Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth (First Edition, 1961, Second Edition 1983)

"My subject is the technique of non-didactic fiction, viewed as the art of communicating with readers—the rhetorical resources available to the writer of epic, novel, or short story as he tries, consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader. Though the problems raised by rhetoric in this sense are found in didactic works like  Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress, and 1984, they are seen more clearly in non-didactic works like Tom Jones, Middlemarch, and Light in August. Is there any defense that can be offered, on aesthetic grounds, for an art full of rhetorical appeals? What kind of art is it that will allow Flaubert to barge into his action to describe Emma as “unaware that now she was eager to yield to the very thing that had made her so indignant,” and as “totally unconscious that she was prostituting herself”? Whatever their answers, critics have often been troubled by this kind of overt, distinguishable rhetoric. But it takes no very deep analysis to show that the same problems are raised, though in less obvious form, by the disguised rhetoric of modern fiction; when Henry James says that he has invented a ficelle because the reader, not the hero, needs a “friend,” the ostensibly dramatic move is still rhetorical; it is dictated by the effort to help the reader grasp the work. I am aware that in pursuing the author’s means of controlling his reader I have arbitrarily isolated technique from all of the social and psychological forces that affect authors and readers." From the preface to the first edition of The Rhetoric of Fiction

Wayne Booth's (1921 to 2005, USA) Rhetoric of Fiction, was first published in 1961.  In 1983 a second edition with a very lengthy response to commentaries on his ideas was published.  Almost upon publication it became one of the most influential works of literary theory written by an American after World War Two.   I read it for the first time in 1970 and my ways of looking at literature were very influenced by his great ideas about how fiction works.  I decided to reread it and I saw again how much my thinking about fiction is influenced by it. 

  Before I read The Rhetoric of Fiction, I had read no works of literary theory.  I have read lots of literary theory, history, criticism, and such since  then but nothing as good, as interesting and insightful as The Rhetoric of Fiction. His ideas are still near the center of academic thoughts on how literature works.  

The roots of the ideas of Booth go back to The Poetics of Aristotle with an intensive reading of the prefaces of Henry James as authoritative.  He makes frequent refrences to a book once very trendy The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbuck (1927).  Broadly stated, the topic of the book is the methods authors use to create responses in readers.  He talks a lot about different kinds of narration, about the difference between "showing and telling", about authorial intrusions, implied versus real authors.  The works he refers to most are Tom Jones and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. (Booth wrote his dissertation on  Sterne).  He devotes a chapter to the control of distance in Emma.  

As I was reading The Rhetoric of Fiction I was also reading a novel by Rosamond Lehmann, The Weather in the Street.  In his preface to the second edition of his books, Booth suggested his reader instead of relying on his examples that one apply his ideas to a work you are reading or know well.  As I read the marvelous work of Lehmann I thought one could easily right a long article which would illustrate the illuminating power of Booth's ideas as it applies to the narrative method of Lehmann.

Anyone who wants to understand how fiction works should read this book.  It is a bit academic at times, meaning it is one professor arguing with others, but it is very readable, lucid and totally interesting.  I hope to reread Tom Jones soon, read Emma for the first time, and maybe Sterne.

This is a brilliant book.

Mel u

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