate value in form, Booth is forced to seek it outside the work. Speaking of "irrelevant pontification" by an author, Booth claims that "the quality of such passages depends far more on the quality of the author's mind than upon whether he chooses to push his profundities back into the mind of a dramatized character." That is to say, upon the author, rather than the work. This odd maneuver is found also in the work of Ronald Crane, for instance in his essay on Tom Jones. Another form of the same reactionary practice is seen in Booth's comments on Proust. Despite what Booth takes to be thirty-eight pages of direct authorial "report" or "essay" toward the end of the Recherche, the work succeeds because "the timeless world he [Proust] discovers is in its main lines compatible with our experience of life, time, memory, and art." However "sane," this statement does not advance our understanding of the theoretical problem involved. What is it that makes the Recherche literature, and not some other sort of thing, however valuable?

The Rhetoric of Fiction fails in many ways. It introduces concepts unworkably vague, such as "rhetoric," and unnecessary terms to replace perfectly adequate existing ones (e.g., "implied narrator" for "irony," which is inexplicably called a "currently fashionable" term). After floundering comfortably in the form-content breach throughout the book, Booth closes it by fiat on the final page: "What is needed is … a repudiation of all arbitrary distinctions among 'pure form,' 'moral content,' and the rhetorical means of realizing for the reader the union of form and matter." It is precisely these "means" that are nowhere realized in this study. The sum of what we have learned about authorial commentary is represented in the statement that "the means of communication are not shameful intrusions unless they are made with shameful ineptitude." The Rhetoric of Fiction does not contribute to the principal aesthetic discussion upon which it has, with the highest of recommendations, entered. (pp. 89-90)

Milton A. Mays, "Wayne C. Booth: 'The Rhetoric of Fiction'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1962), Vol. V, No. 2, 1962, pp. 84-90.

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