Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, 1992

The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Oakland: University of California Press, 1992.


The Company We Keep Cover

Booth points out that we are surrounded by narratives; we cannot escape them, they are everywhere, and they affect us in one way or another. He encourages us to find an ethical way of discussing the values and worth, the potential good or harm that can come from our exposure to all different kinds of narratives. In doing so, we cannot shrink from our responsibility to face difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions.

Part One: Paul Moses and Ethical Criticism

Booth begins The Company We Keep with a narrative: the story of a black professor in his department, Paul Moses, who refused to teach the novel Huck Finn because of his perception of the harm it caused him and his students. Booth and his colleagues were shocked, and viewed Moses as “violating academic norms of objectivity” (3). Booth himself “lamented the shoddy education that had left poor Paul Moses unable to recognize a great classic when he met one […] Moses obviously could neither read properly nor think properly about what questions might be relevant to judging a novel’s worth” (3).

In Company, many years later, Booth writes that the book “can best be described as an effort to discover why that still widespread response to Paul Moses’s sort of complaint, will not do “ (4). In effect, Booth states that he and his colleagues were wrong in their reasoning and their responses to Moses.

Booth describes the stance taken by Moses as “an overt ethical appraisal” and now sees it as “ a legitimate form of literary criticism” (4). Booth argues that “if powerful stories matter” (and he certainly believes that they do) then we cannot ignore the type of criticism Moses voiced when he claimed the book was harmful to him and his students.

While cautioning against the excesses of zealots, Booth encourages the very sort of examination and criticism that Moses made, and which he says is still being resisted, today. By the time he wrote Company (1987), in fact for some while before, Booth had come to believe that even the most neutral and unbiased critic has “ an ethical program in mind—a belief that a given way of reading, or a given kind of genuine literature is what will do us most good” (6). Booth calls this estimation or appraisal of the worth of a text, “ethical criticism” and spends the bulk ofCompany exploring how this might be done well.


Booth introduces the concept and term, “coduction”. He arrives at the word by joining the Latin prefix co- (“together”) with the Latin word ducere (“to lead, draw out, bring, bring out”) (72). He intends it to mean:

what we do whenever we say to the world (or prepare ourselves to say): 'Of the works of this general kind that I have experienced, comparing my experience with other more or less qualified observers, this one seems to me among the better ( or weaker) ones, or the best ( or worst). Here are my reasons.' Every such statement implicitly calls for continuing conversation: 'how does my coduction compare with yours?' (72-73)

Particulars of coduction are discussed further in this section.


In Chapter 5 of Company, Booth builds on concepts of authorial and reader responsibility first introduced in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth adds to his previous delineation of roles by assigning specific responsibilities to the author vis-à-vis the many other personae implicated in the act of making meaning through texts: to the flesh-and-blood reader, as someone who must 'live' through the moments of the text; to the author, him- or herself, as a person, and as a career author; to those whose lives the author has used as material for his work; to others whose labour is exploited in the name of art; to “the world”, to “the future,” to the “truth”.

Booth assigns responsibilities to the reader as well, in his relationship with the flesh-and-blood author, and the career author; in his or her role as reader vis-à-vis the work of art; to his or her own self (or soul) as flesh-and blood reader; to other individual readers; to society.

In this discussion of responsibility, Booth often introduces the questions that he feels we should be asking ourselves. He does not provide clear answers for us, but he does make us wonder about these responsibilities. This section of the book prepares us for the process of discovery that Booth hopes all readers will engage in. By asking us to think critically about these ethical obligations, where we might have otherwise simply enjoyed a book without feeling obligated, Booth prepares us for the process of ethical examination he advocates throughout the book, and indeed in his life’s work.

The Purpose of Part I: Relocating Ethical Criticism

Part 1 of Company introduces Booth’s further concepts and terminology. He defines the terms he uses frequently, such as “ ethical”, “character” “virtue”, and so on. Concepts, such as “openness” “subjectivism” as a threat, and “fixed norms” and “nonce beliefs” are all introduced, explained and examined in their connection with ethical criticism of narratives.

In this section of the book, Booth disentangles the various roles and responsibilities of authors and readers-a variation an extension of what he does in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This enables a precise discussion of the subtleties of ethical criticism.

Booth explains here why ethical criticism fell out of favour and demonstrates how it was badly done in the past. He addresses the inherent dangers of the excesses of ethical criticism, including censorship. He also mounts his arguments as to why an ethical appraisal is still necessary and suggests ways in which it might be done well.

Part 1 introduces subjects that Booth deals with at greater length in previous books as well as those he proposes to tackle later in the book. Booth draws together all the strands from his previous books. He incorporates his previous discussions of authorial voice and narrative personae from The Rhetoric of Fiction, and refers frequently to his advocacy of assent and rejection of dogma, treated in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Booth alludes to his discussion of irony from A Rhetoric of Irony but treats it in greater detail later in this book. In so doing he tells us where he has already been, and establishes a foundation of understanding for where he is going with his argument. Booth later builds on concepts introduced in this first part (for example the concept of “character”).

Booth anticipates and attempts to answer the criticisms of skeptics and adherents to other critical schools of thought. As he introduces each segment of his argument for a return of ethical criticism, he deals with the notional criticisms of modernists, structuralists, feminists, Marxists and several other “ists”.

Booth clearly tries to make room in his theories for at least the partial dogma of other critical groups, such as Feminists and Marxists. In his pursuit of pluralism, Booth is clearly trying to be as inclusive as he can without diluting his position.

Methodology and Criticism ( What does it mean to us)

Booth approaches his subject in Part 1 through a process of questions and answers, to demonstrate his rational progression and the soundness of his approach, and to build trust with the reader. He declares up front that his topic is a difficult sell and that some questions are unanswerable.

