Archive: March 8th, 2009

Wayne Booth: The Rhetoric of Fiction

[Readings] (03.08.09, 11:02 pm)

Booth’s seminal work looks at fiction as rhetorically oriented. That is, that it serves to persuade, to make a point. In the preface, he cautions the reader that he is not interested in didactic fiction, which is explicitly intended to be rhetorical, but rather ordinary and conventional fiction. The bulk of what is discussed are novels, although many of his arguments can be extended beyond the form of the novel alone. Booth is aware, seemingly painfully so, of the arbitrary isolation of technique from the dynamic of authors and readers. That is, Booth isolates technique as the intentional and motivated product of the author, something which is in contrast to someone like Barthes, who challenges the primacy of the author’s intent. This analysis of technique is cautiously done, not posing the author’s voice and ideas as absolute, but the careful hand that guides the intercourse between the author and the reader.

Telling and Showing

The substance of this chapter is the role of telling and showing within authorship. Early narratives speak in an authoritative and absolute voice, leaving little room fo the questions or doubts of the reader. One can see this absolutism in biblical narratives, as well as in classical epics, such as Homer’s Odessey. These works convey as absolute fact, without perspective the events described. Internal views are given revealing information unknowable even about one’s closest friends. These views are presented factually and not as the products of any one person or character’s perceptions, simply as facts. Modern narratives tend to offer internal perspectives. This is regarded in theory, clumsily, as the difference between telling and showing. Showing requires a perspective, and transfers the burden of judgement from the author to the reader. It is the role of the reader to interpret and judge the characters and events as they are seen, rather than being told how to feel. However, even in this view, the author’s role is significant in terms of what to tell, in what depth and what light to tell it. Just as the cinematic lens is neither neutral nor objective, the author’s showing of a narrative does not make it impartial. The line between showing and telling is arbitrary, as the author always imposes some sort of perspective.

General Rules, I: “True Novels Must Be Realistic”

Booth discusses realism, and the tendency of criticism of fiction to establish a dogmatic order of genres. This dogma imposes hard boundaries and requirements and constraints between what may be permitted to be classified as what. What is a novel? What is a romance? A book may fail as a novel but succeed as a romance, and so on. These boundaries form a system of “great traditions” that define the criteria and lineage of the literary genres and forms. “The novel began, we are told, with Cervantes, with Defoe, with Fielding, with Richardson, with Jane Austen–or was it with Homer? It was killed by Joyce, by Proust, by the rise of symbolism, by the loss of respect for–or was it the excessive absorption with?–hard facts. No, no, it still lives, but only in the work of…. Thus, on and on.” (p. 36) Such dogmas are hostile to pluralistic (as per Frye) and general systems of genres; they are about authorizing works, and giving them legitimacy.

There are three general categories of judging fiction, in traditional criticism. The work itself: the arbitrary imposition of standards which range from “realism” to “purity.” The author: who must be either objective and detached, or present and engaged. The reader: Who may be either detached or immersed, passive or critical. These are discussed in this and the following two chapters.

The realist agenda of conveying the fictional world in excessive and weighty detail eventually becomes taken to an extreme with Sartre, who suggests that not only should the author be objective and impartial, but should seem not to even exist. Otherwise, the fictional characters will seem to be puppets, and by denying the author’s role and existence, the characters are given some form of independence from the control of the author. This view is essentially simulationist, but Booth points out that the characters are really not free from the author’s influence. I would go so far as to say that the independence is illusory, and that the author’s simulation is still explicitly composed. Instead of writing the plots of the characters, the author writes the rules of the simulation. The influence is still present, but it is less visible and covert.

The modern novel (in Booth’s timeline, the novel of the mid 20th century) is a system of simulation, where the story tells itself free of intrusion. But this neutrality and objectivity is still false, as the author still takes on the role of determining what is dramatized versus curtailed. Booth explains that this practice is the art of authorship, and his interest is in the criticism and judgement of the author’s skill in this practice.

General Rules, II: “All Authors Should Be Objective”

This section addresses the idealized objectivity of the author. Objectivity is treated not as in inevitable consequence, or as a natural thing, but rather as an aesthetic, a goal to which one should strive. The goal in this program is impartiality, an emphasis on fairness, but this is arbitrary and necessarily absurd. Why do novels need to be fair? Authors inevitably take sides. Subjectivism at its extreme can ruin a novel, though. Booth draws a distinction between the author and the implied author, who is not the same as the literal one, but becomes the voice of the narration in the text. It is the implied author who the reader hears, and whose opinions and judgments are read. The author may speak through the implied author, but Booth emphasizes a separation between these. After all, the implied author’s stated opinions may be the opposite of the author’s, the contrast used for ironic commentary. The implied author may be seen in an interactive medium as made up as the rules that underly the world, which is what directly conveys or denotes how things work and occur. These rules may not be how the real author literally imagines the world to work, but is the perspective of mechanics through which the user engages with the world. Booth sees the subjectivity of the implied author as the stuff of real fiction: “The emotions and judgments of the implied author are, as I hope to show, the very stuff out of which great fiction is made.” (p. 86)

General Rules, III: “True Art Ignores the Audience”

Classical criticism puts the novel as a “pure art,” that is, one which ignores the audience. Booth criticises both the feasibility and the desirability of such an agenda. The idea of the work as neutral and self-sufficient, not requiring the support or interest of readers to stand on its own, is a half-truth if not an outright falsehood. Actual authorship must involve acknowledement of both the author and the reader. Aristotle makes the argument that drama should use as little rhetoric as possible, but the dimension of authorial communication is to reproduce in the reader some intended reception or understanding of an event or scene, but this is not possible without some use of rhetoric.

