Home     Reviews     Essays     Twitter     About     Print

Aristotle and Mr. Booth

On The Rhetoric of Fiction

Jonathan Russell Clark

May 10, 2015

The Rhetoric of Fiction

The Rhetoric of Fiction

by Wayne C. Booth

University of Chicago Press, 1983

The art of rhetoric could easily be rephrased as the philosophy of the audience. What, after all, are rhetoricians contemplating other than the ways in which one persuades? That verb requires a person to be persuaded. And if another person is required, wouldn’t it then be natural to assume that rhetoric must fundamentally be about that person’s mindset, judgment, beliefs, responses, etc.? Rhetoricians study people first and then translate their conclusions into techniques with which to approach said people. Ancient Greek rhetoricians made certain assumptions (sometimes stated explicitly, sometimes implied) about the audience, the listeners to the speeches of the time. Their assertions may strike contemporary readers as a bit simplistic, but the aim of their assertions is what matters here. They acknowledged, from the very beginning, that this was all about eliciting response, and that to achieve this, one had to study the responders.

The American literary critic Wayne C. Booth took this approach and applied it to the art of fiction, changing the audience to the reader. Though a reader is an individual and an audience is a group, the former term here synecdochically stands for the whole of readers, i.e., everybody. From its origins in ancient Greece to its contemporary iterations in critics like Booth, rhetoric has had much to say about people and the way they think, feel, and respond to intellectual and emotional stimuli. Booth’s work in The Rhetoric of Fiction argues that the bond between author and reader is far more complicated than early literary critics assumed. He takes the rhetorical ideas of Aristotle (such as the enthymeme) and transforms them into a complex web of narrative persuasion. But where the Greeks saw means to convince, Booth sees a relationship, and since fiction’s devices and tools are elusive and illusive, and since fiction is not conducive to strict rules, Booth’s philosophy of audience (i.e., his portrait of humanity) is far more intricate and ultimately ethical than that of Aristotle.

Wayne Booth was born in Utah and raised Mormon. Eventually, he eschewed his family’s teachings and turned to literature instead. He lived and taught in Chicago for most of his life. Though The Rhetoric of Fiction is his best-known work, he was also the author of numerous other studies on rhetoric, in which he applied his critical approach to other subjects, as in The Rhetoric of Irony (1974), and other works on fiction, such as The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). But it was The Rhetoric of Fiction that established him as what the New York Times called “one of the pre-eminent literary critics of the second half of the 20th century.” The most fascinating contributions of Booth’s work are the ways in which he extends the concept of rhetoric into the realm of fiction, and that, by doing so, he also complicates the notion of the reader, which is literature’s version of the audience.

First, it is necessary to establish the origins of rhetoric (and rhetoric’s original audience) to understand Booth’s achievements. Aristotle, rhetoric’s first academic, took great pains in his Rhetoric to enumerate all the types of emotions and listeners he knew, a valuable project, to be sure, since, as established above, rhetoric must focus on the audience and their responses. Unfortunately, Aristotle does not offer a complex exploration. When writing of “the Youthful type of character,” he states that they “have strong passions, and tend to gratify themselves indiscriminately.” He goes on to describe the young as fickle, hot-tempered, sanguine, desirous of sex and superiority, and shy. More recent psychology has shown why it is futile to lump types of people into a group and define their characters, but, beyond this, as simple instruction for future rhetoricians, this is lacking. How does one work to persuade a “hot-tempered,” “shy” young man? Moreover, a reductive view of one’s audience only hinders the rhetor. He continues in more or less the same vein when discussing the elderly, the powerful, the wealthy, etc. Since Aristotle was the first in trying to pin down the types of audiences, modern readers cannot expect the same level of psychological detail of current texts. After all, rhetoric––like philosophy, like science, like any useful school of thought––must be amended and updated as the world moves.

Booth, with his brilliant insight into the art of fiction, updates Aristotle’s initial view of the audience by first contradicting what had previously been theorized about the mechanics of fiction. Booth begins with a “re-examination of a number of vague and limiting assumptions in modern criticism of the novel.” He disproves the conventional notion of showing versus telling, specifically the corollary idea that the author’s presence should be minimized if not eradicated:

Everything he shows will serve to tell; the line between showing and telling is always to some degree an arbitrary one.

In short, the author’s judgment is always present, always evident to anyone who knows how to look for it. Whether its particular forms are harmful or serviceable is always a complex question, a question that cannot be settled by any easy reference to abstract rules. As we now begin to deal with this question, we must never forget that though the author can to some extent choose his disguises, he can never choose to disappear.

Notice Booth’s usage of the verb “deal” here. He is not going to answer the question but deal with it. Everything for Booth is complicated and often irreducible to directives or mandates.

Similarly, Booth challenges notions of realism and authorial objectivity as exemplified by Sartre and James, and here Booth begins to dissect the relationship between author and reader, something he argues is not harmed by the use, for example, of an omniscient narrator:

In short, once I have surrendered to an omniscient narrator, I am no more inclined…to separate the narrator’s judgment from the thing or character judged than I am inclined to question James’s conventions once I am well into one of his novels. He signs an agreement with me not to know everything. He reminds me from time to time that he cannot, in this particular instance, “go behind” because of the convention he has adopted. I accept this, provided it serves larger ends that I can also accept. But in no case do I pretend that I am not reading a novel.