Booth walks the fine line of self-contradiction that attends an advocacy for pluralism: he argues for an inclusive, pluralistic approach to ethical criticism, advocating that all voices should be heard if the welfare of readers is at stake, but while he tackles head-on the probable contrary arguments and beliefs of many of the other factions of rhetorical criticism, he almost completely ignores and certainly dismisses those critics whom he considers extremists, on the fringe of critical, political or religious society. Indeed, he appears to grant an audience to only mainstream, “responsible critics”, and the “more or less qualified readers”. We are tempted to ask: “What about those who advocate book banning for similar reasons to those of Paul Moses? Where do we draw the line between whom we will listen to and whom we will tune out?” And the ever-present question, “Who decides?” Booth does not address this question directly, in this first part of The Company We Keep.

Company and Booth’s earlier works

In Company, Booth continues discussions begun in his earlier works. The author of this book is clearly an older and wiser Booth, a man not afraid to change his mind and say that he was wrong about beliefs he previously asserted. In so doing,

Booth shows himself to be the embodiment of his own theory. Frederick Antczak, in the introduction to his book, Rhetoric and Pluralism, writes that Booth has “modeled in his writing about good reasons […] the capacity to change his mind in response to good reasons. To an extraordinary extent, Wayne Booth has been living in his critical discourse the kind of critical life that he has been writing about” (9).

Part 2: Narratives as Would-Be Friends--Booth’s Critical Metaphor

In Part I, Booth presents a new vocabulary in support of ethical criticism and introduces us to the concept of coduction in a metaphor of textual friendship. In Part II Booth expands the discussion of this notion of narratives as potential friends.

There is a step preceding coduction. This step entails the evaluation of a work as it effects the single reader, before he or she introduces his or her evaluation into the community. To describe this step, Booth employs the metaphor of “would-be friends,” as he considers the relationship between a reader and text as comparable to the relationship between two would-be friends.

Also worth noting in this section is that Booth presents us with some of his most “philosophical” writings to date—ideas he hopes will resonate beyond the confines of the text—as he continues blurring the boundaries between literary and social critic.

Booth’s Metaphor: Texts as Would-Be Friends

Fundamental to our understanding of Booth’s theories is his notion that all texts (narratives, arguments) are essentially rhetorical acts: authors shape readers into the audience they envision while writing, and readers attempt to join those implied audiences. Essentially, texts become arenas facilitating the interaction between people—the meeting place where a conversation between the implied author and implied reader occurs. Inherent in this relationship are ethical qualities and consequences. As we see in The Rhetoric of Fiction, whenever an author makes choices as to what we read, whenever an author exhibits intention, he or she imbeds ethical qualities into the work.Booth notes

When human actions are formed to make an art work, the form that is made can never be divorced from the human meanings, including moral judgments, that are implicit whenever human beings act (Rhetoric of Fiction, 395).

Further, he asks us to explore the values implicit in literary works by examining the way these values are transmitted to us by asking such questions as

hould I believe this narrator? Am I willing to be the kind of person that this storyteller is asking me to be? Will I accept the author among the small circle of my true friends? (Company, 39).

Fundamentally, Booth is asking “How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?” (Rhetoric of Fiction, 457).

With this question in mind, we begin this investigation by examining the qualities of experience sought or achieved by authors and readers during the time of telling and listening. Instead of asking whether this narrative will turn us toward virtue or vice tomorrow, we ask what kind of company it offers us today, and what are the relations we build with author(s) as we read—what kind of live encounter is a given reading experience like (Company, 169)?

Booth compares this live encounter to a meeting between two people. Two people come together in conversation with the goal of establishing, not just a relationship, but a friendship.

This metaphor of the reading experience as the development of a friendship is central to the questions Booth asks and wants us to ask of literature. He stresses the idea that we people our lives with the authors we read; and calls friendship with books “a neglected critical metaphor” (Antczak, 62). Booth contrasts this metaphor of people meeting as they share stories with some current metaphors used in literary theory—where books are described variously as texts, webs, mazes, codes, rule systems, speech acts, semantic structures, myths, and fields of power. In contrast, Booth asks us to view stories not as puzzles or games, which are in need of deciphering, but rather as companions, friends—or as potential gifts from would-be friends (Company, 175).

The relationship of friendship is constituted in and by the “quality” of the companionship between implied author and implied reader(s) during the time of reading. All fictions are like the would-be friends we meet in “real” life, and, just like in real life, we cannot avoid choosing among them (consciously or unconsciously). Just by living we choose some and reject others, and we always make our choices on the basis of evidence that is to some degree inadequate (Company, 177). Choosing between friends in literature is as difficult as the choices we make in “real” life (Company, 178).

In this way we practice an ethical criticism regardless of other theories we bring to the text: we choose our friends and the gifts they offer us, and by extension who we will be for the duration of our relationship with them (Company, 177).

As Booth says, “All the art, then, in this kind of metaphorical criticism, will lie in our power to discriminate among the values of moments of friendship that we ourselves have in a sense created. We judge ourselves as we judge the offer.” We ask, “Do you, my would-be friend, wish me well, or will you be the only one to profit if I join you?” (Company, 178).

Implied authors of all stories offers us a type of friendship. And we should reject these offers unless we think we’ll get something worth having—we’re persuaded by offerings of genuine “goods”.

Further, if we choose to employ this metaphor, then ethical distinctions do not depend on choices among the traditional moral virtues (good and bad, etc.). Instead, we simply ask, “What will keep us conversing with any narrative?” As Booth notes, some friends, in life as in literature, are wonderfully beneficial to our souls, even though they are clearly immoral on many a scale (Company, 179).