General Rules, IV: Emotions, Beliefs, and the reader’s Objectivity

If the novel is to be seen as non-rhetorical, then the reader must have some distance from it, but, on examination, distance is a difficult and problematic concept. Literary interest and distance can be distinguished into several kinds: (1) Intellectual or cognitive, where the reader is intellectually curious about the facts or true interpretation of a scene. (2) Qualitative, Where the reader is interested in seeing a pattern or development completed. (3) Practical, where the reader desires success for loved characters, punishment for disliked ones, as well as hope and fear. This last category is the most human, while the rest seem somewhat more artificial. There is a such thing as intellectual interest, or a desire for completion of qualities, where there is a genuine desire for knowledge or wholeness, which is something of the completion of an aesthetic arc. The pleasure of the satisfaction of qualities is akin to the resolution of a model, or a completion of a puzzle, where everything falls into place.

Booth gives four examples of qualities that can be completed: Cause and effect, where the reader wishes to see the effect of a cause, to see the impact of some sort of perturbation of a norm. Conventional expectations, where the reader knows how a thing will end, but wishes to see it performed and enacted out. Abstract forms, such as balance and symmetry, where the reader takes pleasure in the formal events of the narrative. “Promised” qualities, which are things such as irony, profundity, and so on.

Fulfillment in fiction depends on desires and expectations. There are realistic portrayals and melodramatic ones, the real issue is what the reader cares about. “There is a pleasure from learning the simple truth, and there is a pleasure from learning that the truth is not simple. Both are legitimate sources of literary effect, but they cannot both be realized to the full simultaneously.” (p. 136) authorship is thus a determination of what to include or exclude, and what to simplify, much like the process of building a model.

The communication between the author and the reader is about establishing a common ground, and developing a consistent model. Shakespeare’s world or model, for instance, relies on several core assumptions: “Shakespeare requires us to believe that it is right to honor our fathers, and that is wrong to kill off old men like Lear or grind out the eyes of men like Gloucester. He insists that it is always wrong to use other people as instruments to one’s own ends, wheter by murder or slander, that it is good to love, but wrong to love selfishly, that helpish old age is pitiable, and that blind egotism deserves punishment.” (p. 141) Models are not uniform, and rejection of some elements will cause one to be frustrated in a work. “Bennett asks us, in short, to accept Sophia as a good though foolish person, and Gerald as a bad and foolish one. If we approve of Gerald’s behavior in spite of Bennett’s efforts, if we detest self-pitying, ignorant young girls, or if, to move in the other direction, we refuse to pity an unmarried young woman who gives a “burning response” to “ardent” kissing in a hotel room, we can hardly react as Bennett intends.” (p. 146) Thus, to convey a message, the athor and reader must have some shared beliefs or assumptions.

Types of Narration

There are many modes of narration, but there are listed five forms of discourse effected by those modes. These forms of distance establish a relationship between the narrator, implied author, characters, and the reader. These elicit different kinds of familiarity, alienation, and endorsement by the logic of who is associated with or distant to whom.

  1. The narrator may be more or less distant from the implied author, and this distance may be moral, intellectual, or temporal.
  2. The narrator may be more or less distant from the characters. The narrator may differ intellectually, morally, temporally, from them and their norms.
  3. The narrator may be more or less distant from the reader and the reader’s norms. This distance may be physical, emotional, moral.
  4. The implied author may be more or less distant from the reader, a distance which may be intellectual, moral, or aesthetic. A book that expects the reader to accept and share these values is likely to not be well received by its audience.
  5. The implied author (carrying the reader along) may be more or less distant from the other characters. Distances can also be seen to fluctuate, where a character might alternate between sympathetic and unsympathetic.

Distance in Emma

Booth discusses Jane Austen’s Emma as an important and striking example of how rhetoric is used to guide the reader’s interpretation of the character of Emma. My notes are not comprehensive, but summarise a few important notes. Emma is a challenging work because of the issue of sympathy. Her character in most cases is unsympathetic and her flaws are frustrating. To create sympathy for readers, Austen reveals Emma’s penitence after each breach of irresponsible behavior. The character of Jane Fairfax is given as a much more sympathetic and heroic character, which is interesting because there is a fictional continuation that tells the story of Emma from Jane’s point of view. In Emma, there is a conflict between drama and irony. Drama requires a showy and sudden dispersal of mystery at a climax. Ironic drama requires revealing the mystery earlier, so that the character’s discovery of the error and misreadings are all the more pleasing.

The Morality of Impersonal Narration

Booth concludes by discussing the important question of why write at all. This is especially significant in the study of adaptation. “The ultimate problem in the rhetoric of fiction is, then, that of deciding for whom the author should write. We saw earlier that to answer, “He writes for himself,” makes sense only if we assume that the self he writes for is a kind of public self, subject to the limitations that other men are subject to when they come to his books. Another answer often given is that the writes for his peers.” (p. 396) The peers are therefore the audience of readers who are liable to share the author’s underlying assumptions about the world, and are liable to be persuaded by the arguments elicited by the fiction. However, the readers do not simply come into being as peers, but they generally become peers by virtue of reading. The author makes the readers, creates his peers by crafting a work which the readers have never seen before.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBooth, Wayne
TitleThe Rhetoric of Fiction
ContextBooth explains that fiction is intrinsically about rhetoric on the part of the author. This supports the casting of fiction as modeling.
Tagsfiction, specials, narrative
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