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The Rhetoric of Fiction (1st ed. 1961; 2nd ed. 1983)

The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

The Rhetoric of Fiction is Booths first book length study and its impact on the critical
world was astounding, many of the terms and ideas from The Rhetoric of Fiction have
become a normalized part of the critical lexicon. The force of its reception is revealed by
the unusual number of awards and accolades Booth received for a first-time author.
Booths book was a cool drink of critical water after a long dry season of critical dogma.
In Booths estimation, The Rhetoric of Fiction was not an evaluation of his favourite
books but revealed to the reader what the constraints of abstract rules about what
novelists do, by reminding them in a systematic way of what good novelists have in fact
done (preface).

In terms of Booths overall career, Frederick J. Antczak, in Rhetoric and Pluralism,

describes The Rhetoric of Fiction as an act of self-criticism that shaped his subsequent
work by engaging him in the development of distinct notions of pluralism and, more
basically, of rhetoric as the historical synthesis that would ground and drive his later
inquiries (3). The concepts outlined in the book are rethought and developed
throughout Booths career. In fact, perhaps The Rhetoric of Fiction, The Company We
Keep and Critical Understanding can be seen as the triple-crown in Booths
achievement as a literary, rhetorical, pluralistic critic. Many of the ideas first explored
in The Rhetoric of Fiction form the thematic backbone of Booth's career: the pluralistic
refutation of dogma, the reciprocal importance of intention and interpretation, and the
inescapable ethical dimension of texts.

The Rhetoric of Fiction is not simply an abstract book of theory; it provides practical
methods for reading literary texts. Booth provides a critical mooring post on which
critics can anchor their analyses. The methodology Booth describes involves the
relationship between author, text and reader. He provides descriptions of the various
authors, readers and texts that inhabit a text. He explodes the critical dogmas that
silenced the intersubjective flow between author, reader and text and shifts literature
from a static object of study to a dynamic, vital and integral part of human existence.

Refuting Dogmatic Critical Methods

Booth spends the first five chapters of the book refuting the stolid doctrines that
plagued criticism of the period. Booths refutational method can easily apply to current
critical dogmas as to the dogmas that existed in 1961. Booth may describe static critical
methods particular to the historical context of the book, but the underlying ideas
regarding purity, realism and/or true art only require a slight change in title to meet
current critical doctrines head-on (403). The following list generally outlines the basic
dogmas refuted by Booth, We add the modern day equivalents to prove Booths point
that critics still invest heavily in reductive critical analysis. Booth begins this process
briefly in the afterword, We are merely adding to the work he started.

A brief introduction to the foundations of critical

dogma: truth and purity

The words true and pure can be considered a warning sign when used in an
unqualified manner in critical discourse. The privileging of a capital-T Truth that
stands for concrete, everlasting rules delineating what is considered acceptable and
unacceptable, ignores variability in art and life. Literature that does not fit the True
criteria is then classified as deficient or even worthless. Booth assesses the taxonomy for
True art and finds that it is, not surprisingly, stultifying and decidedly untrue.

For Booth, True Art and Pure Art are closely related notions. The major difference lies in
the location of truth and purity. In general, the True Artist will produce a Pure Work. An
artist who follows abstract rules and regulations will be able to access a higher level of
art. The Truth is that each work operates to produce certain meanings. The adherence
to a generic standard to access a reading community is not dogmatic, but the imposition
of rules and regulations upon a text in order to read it through a privileged lens is

Notions of Pure Art tend to exclude the reader from the text. Suspicion of the reader
has usually been based on theories of pure art or pure poetry, Booth wrote, which
demand this, that or the other element to be purged in order that what remains might
consist of nothing but pure elements fused in intrinsic, internal relationship (91). The
problem is that what is purged from the text are the necessary elements that make the
text relevant and real. The expulsion of the reader as a relevant part of the critical puzzle
is nonsensical. The author does not create emotional situations and involvments in the
text for any other purpose than to create art if this were so than why bother circulating
the book through a reading community?

The advent of reader response criticism would seem to undercut this critical dogma, but
not the pull of external standards, and therefore, new dogmas. Reader-response critics,
like Stanley Fish, for instance, have created a new critical dogma: overemphasis on the
reader at the expense of the ongoing discourse between reader, author and text.