Value of Booth’s Metaphor: The Social Self

A symptom of our modern times, Booth observes, is not just a decline in talk of books as friends, but a neglect of friendship in general as serious subject of inquiry.

He notes that Aristotle dedicated a third of The Nicomachean Ethics to topics concerning friendship. For Aristotle, the “quality of our lives was said to be in large part identical with the quality of the company we keep…our happiness was found in a pursuit of friendship, of something more than our limited ‘selves’.” We are naturally, essentially social animals. And further, “the fullest friendship arises whenever two people offer each other not only pleasure or utilities but shared aspirations and loves of a kind that makes life together worth having as an end in itself. These full friends love to be with each other because of the quality of the life they live during their time together” (Company, 174).

An overriding goal of Booth’s in this book is to reintroduce the idea of community to critical theory—the idea that we are only wholly our selves in relation to others. We exist not as individual selves, but as “fields of selves.”

Resistance to Booth’s Metaphor: The Isolated Self

Booth notes that since the Enlightenment, our search for character, our search for self-identity, has turned away from the belief that our character exists fundamentally in relation to others and instead turned inwards. This turning inwards was characterized by the belief that “sooner or later one hopes to locate and remove all alien stuff and discover bedrock—but what one discovers instead is emptiness, and the making of an identity crisis” (Company, 237).

Booth resists this extreme opposition of self and other, and argues that as social beings we have no alternative to this arrangement—we need other selves in order to complete our own selves. The isolate individual self simply does not, can not exist, says Booth. Not to be a social self is to lose one’s humanity (Company, 238).

Bakhtin’s dialogical view of the self reinforces Booth’s notion of the social self. Bakhtin considered each of our “own voices,” not as a single voice, but as a choir made up of a multiplicity of voices (Company, 238). This notion of the social self is further echoed in the Marxist philosophers who “have always insisted, [that] any sense of radical isolation—of essential separation or full alienation—is a disease” (Company, 240).

I think, at this point, our understanding of the self as the collection of many selves would benefit from a return to an idea Booth proposed in Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. In this work, Booth states that any discussion of self, and the meeting of selves—this laying of the foundation on which assent and advancement can take place—should “begin with our knowledge that we are essentially creatures made in symbolic exchange, created in the process of sharing intentions, values, meanings; in fact more like each other than different, more valuable in our commonality than in our idiosyncrasies: not, in fact, anything at all when considered separately from our relations” (Modern Dogma, 134).

To deny the influence of others on ourselves is to break off parts of our own self. As Booth dramatically puts it, “each of us has a life-and-death stake in cultivating a social order that will nourish rather than destroy” (Company, 243).

Practicing Roles: Becoming a Character and Avoiding Hypocrisy

The “problem” with accepting this notion of opening ourselves to the influence of other selves, and this is an issue we first encountered in Modern Dogma, is that this action requires a degree of vulnerability on our part in order to fully realize the power others can have in shaping our character. For Booth, this “openness” is hardly a liability, but an immense asset; especially when you consider the fact that he includes narratives within this group of “others” who wield potentially influencing power over us.

We “know” (through consensus and experience) that narratives influence behavior. During reading—during our engagement with a narrative—we experience what Booth terms the “efferent effect,” a carry-over from narrative experience to behavior. “Real life” is lived in images derived in part from stories (Company, 227).

Narratives change us: “Within the textual relationship, the author influences the reader in the same ways that physical companions engaged in conversation shape each other’s experiences of their present shared reality” (Clark, 54).

In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth describes the unique relationship between reader and story as:

a special kind of double role-playing: as the actual listener or viewer, capable of joining an unlimited number of authorial audiences, I am “made” to join the ones that are postulated by this particular story—to join them, as we might say, really and not just in pretence; but as a member of the narrative audience, I pretend to go much further and may even weep tears that I know to be “false” though they are physically real. The resulting tension between belief systems (a tension ordinarily not brought into consciousness) is the essential mark of the domains of fiction, and it is the source of many distinctive effects, including our freedom to dwell in worlds expanded beyond what we could permit ourselves to dwell in “reality.” (424)

Authors play roles by creating characters, and readers and spectators play roles by re-creating them. As Booth notes, a kind of play-acting with characters, or characteristics, a kind of faking of characters, is one of the main ways that we build what becomes our characters (Company, 252). This influence of narrative on our selves is unavoidable. “The ideal of purging oneself of responses to persons, the ideal of refusing to play the human roles offered us by literature, is never realized by any actual reader who reads a compelling fiction for the sake of reading it” (Company, 256). And furthermore, “When we lose our capacity to succumb, when we reach a point at which no other character can manage to enter our imaginative or emotional or intellectual territory and take over, at least for the time being, then we are dead on our feet” (Company, 257).

As Booth notes, we need not fear that our “individual” voices will be drowned out by the choir as a whole:

If…I am not an individual self at all, but a character, a social self, a being-in-process many of whose established dispositions or habits belong to others—some of them even to all human kind—then I need have no anxiety about finding and preserving a unique core for the various characters that in a sense have colonized me and continue to do so. I should be able to embrace the unquestioned ethical power of narratives, in order to try on for size the character roles offered to me. I can hold a fitting of various ‘habits,’ to see if they enhance or diminish how I/we appear to myself/ourselves. And I should then be able to talk with my selves…about the strengths and weaknesses I have found—found in one sense in the narrative but in another sense in me/us. Some of the roles opened to me as I move through the field of selves that my cultural moment provides will be good for ‘me/us,’ some not so good, some literally fatal. It will be the chief and most difficult business of my life to grope my way along dimly lit paths, hoping to build a life-‘plot’ that will be in one of the better genres. (Company, 268)

What we have to decide at this point is “whether a proffered new role, encountered in an appealing narrative, is one that we can afford to take on, or ought to take on” (Company, 260). Essentially, our relationship with a narrative has to be decided based upon whether we have good reasons to assent to the influence of the other presented.

