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 Booth’s 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. Booth’s book was a cool drink of critical water after a long dry season of critical dogma. In Booth’s 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 Booth’s 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 Booth’s career. In fact, perhaps The Rhetoric of FictionThe Company We Keep and Critical Understanding can be seen as the triple-crown in Booth’s 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. Booth’s 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 Booth’s 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 dogmatic.

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 opponent’s 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 Booth’s refutations but, hopefully, the longevity and relevance of Booth’s 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 author’s 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.

Booth’s 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 Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric, Booth diverges from Aristotle by refuting Aristotle’s 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 Booth’s 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 author’s 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 author’s 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 author’s intentions and so only the work can verify the author’s 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 covertly.

The narration also affects the reader’s 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 reader’s 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 reader’s beliefs about Emma’s capacity for goodness (245), whereas Mickey Spillane creates unethical narrator who does not navigate the reader toward a more ethical reading of Mike Hammer’s 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 narrator’s reliability become part of a larger moral question for Booth. From a “scientismist” perspective, this moral focus on the author and the reader’s responsibility to understand a work seems irrational. However, Booth does not follow reason for reason’s 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 philosopher’s 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 Booth’s 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 Booth’s 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 author’s 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 reader’s 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 narrator’s 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 self-reflexive.

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 Booth’s 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 Booth’s 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 “repairs:”

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, Booth’s 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 Beckett’s 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 Booth’s interest, not the occurrence of the signifier and the signified.

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. Booth’s 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 Beckett’s Company. Following his exegesis of Beckett, Booth makes a bold statement that summarizes the rhetoric of fiction:

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 people’s 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 son’s 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.