Human emotion contaminates a text

Not only, Ortega says, is grieving and rejoicing at such human destinies as a work of
art presents or narrates a very different thing from true artistic pleasure, but
preoccupation with the human content of the work is in principle incompatible with
aesthetic enjoyment proper (119). Booth asks how we can possibly remove the human
element, which is dependent on emotion, from a work? Even the non-reference to
emotion produces an emotion, whether it is discomfort, or aloofness, or coldness.
Further, what Ortega proposes is a dehumanization of the work, which is perhaps an
extreme example of Purity, but any insistence on the purification of a text at any level
is disturbing. In general, those who plead for purity and purification or a cleansing
usually exclude a necessary part of the human experience, whether in literature or
politics. Extreme cases that show the danger of purity philosophies are the ghastly
instances of ethnic cleansing that constitute the worst moments of our species, from
Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany to Ruwanda.

In terms of current critical discourse, and Booth alludes to one critical drive for purity in
several of his more recent books and in the Afterword to Rhetoric of Fiction. The
fashionable trend is to focus on language to the exclusion of human relationships.
Although language is a vital part of the reading experience (it is what we first encounter-
-411), to privilege language as a separate system from human relations purifies the text
of the human element

The Schools of Purity and Realism

Although purity was discussed briefly above, we only discussed one tenet from the
school of purity. Realism and purity are dogmatic literary philosophies that insist a text
must follow abstract rules in order to be considered pure or properly representing
reality (respectively). Should dogma be dismissed outright? Booth answers with a
definitive no. If you change the hand of the whip master, the whip master is still in
charge. Booth does not think the tenets of purity and realism are necessarily bad, they
are simply misapplied and poorly defined.

For example, he agrees with the basic precept of purity--universality--but from the
perspective that we all share certain beliefs for the good of the community. The author
chooses universal values and then presents these values in a certain way for a
community of readers. If there were no universal beliefs endemic to a community, then
rhetoric and literature would be useless. Booth changes the theoretical optics of
puritanical universalism espoused by purists and realists to a new view: from monism to
pluralism. In colloquial terms, Booth does not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is part of his basic philosophy, espoused all the way through The Rhetoric of Fiction,
to find value and worth in his opponents position. If he did not do this he would no
longer be a pluralist. The contemporary critical scene is riddled with dogmatic views
regarding the value and worth of fiction or other critical spheres. For example, some
feminist critics enact a methodology that superimposes a rigid political agenda on to the
literary text they are investigating. Often these critics will construct narrow dichotomies
that pit male against female. However, this does not rule out feminism as a valuable
form of criticism.

This is not a comprehensive list of Booths refutations but, hopefully, the longevity and
relevance of Booths method for interrogating critical truths will encourage further
critical inquiry into privileged systems of thought.

The Author is Not Dead

The somewhat enigmatic title for this section comes from an essay written by Roland
Barthes, The Death of the Author. In his landmark essay, Barthes states that the
critical focus on the author as the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always
in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a
single person, the author confiding in us is a foolish endeavour. Barthes proposes that
the primacy of the author is a construct supported by critics in order to close the text
under one solitary, superior meaning. The author is nothing more than an imposed limit
on the text that falsely deciphers the hidden meaning in a text. Barthes claims there is
no hidden meaning in a text, in fact, there is little if any meaning at all, except for that
supplied by a system of language. Barthes then closes the text in a linguistic system that
is devoid of human action: we are all meat puppets controlled by language.

Booth might agree with Barthes that critical monism is detrimental to the text, but the
author is not merely a device used by critics to supply meaning for the text. Although
this is an over-generalization of Barthes's theory, which is mainly directed at a critical
dogma that privileges the author over the text, Booth strongly objects to Barthian
solution: remove the author from criticism. For Booth, the author is not the prime
literary figure but part of a complex dramatic performance enacted during the process of
reading. Furthermore, the author is so far from dead as to be multivalent; the meaning-
making engagement of a reader with a text depends potentially on a range of authors,
and or tellers, most crucially the implied author, a quite different and more knowable
entity than the flesh-and-blood producer of the text. (See the author entry in
our glossary.)