Otherness: Moving Across Boundaries

Fundamentally, Booth is interested in how we are shaped through our relationship with the Implied Author. Narratives ask us to accept and pursue a pattern of desire imposed by an “other.” Becoming the kind of desirer the narrative ask us to be requires our full engagement with the story, and that means engaging with the author in a patterning of desire for the kind of gift offered (Company, 201).

And thus, as we enter into a conversation with an other we decide whether or not to assent to the desires and fulfillments being offered to us.

Booth notes that “the most powerful effect on my own ethos, at least during my reading, is the concentration of my desires and fears and expectations, leading with as much concentration as possible toward some further, some future fulfillment: I am made to want something that I do not yet have enough of” (Company, 201). This desiring after the gifts offered by the other, in turn, determines who we (as readers) will be for the duration of the experience.

A blurring of boundaries occurs between the implied reader and the real reader through the merging of desires. Booth states “[t]he implied reader I become cannot desire fictional blood without my desiring it” (Company, 205).

In essence, narratives propose a way of living. They ask us to consider whether what the narrative asks us to desire and fear and deplore and expect as we experience the lives of the characters within provides a good kind of life for us…as we recreate it for ourselves (Company, 205).

To engage with the story is to accept the implied world constructed by the implied author. We seek not words or propositions in isolation, or even overall “themes,” but the total pattern of desires and rewards that the author commits us to (Company, 396).

This idea of being open to the entire narrative world is an integral one, and includes the notion that we have to be open even to that part of the world that, at first, looks like vice or corruption. For Booth, a worse vice is to be self-protective, to close ourselves off to experiencing the other (Company, 487).

He believes that “we must open ourselves to ‘others’ that look initially dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off whenever, after keeping company with them, we conclude that they are potentially harmful. Which of these opposing practices will serve us best at a given moment will depend on who ‘we’ are and what the ‘moment’ is” (Company, 488).

The value of our engagement with otherness is in the experience it offers us in ways of dealing with the unfamiliar or the threatening. “It is not the degree of otherness that distinguished fiction of the highest ethical kind but the depth of education it yields in dealing with the ‘other’” (Company, 195).

As Booth notes, an “important moral effect of every encounter with a story, good or bad, is the practice it gives in how to read moral qualities from potentially misleading signs” (Company,287).

Similarly, Booth says that would-be friends, “those that I care about most offer so much ethical value so intensely, with such clear evidence that they are themselves pursuing the goods they offer, that differences of opinion seem trivial by comparison—the act of deciding whether to accept gifts—is itself a gift” (Company, 222). Further, our would-be friends help us distinguish between what we desire, and what we ought to desire—they allow us to evaluate our own desires in relation to the creation and fulfillment of desires within the narrative.

We try out each new pattern of desire offered in the narrative against those that we have found surviving past reflections, and we then decide, in an explicit or implicit act of ethical criticism, that this new pattern is or is not an improvement over what we have previously desired to desire (Company, 272).

Booth insists that we must take responsibility for what we are to become—for what we desire (Company, 271), and that good narratives, good friends, help us achieve a second-order desire: a desire for better desires.

When we converse with an implied author, we are essentially saying:

You are an idealized version of the writer who created you, the disorganized, flawed creature who in a sense discovered you by expunging his or her duller times and weaker moments. To dwell with you is to share the improvements you have managed to make in your ‘self’ by perfecting your narrative world. You lead me first to practice ways of living that are more profound, more sensitive, more intense, and in a curious way more fully generous that I am likely to meet anywhere else in the world. You correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mold me into patterns of longing and fulfillment that make my ordinary dreams seem petty and absurd. You finally show what life can be, not just to a coterie, a saved and saving remnant looking down on the fools, slobs, and knaves, but to anyone who is willing to work to earn the title of equal and true friend. (Company, 223)

According to Booth, “learning to meet ‘the others’ where they live is the greatest of all gifts that powerful fictions can offer us…[and] one that nobody can afford to reject. We must “travel” or we die on our feet” (Company, 414).

Concluding Part 2

If we allow ourselves to be open to the metaphor Booth constructs in this text—the notion that our relationship to narratives is equivalent to the relationship built between would-be friends, then a key question we must ask during our encounters with these would-be friend becomes:

Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together? Or is this the offer of a sadist to a presumed masochist? Of a seducer or rapist to a victim? Of the exploiter to the exploited? Is this a friend, lover, a parent, a prophet, a crony, a co-conspirator, an agent provocateur, a bully, a quack therapist? Or perhaps a sidekick, a lackey, a vandal, a bloodsucker, a blackmailer…? (Company, 222)

And furthermore, if we open ourselves to Booth’s notion that we are not individual selves, but a field of selves, and, further, that this field of selves can consist of selves adopted from narratives, we have to entertain the idea that “who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of criticism, whether by ourselves or by those who determine what stories will come our way—criticism wise or foolish, deliberate or spontaneous, conscious or unconscious: ‘You may enter; you must go away—and I will do my best to forget you’” (Company, 484).

Booth’s concept of openness recalls an idea of Helen Cixous’. For Cixous, the possibility for escape from, essentially, a world of dogma resides in the artist. She says, “Thinkers, artists, those who create new values, ‘philosophers’ in the mad Nietzschean manner, inventors and wreckers of concepts and forms.” What all these “poetic persons” share is an acceptance of the Other, the things in life excluded by traditional discourse (Sorties, 581). As Cixous sees it, without the Other invention, and (as Booth shows us) ethical criticism, is impossible.

