“As [an author] writes, he creates not simply an ideal, impersonal ‘man in general,’ but an implied version of ‘himself’ that is different from the implied authors we meet in other men’s works. To some novelists it has seemed, indeed, that they were discovering or creating themselves as they wrote.”
–Wayne C. Booth
Key Terms: Implied author, Intellectual/cognitive interest, Qualitative interest, Practical interest
Wayne C. Booth takes on a variety of projects in his 1961 text, The Rhetoric of Fiction. Largely, he counters literary myths of the time, such as the notions that objective, impersonal, dramatic narratives are superior. Making the point that despite whatever is currently in vogue there may be many different methods to presenting a story, Booth challenges “rules” of storytelling, from “show, don’t tell” to “novels must be realistic.” He also introduces key concepts that inform my own research, such as the idea of the “implied author” and a discussion of the various “interests” that fiction serves.
As an example, Both deconstructs “point of view” as far more complex than the typical first/second/third-person model, instead presenting narration as employing a complex array of rhetorical devices (149, 211). He invites us to consider the rhetorical situation of the narrative and where and how various voices emerge. Many of Booth’s early chapters are devoted to addressing, examining, and complicating popular assumptions about fiction. One particularly interesting idea that he puts forth is that art and fiction are always (indeed, perhaps “always already”) rhetorical, citing that even Aristotle was keenly aware of this (92).
In the third chapter, Booth introduces the concept of the “implied author,” noting that “However impersonal he may try to be, his reader will inevitably construct a picture of the of the official scribe who writes in this manner–and of course that official scribe will never be neutral toward all values” (71). Not only is the reader always given some vision of the writer of a work, however distant that vision may be from the actual author, but that vision is subject to change with different texts by the same actual author (72). One might also well observe the same with different readers and even different readings by the same reader. The implied author, particularly when issues of authorial intent and “authenticity” are raised, becomes a very key concept within the rhetoric of fiction.
Finally, for me one of the key concepts Booth raises is that of types of literary interest served by fiction, which he identifies as intellectual interest, qualitative interest, and practical interest. He characterizes intellectual (or “cognitive”) interest as that of following a story, finding out “whodunit?” and so forth. This extends also to non-fiction in the capacity of learning about the world (125-126). The qualitative interest, or “completion of qualities,” relies upon the completion of patterns, such as: “cause-effect,” or seeing the consequences of elements of a text; “conventional expectations,” or following popular literary forms; “abstract forms,” or utilizing literary devices, such as meter and rhyme, that stand the test of time; and “promised qualities,” or (furthering whatever the text itself suggests, early on, that it will deliver (126-128). The final type is “practical interests,” or what one might term a reaction to the “human qualities” of a work. If following the narrative of fiction is “intellectual,” then for Booth it is following characters and their emotional arcs that concern practical interests.
In the second edition, Booth very appropriately points out, near his closing, that his work work would be better titled “A Rhetoric of Fiction,” or perhaps, “Some Notes Toward an Introduction to a Possible Way of Viewing One Aspect of the Many Rhetorical Dimensions of Narrative, with Special Emphasis on Some Limited Kinds of Fiction” (402). He acknowledges that the view offered in the text is only one of many possible views, but he also asserts strongly, “Still I must put my undiminished confidence in the book bluntly: though in rereading it now I find many points that could be argued more cogently and many opinions that I no longer hold, the central inquiry of the book does not seem to me to have ‘dated’ at all” (403). The “rules” to be questioned, he acknowledges, may have changed, but his general observations remain. I have found this also to be so, and I continue to find Booth’s thinking on the rhetoric of narrative very useful.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 1961. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983. Print.