The reader and the author are not separate entities for Booth. The reader cannot do
without the authors fictional world, and the author requires the reader to decipher the
inky markings on the page. The author, the reader and the text live in a symbiotic
relationship with each other. Admittedly, Booth seems to concentrate on the author
more fully than the reader over a third of the book discusses authorial voice, style and
technique. In fact, critics, like Don Bialostosky, in Rhetoric and Pluralism, have accused
Booth of not giving the reader as much agency as the author. However, Booth does not
over-privilege the author at the expense of the reader: a basic tenet of his philosophy is
the interrelated, inseparable, yet interpretable nature of the author, the reader and the
text. In other words, the author, reader and text cannot function without each other;
therefore, criticism that dismisses any one member of this literary triumvirate creates a
dysfunctional criticism.
Booths methodology entails dividing the reader, the author and the text into workable
parts and asking questions regarding the mechanics of each part. He critically inquires
how these parts work together to create a coherent whole. This is a neo-Aristotelian
method. Although it is based on Aristotles Poetics and Rhetoric, Booth diverges from
Aristotle by refuting Aristotles claim that the author should avoid using rhetoric. Booth
insists that rhetoric is essential to communication: the author cannot choose to avoid
rhetoric he can choose only the kind of rhetoric he will employ (149). The author
chooses to construct implied authors and narrators that suit the purposes of the text in
order to connect with a reading community.

The Implied Author and the Narrator

Although this sub-title appears to be privileging the author, the reader is always
implicit. As we discuss Booths figuration of the implied author and narrator, two
integral parts of his critical methodology, we will see that the implied author and
narrator are there for the reader. The author does not write only for him/herself.
Furthermore, the perspective or lens that The Rhetoric of Fiction uses is focussed on
how authors construct texts rhetorically for the reader, and not based on abstract rules.
There is a difference between excluding a subject based on its estimated unimportance
and focussing on a particular part of larger whole.

The implied author is an integral part of the work. The needs of the work compel the
author and reader to create an implied author. The actual feelings and values of the
flesh-and-blood author cannot be known. However, the reader builds responses and
attitudes, and assimilates information, about the implied author(s). Booth supplies
three terms that name the core of norms and choices which I am calling the implied
author (74):


the main source of insight into the authors norms


[t]he implicit evaluation which the author manages to convey behind his explicit
presentation (74).


can be used to cover all signs of the authors artistry

These terms together delineate the created version of the real man; he is the sum of his
own choices (75). The implied author removes the pointless and unverifiable talk
about the authentic, true-to-life author. We only have the work as evidence of the
authors intentions and so only the work can verify the authors choices. The implied
author has values and is engaged with life. We cannot know the personal details of his or
her social existence but in terms of ethical matters, the implied author speaks overtly or

The narration also affects the readers engagement with the text. The implied author and
the narrator are not to be confused, although the narrator and the implied author can
converge in some cases. In other cases, the narrator will act as a foil for the implied
author or the characters, becoming the object of a readers praise or derision. For this
reason, Booth discusses the importance of examining how an author uses narration in
each text.

For example, distance is one of the most important aspects of the rhetoric of narration.
Booth considers narration a rhetorical art. If the work can be considered a map with
highways and byways of meaning and value, then the narrator is the navigator that
directs the reader to different positions on the map. Booth delineates Jane Austen as a
master of the discourse of narration. She is able to direct the reader around her
rhetorical map, moulding the readers beliefs about Emmas capacity for goodness
(245), whereas Mickey Spillane creates unethical narrator who does not navigate the
reader toward a more ethical reading of Mike Hammers vile behaviour (84).In the next
section the role of narration as a moral compass is examined. The decisions we make as
a reading community on what direction to follow, as well as how the author influences
our decisions delineates our responsibilities as readers or authors.