The Figuring of the Mind and Metaphoric Worlds

The overriding friendship metaphor in The Company We Keep asks us to not only consider texts as potential friends, but to examine how we recognize the particular gifts they offer us. In Part II Booth also tackles the concept of metaphor and the relevance of figures to community building and making judgments.

Figurative Language

In parallel to the investigation he conducts into one of the other master tropes in A Rhetoric of Irony, Booth here gives metaphor a full “Boothian” treatment in Company.

Jost makes a very useful statement when he says “only if the reader can actively [imagine the parts to be reconstructed – (implied author’s meaning, implied reader’s reaction)]…can the reader follow Booth in what he makes of his metaphor” (Antczak, 29).

Booth devotes several chapters of Company to the discussion of metaphor, which helps us to understand how he himself uses this device, as well his fundamental idea that “all narrative is metaphorical” (302).

Booth says that “if we don’t know what it is we are talking about, we can hardly hope to decide whether or not it is good for us” (303). Since Booth claims that all narrative, and perhaps everything, is constructed of metaphor, he needs to substantiate this with talking about what metaphor really is. He does this by looking at two ends of the whole: “the figuring of the mind” and then “metaphorical worlds” and how we negotiate them.

When Booth talks about the “figuring of the mind”, he takes on the task similarly to how he takes on his discussion of Irony. He talks about the individual reader’s experience with a text (“micro-narrative” or ‘single metaphor’).

Booth and Aristotle

Aristotle, as we know, is a foundation for many of Booth’s approaches to criticism. Metaphor for Aristotle is the “most important single gift of the poet” (Irony, 177). In A Rhetoric of Irony, Booth agrees that metaphor is “supreme”, but admits that “in modern times more authors have established themselves in our consciousness through ironic voices than through metaphoric richness” (178).

However, Aristotle and Booth are very different when it comes to how they talk about the effectiveness and value of metaphor.

Aristotle tells us throughout chapter ten of book three of Rhetoric what “appeals to us” and what is more or less attractive. In short, he makes the ethical criticism for us, unlike Booth, who encourages us to work through metaphors on our own – from petty to complex and mixed – and to discover what we will in them (though he does, of course, tell us what he thinks).

Aristotle suggests that “those [metaphors] which puzzle us” are not effective, while Booth is quite adamant that the most effective metaphors are those which require us to actively engage our minds in the problem: that is, puzzle-like reconstructions, as with irony.

Booth asks “how do you judge effectiveness? Will the answer to this help judge ethical value?” (Company, 312). While Aristotle seems to stop at judging effectiveness as value, Booth wants to go further to suggest that there is much more to ethical value than effectiveness.

Metaphor and Irony

Company is primarily concerned with the ethics of fiction, and Booth often discusses both irony and metaphor as a means of developing a community in which ethical judgment can be made. This community is created when we reconstruct meaning. Booth shows this very carefully for one trope in Irony, and he shows it in Company for the other.

The relationship between metaphor and irony is complex; in Rhetoric of Irony, Booth even calls metaphor the main rival of irony (176-178). We need to be careful here to discern the two. Both are, of course, elements of figurative language, but they have different functions. Ultimately, the reconstruction of meaning through metaphor is superior to that of irony when the purpose is ethical criticism because:

  • irony creates intimacy with the implied author
  • but metaphor creates the world in which fixed norms exist, and this is what we are basing our ethical criticism on.

From an ethical perspective, perhaps it is also superior because it does not require a victim.

Furthermore, metaphor extends a meaning, while irony is “subtractive.” That is, irony’s main purpose is experiencing intimacy and collaboration with the author, and while metaphor is also involved with intimacy and collaboration, it is more expansive than irony because a whole world of values is created.

In both cases, we have the two platforms (what is said, what is meant):

  • in Rhetoric of Irony, Booth shows us that to understand the irony is to reject the original “platform” or idea (Irony 40 – rejecting literal meaning), while metaphor simply augments our understanding of the original idea.
  • in Company, he shows us how the new platform in metaphor does not reject the original literal meaning; rather, the latter sheds new light on the former.

Reconstruction and Community

The idea of reconstruction is very important to Booth because it is fundamental to creating community. It is an action which necessitates a relationship between the implied author and the implied reader.

Booth is obviously very concerned with community, especially in his overall aim of “keeping company” with books and with others as a means of making ethical judgments. We’ve seen this in Rhetoric of Fiction where he asks us to be responsible readers, in a sense ‘communing’ with the intended author/narrator. We’ve seen this idea of community in Modern Dogma, where the idea of assent is fundamental. And we’ve just seen how Rhetoric of Irony discusses reconstruction of ironies as a means for building community.

When it comes to actually evaluating the values of these reconstructions, we need to look at the whole world of values that each metaphor implies.

Our appraisal of the metaphorical worlds, also called macro-narratives, is where we can make qualified ethical judgments.

We appraise these worlds by engaging in their clusters of metaphors. Each ‘world’ is made up of fixed norms (values) and an idea of how the world/situation ought to be or ought not to be.

Experiencing alternative fixed norms (i.e., alternative to our own), allows us to evaluate the ideology of the author. Do we share these fixed norms or not? The answer to this helps us make a justified ethical criticism. Booth calls this process of experiencing worlds and making ethical judgment based on them a “two-track ‘talking’ route”. This is what Booth does with his own writing

Booth emphasizes that the experience is primary, and is more important than critical thought about it (Company, 347).