An author, then, presents a contract with the reader that he (the author) must continually renew, page after page, in order to maintain the interest of the reader. This means the author must establish rules he does not break, or, if he does, he must do so for the sake of the “larger ends that [the reader] can also accept.” Also, an author must then know his rules, his techniques, in order to be able to juggle them all as the novel progresses. If, as Booth notes, he is willing to sacrifice his techniques for the greater sake of the narrative, he can do so.

By contradicting the so-called rules of fiction established by previous critics (or, at least, by showing how they aren’t all-encompassing), Booth becomes the first critic to show that fiction is made up of rhetorical choices, though his insight is not without precedent: “Aristotle,” Booth writes, “never completely repudiates the rhetorical dimension of poetry. He clearly recognizes that one thing the poet does is to produce effects on audiences.” The origin of Booth’s groundbreaking claim stems from ancient Greece, where rhetoric began, though Aristotle viewed rhetoric in these cases as a “necessary evil.” He never treated it, as Booth does, as a vital component of art.

Aristotle, though, had another notion that fits into Booth’s rhetoric of fiction: the enthymeme. According to Aristotle, the enthymeme is a kind of formula: “when it is shown that, certain propositions being true, a further and quite distinct proposition must also be true.” With the enthymeme, though, “if any of these propositions is a familiar fact, there is no need even to mention it; the hearer adds it himself.” This last clause is the most important, as it foreshadows both Booth’s assertions and the whole of fiction itself. (A crude example of an enthymeme would be the way conservative politicians mention that their liberal opponent associates with Hollywood types. The politician doesn’t have to articulate what Hollywood suggests—elitism, ignorance of the common America, etc.—because the audience fills that in automatically.) Throughout The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth explores the limitations of storytelling via rhetorical devices: “We may finally be forced to conclude, with Aristotle and with most important modern critics, that the author should use as little recognizable rhetoric ‘as possible.’” Booth quotes a letter from Chekhov, in which he states, “You would have me…when I describe horse-thieves, say: ‘Stealing horses is an evil.’ But that has been known for ages without my saying so…When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” Here, certain ethical ideas are implied—fiction’s version of an enthymeme.

Weary of rule making, though, Booth warns of relying too heavily on the reader to fill in emotional subtext. It is in this regard (the presumed reader’s response) that Booth develops a more complex view of the reader than Aristotle did of his audience. Booth writes:

[A writer] can never count on those universals being responded to with any intensity unless he gives good reasons. He must recognize that all readers are daily bombarded with real events which should call for the most intense, universal reactions; murder, rape, pillage, famine, innocent suffering, villainous machinations, and maniacal cruelty can all be found in the evening paper, sometimes with, sometimes without, rhetorical heightening.

Readers, then, cannot simply be confronted with evil if a writer wants to elicit strong reactions, because the reader has complex reactions to “real events” that are just as harrowing––if not more so––than anything produced by fiction. Instead of merely describing what he considers to be shared characteristics of different types of people––the way Aristotle does––Booth repeatedly disavows any technique dependent on assumptions of the reader’s emotions or morals.

Texts are as complicated as people. Misinterpretation is inevitable. Booth tells the story of a friend of his who used “the works of Huxley throughout his adolescence as a steady source of pornography. The orgies satirized in Brave New World were for him genuinely orgiastic.” An amusing misreading, to be sure, but Booth sees something larger in anecdotes like this, and argues that “an author has an obligation to be as clear about his moral position as he possibly can be.” David Lodge, in an essay in Critical Survey, believes this to be an erroneous assertion, inasmuch as “the modern novelist inhabits a world of confused and collapsed values, where no absolute standards of truth or morality prevail.” But Booth is not being prescriptive toward particular morals. He believes that writers must “let each work do what it ‘wants’ to do; let its author discover its inherent powers and gauge his techniques to the realization of those powers.” If novelists want to represent Lodge’s world of “collapsed values,” they can. Booth merely wants those motivations made clear. Ambiguity is fine, if not desired. Unnecessary confusion, antithetical misinterpretation, vagueness, etc.––those are qualities, according to Booth, good fiction writers seek to avoid.

Lodge’s objection––that Booth “is using an over-simplified model of rhetoric”––seems shocking when one considers just how far Booth extended the theoretical uses of rhetoric from the age of Aristotle. Booth changed rhetoric by acknowledging that it could be found in everything, especially narrative, and his strongest point lies in his intimation of the reader’s complexity. He saw each person as unique and irreducible to standards. He could see, as Aristotle apparently could not, that some young men may be calm instead of hot-tempered, that not all old men are cynical. Lodge got it all wrong: Booth wasn’t using an over-simplified rhetoric; rather, he meant to suggest that writers needed to be morally clear precisely because readers are so complex, their reactions so varied. The clearer a writer is, the more unified readers’ reactions will be. “The author makes his readers,” Booth writes, meaning that a novelist’s clarity will assist in bringing the reader along for the journey. Fiction does not convince, it creates; and by expanding the realm of rhetoric, Booth also expanded our idea of art and the intricate relationship between author and reader.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.