The Magazine

Wayne Booth 1921-2005

The man who knew how fiction works.

Nov 14, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 09 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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I HAVE A THEORY, perhaps a bit patronizing, that few readers will recognize the name of Wayne Booth, who died recently, because . . . it doesn't sound literary. T.S. Eliot or Cleanth Brooks? Yes. Wayne Booth? No. More like a banker or realtor.

His death saddened me for reasons shortly to be described. But it isn't too late to make his acquaintance, if you haven't. He is, one might say, a book; and a book is he. His claim to fame is one of the foundational works of 20th-century literary criticism--as important, if you ask me, as Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" or Brooks's Well Wrought Urn. It is called The Rhetoric of Fiction, and it was first published 44 years ago by the University of Chicago Press. My copy, the second edition of 1983, is well worn. When I was teaching fiction in the 1980s in the Georgetown Liberal Studies Program, and in the 1990s at Washington and Lee, I always pressed two preparatory books on my students. One is Eric Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature; the other is Booth's.

The idea underlying Booth's title is obvious: Rhetoric, as defined by critics from Aristotle forward, is essentially the art of verbal persuasion. Today, the word has been degraded--pejorated, as we were taught to say in Latin I--by slipshod use. When we call something or someone rhetorical today we mean no compliment; we mean wordy, sly, and often hollow. It wasn't so in classical understanding, and isn't so as Booth uses the term. The Rhetoric of Fiction is about those devices that make storytelling plausible, believable--"realistic," if you like, although "realism" is a question-begging idea (see below).

Booth considers the familiar shibboleths and mantras of storytelling. An example, endlessly reiterated when I was studying writing at Chapel Hill under my great teacher Phillips Russell half-a-century ago, is "show, don't tell." Dramatize, that is; let the characters display the story. Don't tell us that X

is jittery as he approaches the house, drunk; show him reeling along, show us the nervous tic around his eye as he prepares to knock on the door because he has forgotten where he put his house key. Booth made it his business to dissect such shibboleths as "show, don't tell" in the light of writerly practice, good and bad. He shows us when the rules apply and when and where they have been successfully violated, usually by the masters.

You may be familiar with a conception in the analysis of fiction that Booth originated, certainly expounded and popularized: the "unreliable narrator." That is the voice or character in the story whose version of the facts can't be trusted. His unreliability may be subtle or blatant; it may arise from confusion, or the urge to deceive, or what Doctor Johnson called "stark insensibility." Every reader's favorite example is Ford Madox Ford's great novel The Good Soldier (1915), which abounds in reports that turn out to be false. You keep peeling away these misleading clues and reports until, at last, you reach the core truth.

Of course, the unreliable narrator is hardly a new feature of storytelling. Long before the rise of the novel you find him in plays and stories. The ghost of Hamlet's father, who one night just before dawn on the battlements at Elsinore claims to have been assassinated--poisoned--by his brother, Claudius. He groans about his sufferings in Purgatory and demands vengeance. But is his report reliable? Part of the tension is that Hamlet wonders if what he believes to be the ghost of his father is an "honest ghost," or merely a mischievous demon tempting him to commit murder.

Wayne Booth devoted a long career to the analysis of what makes fiction tick. He obviously thought stories were important and, right off the bat, in the first paragraph of his first chapter, he gives us one big--indeed, unique--reason that fiction retains its capacity to enthrall, to entertain, to instruct about life and people:

In life we never know anyone but ourselves by thoroughly reliable internal signs and most of us achieve an all too partial view even of ourselves. It is in a way strange, then, that in literature from the very beginning we have been told motives directly and authoritatively without being forced to rely on those shaky inferences about other men which we cannot avoid in our own lives.

A typically meaty Boothism, whose implications are large. And his book abounds in them. I never met Wayne Booth, and know no one who did. But I am in his debt for a book that taught me much of what I know about the art of fiction--a work whose riches every serious reader of tales should know front to back.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr is a former editor and columnist in Washington.