Overall, this section on metaphor highlights Booth’s pluralism: he explains that one metaphor can’t cover everything in a world/situation; however, many metaphors together can (in a metaphorical world).

Booth suggests that different kinds of metaphors, like “universe as organism, universe as mechanical function, etc.” can “profit from the criticism of the others, because each has a great difficulty accommodating some of the data that the others handle efficiently. But none can be refuted by the others” (Company, 356).

Finally, we should remember that intimacy is a key concept not only in this section, but in the whole book. The metaphor of keeping company suggests the friendship and intimacy of engaging oneself with a text and with participating in conversation with others where values/fixed norms can be evaluated. Both of these are made possible in the world of metaphor.

Booth states that “ethical criticism…is something we live, both as we engage with works and as we converse about them” (Company, 369).

So we see that we must experience both the “figuring of the mind” and whole “metaphoric worlds,” and then participate in coduction – the sharing of ethical judgements in a community.

A reader’s engagement with a metaphor, and with a whole world, is a conversation between implied author and implied reader, which is exactly the kind of relationship Booth cultivates with his own writing.

Part 3: An Ethics for Living in this World and with Others

Leading By Example

Part 3 of The Company We Keep is subtitled, “Doctrinal Criticism and the Redemptions of Coduction”.

This is “redemption” in the sense that he’s defending coduction as a useful critical approach, and “redemption” in the sense that through coduction we may redeem the privileges of given texts.

An evaluation based on a deduction—as in “that poem is bad because it contains a false doctrine”—can miss out on arguments derived from alternative premises. A coduction, on the other hand, allows for open evaluations on a range of values (Company, 179; “Some measures of literary friendship”).

Coductions are localized evaluations of narratives in conversation with others and tempered by understanding. They are relative in time, in relation to our accumulated experience: a child reading Moby Dick, or a grown up reading a comic book, may have too little or too much experience to appreciate the text and match the role of the implied audience.

Here there be Dragons: an anecdote of coduction

Take the movie, Quills, which portrays the marquis de Sade in a flattering way, as a perverted yet earnest libertarian (Quills, 2000). The advertising tagline for the film was, “There are no bad words...only bad deeds.” Well, words can depict bad deeds--for instance, the horrific scene in de Sade’s Justine where characters cast a living child into a fire pit during an orgy-- now what? Booth provides an answer in Company, in which he argues that (in a more compelling and comprhensive way than one finds in, say, Speech Act Theory) that words are deeds. They lead readers though patterns of desire, and de Sade’s patterns are vicious.

Rogers Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge, published four years prior to the release of Quills, deals in part with the rehabilitation by various intellectuals of the Marquis de Sade (Shattuck, 275), and it casts a useful, Boothian, light on the film Quills, as it does on any efforts to celebrate the vicious:

According to legend, [an] undistinguished and profoundly thwarted citizen of Ephesus conceived the idea of burning down his city’s temple of Artemis with its fine library in order to create instant fame for himself and assure the survival of his name in history. Out of calculated self-aggrandizement, Herostratus committed an act of cultural arson, causing the destruction of genuinely valuable artifacts and probably of human lives. What shall we do with such a story? For if we perpetuate it as a negative example, we are also perpetuating the success of his crime. And if we try to suppress the story because of possible misinterpretation and deleterious consequences, we are establishing limits on knowledge of history and losing a fable. What we can and should properly protest is not the existence of the Herostratus parable but any interpretation of it, particularly for young and unformed minds, as recording a deed of originality, courage, and human liberation…Like Sade, he was engaged in the destruction of the very history in which he wished to survive. The divine marquis represents forbidden knowledge that we may not forbid. Consequently, we should label his writings carefully: potential poison, polluting to our moral and intellectual environment. (Shattuck, 299)

As Booth might say, Sade’s freedom to engage taboo depends on not having freedom from persecution. And so too, the thrill of engaging Sade. In the words of Shattuck, “Beyond a certain point, the inveterate libertine cannot attain orgasm without a sense of transgressing the laws and constraints that he rejects. The door must be both open and closed…In order to attain the needed sense of crime and excess, all Sade’s libertines remain parasitic on the constraints they deride…Sade the missionary of transgression tolerates laws and limits in order to be able to trample them underfoot” (281).

In contrast to the notions like the movie tag-line, “there are no bad words,” Shattuck argues that unethical doctrines, like those of de Sade’s, can actually mis-educate and pollute our minds, especially unformed minds. He points out the futility of censorship, and argues instead for careful critical labeling of works, some works treated as hazardous, or poison.

In the context of Shattuck’s careful critique, Quills is revealed as a misguided mythification of de Sade as a prison artist, a film that flatters him by portraying him as an unrepentant addict and a man doggedly faithful to his form of expression despite persecution.

Booth’s Coductions vs Ideological Criticism

Our own coductions are assessments as of now, based on what we have experienced so far, subject to re-evaluation in ongoing conversations we have with others.

In contrast to coduction, Booth notices that many ideological critics often fall into a pair of traps. Critics often try to divorce ethical and ideological criticism (and he argues this cannot be done in chapter one), and many critics attempt to reduce criticism to an interrogation of power relationships (ideological criticism), a practice Booth claims will perpetuate power struggles and logomachy--critical warfare (Antczak, 6). Such a reduction to power is self-privileging:

When I argue that power is all, either my argument is itself worth attending to or it is simply a disguise for my own power play. If it is the former, then power is not all; argument counts. But if it is only another power play, then my listeners have no good reason to attend to it: they have at best only a motive, fear of possible power. Insofar as I try to deny this inconsistency, I fall into the kind of self-privileging discourse that exempts itself from its own analysis. (Company, 385)

We may note, this theme is reminiscent of Modern Dogma, which Booth tells us is inspired by a war of words between protestors and a university administration, both sides talking past each other.