Reading Ethically, Writing Ethically

The critical distance between the reader and the author, and the narrators reliability
become part of a larger moral question for Booth. From a scientismist perspective, this
moral focus on the author and the readers responsibility to understand a work seems
irrational. However, Booth does not follow reason for reasons sake; he is interested
in good reasons using ethics, emotions and logic equally in order to make rational
decisions. From a certain postmodern perspective, which could be labelled as the new
scepticism, reading a text ethically is impossible in a world where nothing is concrete
or real. The sign slips and slides into endless play, not allowing for any sustainable
social stability, much less ethical discourse. This is not an entirely fair display of current
critical theory, there are many philosophers and theorists including Charles Taylor,
Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, and Lauren Berlant who are concerned with social justice
and ethics. They are even quite Boothian, although they might not acknowledge (or be
aware of) the resemblances.

We are using the word ethics and morals interchangeably and perhaps this is a
mistake. We do this intentionally to diffuse the critical consternation over the Booths
choice to use the word moral, or even to attempt moral criticism (afterword 408).
When Booth refers to morals he does not mean it in the negative sense that the word has
come to represent: a confining, puritanical categorization of good and bad. Rather,
moral in The Rhetoric of Fiction denotes an ethical practice for reading and writing
that runs through the all his work. Since The Rhetoric of Fiction is concerned with the
ways in which an author constructs a work for a reading community, we will look at
Booths figuration of ethics for narration.

Booth theorizes that the reader will follow the expectations put in place by his/her
moral habitus (in Bourdieu's terminology), which is the ethical and moral education of a
lifetime within a certain community. This habitus is always part of the reading process.
We will join with an authors portrait of a narrator or character if we are in agreement
with the morals in the text (134-135). Booth admits in the afterword that this definition
of the readers moral decision-making process may have been too narrow. Still, the basic
premise is sound: we must make decisions about a text based on our value system.

For Booth, impersonal narration disengages the narrator from leading the reader to a
certain moral ground (whatever that may be) and this can be ethically suspect when that
ground is a vicious marsh. Impersonal and unreliable narration can reflect a
profoundly confused, basically self-deceived and even wrong-headed or vicious
narrator (340). The ambiguity and confusion of the narrator generally leads to a
confused and ambiguous reader (374). If we are credulous readers then we are in for
serious problems while trying to decode the unreliable, impersonal narrator.

Furthermore, Booth warns that we can build unwarranted sympathy for vicious
narrators, and thereby for their values. Booth does not call for censorship. Quite the
contrary, he states we must attempt to deal honestly with the problems presented by
the seductive rogues who narrate much modern fiction (379). He advocates
investigation to ask how and why this form of fiction has become so popular and
respected, when the values reflected are so repugnant?

Booth does not provide any viable answers for this question. He mainly continues with a
delineation of how the narrators voice can reflect problematic values. Sometimes the
reader is responsible for misunderstanding the goal of the text and so unjustly accuses
the author of perversity or immorality. Satire and irony are commonly misread and
blamed for pursuing bad ends. However, this does not answer how or why moral
reprobates have become so common as the central intelligence of a text (Hunter
Thompson comes to mind here). Booth hints at an answer:

The author makes his readers. If he makes them badly that is, if he simply waits, in all
purity, for the occasional reader whose perceptions and norms happen to match his
own, then his conception must be lofty indeed if we are to forgive him for his bad
craftsmanship. But if he makes them well that is, makes them see what they have
never seen before, moves them into a new order of perception and experience altogether
he finds his reward in the peers he has created. (398)

Booth is espousing the golden rule for authors and, to a certain extent readers. This is
really the budding of ideas that are most fully realized in The Company We Keep.
Afterword:Theory in Practice

This is a unique piece of critical discourse. Booth writes a meta-critical account of his
own work, 21 years after it first appeared. He defends, repudiates and concedes to
complaints from readers and critics. He does not limit his response to scholarly
estimations of his work but responds to civilian criticisms as well. This is truly a work
of pluralistic and rhetorical dimensions that teaches all of us how to be analytical and

Booth begins by defining his difficulty in dealing with criticisms directed at The
Rhetoric of Fiction:

More often than not, critics both friendly and unfriendly have failed to say about my
book what I would say about it, and I have thus had to struggle with myself a bit, in
writing this afterword, to resist the four temptations that authors succumb to when
attempting similar commentary: to complain the critics have misreported, or even
reversed, your meaning; or that credit is now given to someone else for what you said
first; or that critics continue to hold views that your work long ago was definitively
refuted; or that some newer critic has decided, quite perversely, that you are out of date
when in fact most currently fashionable issues were settled by your work.(401)

