Celebrate Wayne Booth’s 100th with an Excerpt from “The Rhetoric of Fiction”

February 22, 2021

On the occasion of what would have been the 100th birthday of distinguished critic Wayne C. Booth (1921–2005), we invited Press author and University of Chicago professor James Chandler to offer a tribute to Booth to accompany an excerpt from Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, which transformed the criticism of fiction.

Wayne Booth’s was a career famously dedicated to “intellectual community,” a value that organized his energies and marked virtually everything he achieved. His commitment to this value was a matter of constant vigilance on his part, even in relatively casual circumstances. When he attended lectures, he would often position himself in such a way as to be able to watch both to the speaker and the effect the speaker was having—or not having—on an audience. When a member of an audience asked a question whose point was lost on a speaker, Wayne would instinctively jump in to clear things up. It drove him mad to see people talking past one another. In the classroom, the creation of intellectual community was, arguably, the true object of Wayne’s teaching. He had a rare genius for turning a given assortment of students into a group of productive discussants. This, too, was born in part of his diligence. He obsessed about his teaching between classes and couldn’t wait to meet his students again, especially if he felt a class had not gone well. 

One of the most enjoyable classes I ever taught in the College was with a group in the spring quarter of the Humanities Core who had had Wayne for the first two quarters. These grateful first-year students affectionately called his class “Wayne’s World.” Wayne’s World was a place where (as Shaw once put it) you could say anything you liked as long as you got the tone right, but where you could claim only what the evidence of the text permitted.  “Evidence” figured importantly in the Booth lexicon, an emphasis that Wayne inherited from the inductive practices of his mentors in the Chicago School. He often told the story of visiting his mentor R.S. Crane on his death bed. Wayne cheerfully greeted Crane and told him he was looking well. “And what,” grumped Crane, “is your evidence for that assertion?” For Wayne, the respect for evidence reflected a commitment to intellectual community. Evidence was nothing more, nor less, than the ground on which minds could meet.

If intellectual community was the object of Wayne’s teaching, it was even more insistently its subject matter as well, both in his classroom pedagogy and in his most influential writings. For many years, Wayne taught an advanced course called “Forms of Criticism,” which served as a kind of unofficial core of the graduate program in English. The content of the course varied some from year to year but not its basic principles. When I took this course in 1972, it focused on the work of Crane, the neo-Aristotelian, and Kenneth Burke, whose maverick genius Wayne was among the first to see. This course, which later became Wayne’s prize-winning book, Critical Understanding, produced not just a rigorous account of two critical systems—the “powers and limitations,” to use Wayne’s Chicago-school phrasing, of their respective “terminological frameworks”but also an extended reflection on the apparent incommensurability of these systems. It was all about how one “comes to terms,”  in all the resonant senses of that idiom. It was not so much that Wayne sought to produce agreement out of disagreement. Rather, he sought to produce the genuine possibility of either out of a condition in which parties are talking at crossed purposes.

The claim that a good book, well read, underwrites intellectual community becomes explicit in Wayne’s relatively late study, The Company We Keep. It is already there, however, in, The Rhetoric of Fiction, and it is implicit in that book’s most influential contribution to literary theory: the concept of the “implied author.” The implied-author idea owes much to Wayne’s training at Chicago, but also something to Yale, by way of Rene Wellek’s Theory of Literature. After identifying all the critical fallacies, Wellek argued that a work of art, in its essence, must be understood as “a structure of norms.” In working out the idea of the “implied author,” Wayne characteristically recast this Wellek notion as, well, a kind of “character,” an ethical presence that locates principles and values not in textural structure abstractly considered but rather in a species of personhood. The Rhetoric of Fiction is perhaps the most influential book in literary criticism ever published by the Press, and on the occasion of Wayne’s 100th  birthday, the Press is pleased to share this selection from the conclusion of chapter 9.

—James Chandler, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor, Department of English, Department of Cinema and Media Studies, and the College at the University of Chicago


With all of this said about the masterful use of the narrator in Emma, there remain some “intrusions” unaccounted for by strict service to the story itself. “What did she say?” the narrator asks, at the crucial moment in the major love scene. “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.-She said enough to show there need not be despair-and to invite him to say more himself.” To some readers this has seemed to demonstrate the author’s inability to write a love scene, since it sacrifices “the illusion of reality.”11 But who has ever read this far in Emma under the delusion that he is reading a realistic portrayal which is suddenly shattered by the un­ natural appearance of the narrator? If the narrator’s superabundant wit is destructive of the kind of illusion proper to this work, the novel has been ruined long before.

But we should now be in a position to see precisely why the narrator’s wit is not in the least out of place at the emotional climax of the novel. We have seen how the inside views of the characters and the author’s commentary have been used from the beginning to get the values straight and to keep them straight and to help direct our reactions to Emma. But we also see here a beautiful case of the dramatized author as friend and guide. “Jane Austen,” like “Henry Fielding,” is a paragon of wit, wisdom, and virtue. She does not talk .about her qualities; unlike Fielding she does not in Emma call direct attention to her artistic skill. But we are seldom allowed to forget about her for all that. When we read this novel we accept her as representing everything we admire most. She is as generous and wise as Knightley; in fact, she is a shade more penetrating in her judgment. She is as subtle and witty as Emma would like to think herself. Without being sentimental she is in favor of tender­ ness. She is able to put an adequate but not excessive value on wealth and rank. She recognizes a fool when she sees one, but un­ like Emma she knows that it is both immoral and foolish to be rude to fools. She is, in short, a perfect human being, within the concept of perfection established by the book she writes; she even recog­nizes that human perfection of the kind she exemplifies is not quite attainable in real life. The process of her domination is of course circular; her character establishes the values for us according to which her character is then found to be perfect. But this circularity does not affect the success of her endeavor; in fact it insures it.

Her “omniscience” is thus a much more remarkable thing than is ordinarily implied by the term. All good novelists know all about their characters-all that they need to know. And the question of how their narrators are to find out all that they need to know, the question of “authority,” is a relatively simple one. The real choice is much more profound than this would imply. It is a choice of the moral, not merely the technical, angle of vision from which the story is to be told.

Unlike the central intelligences of James and his successors, “Jane Austen” has learned nothing at the end of the novel that she did not know at the beginning. She needed to learn nothing. She knew everything of importance already. We have been privileged to watch with her as she observes her favorite character climb from a considerably lower platform to join the exalted company of Knight­ ley, “Jane Austen,” and those of us readers who are wise enough, good enough, and perceptive enough to belong up there too. As Katherine Mansfield says, “the truth is  that every  true admirer  of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone-reading be­ tween the lines-has become the secret friend of their  author.” Those who love “gentle Jane” as a secret friend may undervalue the irony and wit; those who see her in effect as the greatest of Shaw’s heroines, flashing about her with the weapons of irony, may under­ value the emphasis on tenderness and good will. But only a very few can resist her.

The dramatic illusion of her presence as a character is thus fully as important as any other element in the story. When she intrudes, the illusion is not shattered. The only illusion we care about, the illusion of traveling intimately with a hardy little band of readers whose heads are screwed on tight and whose hearts are in the right place, is actually strengthened when we are refused the ro­ mantic love scene. Like the author herself,  we don’t care about the love scene. We can find love scenes in almost any novelist’s works, but only here can we find a mind and heart that can give us clarity without oversimplification, sympathy, and romance without sentimentality, and biting irony without cynicism.

Leave a Reply

Search for books and authors