Figures that Lead

At this point we need to attend to how Booth conducts himself as an author and critic by exploring some of his techniques and strategies.

One technique, consistent with his suggestion that we actively seek out additional points-of-view, is Booth’s habit of re-investing words with greater meaning. In some cases this involves recovering archaic meanings to terms like “conversation” (Company, 477) which, he reminds us, comes from the latin verb for ‘to turn around’ and also the root of the word “conversion.” Thus conversation contains the potential for change, and at the same time remains inherently social, entailing the “action of consorting or having dealings with others; living together…[and] intimacy” (Oxford, “conversation”).

Such a re-investment augments our perspective and our sense of the ‘reality’ for words we think we know. Take for instance the word “competition.” By noticing the origin of the word, com- (together) and petere (strive) (Ayto, “competition”), we become reacquainted with the inherent agreement at the core of any competition, the shared values and goals that lead us to strive, in a sense, together. By re-investing conversation with it’s anachronistic meanings, Booth broadens the way we think about conversation and keeping with his suggestion that we actively seek a plurality of perspectives.

A similar move occurs in Part 3 when Booth tackles ideological criticism by discussing the nature of freedom, distinguishing freedoms from and freedoms to. That is to say: “I can seek either a freedom from external restraints, from the power of others to inhibit my actions, or I can seek a freedom to act effectively when external restraints are removed” (Company, 386). Freedoms from are easier to talk about; we can target a single form of oppression and expound on its influence in our lives (Company, 386). Freedoms to are more complex; they may require sacrifices of some freedoms from: for example, in order to be free to understand a university physics textbook, one has to surrender to a discipline that may require years of subordination “to what may sometimes look like vicious established powers” (Company, 386).

A Leader by Example

Booth was an exemplary teacher, awarded the Quantrell Prize for Undergraduate Teaching a year after being named Distinguished service Professor at the University of Chicago. In The Vocation of a Teacher, he talks about teaching by modelling (Antczak, 9). Like any good teacher, he leads by example, figuratively speaking:

Like Cicero’s Crassus in De Oratore, Booth is an accomplished rhetorician whose project is not so much to explain rhetorical theory and practice it effectively as it is to prompt people to understand rhetorical exchange as a method for living a better and more mutually satisfying life (Clark, 52).

Booth is Cicero’s vir bonum dicendu partibusa good man speaking well.

In Company Booth also leads by example in the sense of a rhetorical trope. Before we attend to the way he uses examples, let’s take a look at his use of metaphors, and how Booth follows his own suggestion that we should seek out alternative perspectives.

Booth uses supporting metaphors to create a plurality of perspectives on a given concept. Considering the readers responsibility to sample a variety and range of literary experiences, Booth uses travel as a metaphor while discussing a text by Rabelais:

I simply must try for that total understanding or I will deny myself the chance for whatever enrichment…[he] and his culture can offer. If all I wanted was a peaceful reinforcement of my beliefs, I should have ‘stayed home,’ comfortably freed from nasty challenges. But that is not what anyone can really want. Surely learning to meet ‘the others’ where they live is the greatest of all gifts that powerful fiction can offer us?...we simply must ‘travel’ or we die on our feet (Company, 414).

This metaphor of travel entails a sense that we lead ourselves along our own path of self-enrichment. Readers familiar with Bourdieu or genre theory may note implications of symbolic capital, that cultural and social currency enables us with a kind of cultural passport. The more genre’s or fields we know, the more readily we may adapt to new genres or fields. Although Booth talks of “fields of selves” using terminology similar to Bourdieu’s, Booth gives no indication that he approves of injecting the market terminology of symbolic capital into his discussion of coductions. He emphasizes not how reading can empower us, but how reading can elevate us and help us live together. In keeping with the metaphor of travel, we as readers have a responsibility to ourselves to sample a range of offerings, and not become too comfortable and all too picky home-stickers. That option is stultifying, leaving us “dead on our feet” (Company,414).

A similar metaphor that Booth uses is that of the garden which offers us many gifts (Company, 56). Championing variety is true to Booth’s admonition that we must actively seek out alternative points of view to engage in our ongoing conversation and coductions. Variety is self-rewarding, as in travelling or exploring a garden.

Using a range of metaphors to illustrate the relationship between author, reader, text, and social context, we gain an opportunity to sense how each perspective and a plurality of figuration contributes to our Boothian understanding of what we think we know, and how we know it.

We’ve just looked at Booth’s use of metaphors. Another rhetorical figure is the exemplum. Booth is both a leader-by-example in the figurative sense, and in the literal sense as his books are chalk full of quotations and other examples. His selection of examples is often very clever, with some aspect of examples resonating with themes he develops in his text. These themes are not made explicit, but may nevertheless have a rhetorical effect on the reader:

In section 2, while considering the concept of upward and downward hypocrisy, Booth offers a passage from Ulysses in which a character ponders the question of “what happens to the senses when one shuts ones eyes” (Company, 275). Joyce presents a kind of upward hypocrisy by inspiring his audience to suspect that many allusions are being made within the text, but suggesting a design and leaving clues for following. We could say that the character in question is at the same time pondering what happens to a life when it stops living. And a few pages later he states “it is impossible to shut our eyes and ears and retreat to a story-free world”. But Booth doesn’t hit us over the head; he gives us room to explore the connections we may make between themes and motifs in the text..

Similarly, he uses a poem that speaks of the virtues of idleness (Ezra Pound) a few pages before stating that “some freedoms to [like the ability to write a technically demanding poem] require the sacrifice of some freedoms from [exerting effort in the act of writing]” (Company, 386).