Booth carries on to lambaste critics who make erroneous statements regarding The
Rhetoric of Fiction that clearly show the critic has not bothered to actually read Booths
work. He then repudiates his harsh attack and proceeds to intelligently give each
criticism its due. According to Daniel Richter (in Rhetoric and Pluralism), this is a
common form of rhetorical and pluralistic address that Booth engages. Richter calls this
benign attack the pluralism of discreet modes. The pluralist maintains and defends a
position while accepting that other positions have validity.

Indeed, Booth makes a number of concessions to criticisms without disparaging his

book. The Rhetoric of Fiction was not written to engage local critical issues endemic to
the late fifties and early sixties, but to provide a sound methodology for critical inquiry
into literature. The methodology is sound but the 1961 Booths descriptions and proof
require some improvement. The 1983 Booth provides a list of extensions and
clarifications of the original text that not only illuminate the ideas in The Rhetoric of
Fiction but in his other texts as well. The following is a condensed list of these textual

Extensions and Clarifications

1. Booth would like to add a chapter on pluralism to show how our choices of a
given inquiry work like our choices of optical instruments, each camera or
microscope or telescope uncovering what other instruments conceal and
obscuring what other instruments bring into focus (405). Booth concedes that a
chapter would not be enough to cover the tenets and modes of pluralism. He
directs readers to refer to Critical Understanding, Booths seminal work on
pluralism and critical inquiry. However, a chapter on pluralism to inform the
reader of his critical leanings would have been edifying.

2. He regrets his lack of discussion regarding his choice of texts. He needed to

clarify his examples and have suggested the tentativeness of my choices (406).
This admission refutes the criticism regarding his literary selections by placing
the emphasis back on his methodology for analysis and off the particular texts. In
essence, Booth is stating that his methodology works with any text and his
choices were based on his repertoire of the moment.

3. Booth apologizes for a young, brash and arrogant implied author that inhabits
the book. Booth wishes he could take back the tone of arrogant mastery this
implied author expresses (406).
4. Booth addresses the misunderstanding that he argues for a traditional fiction
over modern fiction. He blames himself for an overuse of pre-modern fiction. He
offers to fix this unbalance by adding a modern work: Samuel
Becketts Company. However, he admonishes any reader who automatically
assumes that Booth would create such a dichotomy when the pluralistic mode of
the work directly refutes such stolid oppositions.
5. Booth recognizes that he does not qualify his position on the role language plays
in a work clearly enough. This extension seems to be meant for the semiotic and
structural dogmatists who must have theories of signs and signifiers used in
every literary analysis. However, Booth does admit that language is a central
factor in the reading experience, but it is not the only factor. While language
constructs the systems we live in, it is through a communal agreement that some
words have more value than others. Similarly, in literature, we meet up with
language first and then decode the language into meanings that fit into value
systems, which allows the reader to privilege one character or situation over
another. This is Booths interest, not the occurrence of the signifier and the
This is only a short list of the extensions that he proposes. The points we have included
are meant to expand on Booth as a career author in addition to illuminating the
concepts in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booths self-criticism and self-reflection is
incredibly comprehensive.

Booth ends this remarkable act of critical acumen and generosity by pragmatically
applying his amendments and analyzing Samuel Becketts Company. Following his
exegesis of Beckett, Booth makes a bold statement that summarizes the rhetoric of
But we gain one great glory from the irreducible complexities and fluidities in literary
studies: any one of us, at any age and in any state of ignorance, can practice the art, not
just learn about it from other peoples practice. Each of us can work at what is always
the frontier of the art of narrative and its study: a story-loving mind meeting a story that
asks to be loved. I had an exhilarating hour once, talking with my sons fellow fourth-
graders about the rhetoric of fiction. How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?
I asked, and the kids were off and running. (457)

Works Cited
Barthes, Roland, The Death of the Author, in Image-Music-Text: Roland Barthes
Essays. Translated by Stephen Heath. London: Fontana 1977, 142-148.