Booth’s careful selection of examples is a figure in itself that adds pleasure to the experience of exploring his garden, so to speak. Let's also consider the ethos of Intimacy as a rhetorical strategy in Company.

Booth makes himself vulnerable, again leading by example and providing the model of a critic open to re-evaluation and committed to conversation within a spirit of understanding:

In our day’s academic bestiary we are more than familiar with Old Boars who have closed their minds, or at least their ears…In The Rhetoric of Fiction he criticised the assumptions that might have been his professional gravy train, and pushed himself beyond them….And the whole introduction to Company depends on Booth’s having continued to think about Paul Moses’s objection to Huckleberry Finn, thought that leads him not to Moses’s position but to one more fully his own. (Antczak, 9)

The redemptions of coduction then, are not only the capacity to change our minds in response to good reasons (Antczak, 9), but the capacity to take our own assessments and shift them to a deeper and more comfortable seat, to make them more fully our own.

Booth’s final chapter is his appraisal of Huckleberry Finn, a text which, we are told in the introduction, initially prompted him to defend overt ethical appraisal as a legitimate form of literary criticism (Company, 4). Booth, in each of his four coductions (dealing with Rabelais, Lawrence, Austen, and Twain) follows a pattern of:

  • Exploring a variety of arguments, as well as the text itself.
  • Articulating an indictment of the text
  • Extending friendship, or mercy toward the text, attempting to redeem the baby from the bathwater.
  • Followed by a re-evaluation of his previous assessment, the final act of his coduction

Throughout his analyses there is an emphasis on re-evaluation and understanding, juggling multiple perspectives and weighing their merits. Of Huckleberry Finn, Booth notes that Twain knew “that when we put our minds on ideological conflict, a story can be destroyed” (Company, 459). He focuses our attention on a passage where Twain satirizes the “norms dictated by obedience to public morality—and especially by official Christianity” (460), to show how Huck abandons abstract norms which would have him turn in the old slave, Jim, for existential knowledge, “his memories of joyful loving life with Jim” in what he calls “one of the great literary confrontations of abstract, misguided principle with concrete, lived experience” (Company, 461).

Booth then articulates objections to Huckleberry Finn by Rhett Jones and Julius Lester, who particularly object to the pathetic portrayal of Jim, his use as a prop and plot device, and the cruel ending (where Finn and Sawyer play a trick on the slave, pretending to set him free when he has already been freed) and finally exonerating Sawyer for the prank he plays on Jim. He attempts to balance this attack with the idea that Huckleberry Finn, as a whole, is anti-racist, and that it permanently opens a conversation about racism (Company, 474).

After outlining the ethical implications of Huckleberry Finn, Booth asks, “After such sins, what forgiveness?” He considers a variety of defences for the novel, such as: “Why cannot we assume that any flaw of perception or behaviour we discern is part of Twain’s portrait of a ‘character whose moral vision, though profound, is seriously and consistently flawed?’” (Company,470). Indeed, this moral duplicity may represent the national dilemma following the collapse of Reconstruction (Company, 417); however, Booth discounts these arguments because they require too much work, and most readers would not extend themselves so far to such an interpretation.

He concludes that the novel provides a kind of moral holiday, “a mythic experience that can lead to endless but fruitful inquiry into what kind of creatures we are” (Company, 475), but ultimately offers us every invitation to mis-educate ourselves. Thus he retracts his original position:” I now find a distressing disparity between the force of my objections…and the strength of my continuing love for the book. My ethical criticism has disturbed a surface that was once serene” (Company, 477).

The Epilogue: what is our means to coduce?

He observes two differing traditions for addressing our ethical models: the search for purity, spotting virtue and vice; the embrace of everything human, letting the bad slip away (Company, 485-8). He considers Christ as a model of the man who embraces all humanity without being contaminated. However, he notes: “We must both open ourselves to ‘others’ that look initially dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off whenever, after keeping company with them, we conclude that they are potentially harmful. Which of these opposing practices will serve us best, at a given moment, will depend on who ‘we’ are and what the ‘moment’ is” (Company, 488). We can’t love everyone, we’re not invulnerable. So, Christ is not the vir bonum dicendu partibus we’re looking for.

Resolution: The metaphor of friendship encompasses both the compassion and tolerance of the embracing tradition, while acknowledging that friendships can be re-evaluated and even dropped. But not necessarily on account of utility: Books can be good friends without strictly performing some utility service, like a dictionary or a textbook. In the final Epilogue, Booth restates the problem which prompted his inquiry: “I must leave it to each reader to practice an ethics of reading that might determine…just which of the world’s narratives should count most, and just which of the world’s narratives should now be banned or embraced in the lifetime project of building the character of the ethical reader” (Company, 489).

How do we decide which books elevates us as human beings? How do we decide in a way that does not throw out the babies with their bathwater?

If we cannot decide on what elevates us prior to evaluation, let’s revive a classic doctrine of Cicero’s vir bonum dicendi partibus--the good person speaking well. The leader-by-example. Booth leads by example, both figuratively and literally, and suggests that if we consider texts as friends that answer to his question, which books elevate us as human beings, will help us make our critical choices responsibly, with understanding and appreciation, to answer the question.

Works Cited

Antczak, Frederik. “Introduction.” Rhetoric and Pluralism: Legacies of Wayne Booth. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1995.

Booth, Wayne. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Booth, Wayne. Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Cixous, Helene. "Sorties." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998. 578 - 585.

Clark, Gregory C. "Wayne Booth". Twentieth-century rhetorics and rhetoricians: critical studies and sources. Michael G. Moran and Michelle Ballif, editors. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000, pages 49-51.