From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Endings (10)—The Rhetoric of Fiction

Have you had it with "theory?" Are you at the end of your wits in trying to figure out the circuitous threads that bind reader-response, historicism, structuralism, and various strands of post-modernism? Are you, like the little graduate-student reader below, so sick of all of the demands and advice...and work...that you just want to yell "stop" and jump off the theoretical merry-go-round? Maybe you just want to read Derrida and think about radical politics, but others are bugging you about everything else that you have to the original languages? 

First, take a look at the clip below. It sums up all of the frustrations of "reading theory." Please note that there is an endlessly repeated invective that is not suitable for anyone except frustrated graduate students and harried basketball coaches. It's not Pulp Fiction, but it's not The Waltons, either. Fair warning—don't watch if you can't handle the swearing, even if it is in context.

There was a simpler time (and place), and it was only a little over forty years ago, in the American midwest. It was a time when a number of literary critics were beginning to take the tentative first steps into understanding novels (for example) as containing something other than "authorial intent." It was a beautiful time, when quaint words like "rhetoric" still seemed to promise fountains of flowing understanding in a confused interpretive world.

[b] Fictional rhetoric
Let's take a look at the conclusion to Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction—a book that rocked the world of English literature and resonated far beyond it. Soon, its claims would seem tame and somewhat effete to more aggressive theorists. It might be worth reconsidering some of those simple claims now, though, after forty years of tumultuous theorizing that has often left us standing in barren fields of over-analyzed texts.

Wayne Booth
The Rhetoric of Fiction
The ultimate problem in the rhetoric of fiction is, then, that of deciding for whom the author should write. We saw earlier that to answer, "He writes for himself," makes sense only if we assume that the self he writes for is a kind of public self, subject to the limitations that other men are subject to when they come to his books. Another answer often given is that he writes for his peers. True enough. The hack is, by definition, the man who asks for responses he cannot himself respect. But no one is ever the peer of any author in the sense of needing no help in viewing the author's world. If the novelist waits passively on his pedestal for the occasional peer whose perceptions are already in harmony with his own, then it is hard to see why he should not leave everything to such readers. Why bother to write at all? If the reader were really the artist's peer in this sense, he would not need the book. In a world made up of such readers, we could stop worrying about the problem of communication entirely and simply write each his own books. But if such a world is recognized as ridiculous, however close it may seem to some of the facts of our present one, then the novelist cannot be excused from providing the judgment upon his own materials which alone can lift them from being what Faulkner had called the mere "record of man" and turn them into the "pillars" that can help him be fully man. We may scoff at the southern gentleman's rhetoric in the Stockholm address, but the greatest living novelist means—for once—what he says.

[c] Rhetorical fiction
Since the war we have seen many pleas for a return to the older, pre-Flaubertian models, not only in the matter of point of view but in the general structure and interests built into the novel. The false restrictions imposed by various forms of objectivity have been attacked frequently, sometimes with great acumen based on personal experience in writing novels. But it would be a serious mistake to think that what we need is a return to Balzac, or to the English nineteenth century, or to Fielding and Jane Austen. We can be sure that traditional techniques will find new uses, just as the epistolary technique, declared dead many times over, has been revived to excellent effect again and again. But what is needed is not any simple restoration of previous models, but a repudiation of all arbitrary distinctions among "pure form," "moral content," and the rhetorical means of realizing for the reader the union of form and matter. When human actions are formed to make an art work, the form that is made can never be divorced from the human meanings, including the moral judgments, that are implicit whenever human beings act. And nothing the writer does can be finally understood in isolation from his effort to make it all accessible to someone else—his peers, himself as imagined reader, his audience. The novel comes into existence as something communicable, and the means of communication are not shameful intrusions unless they are made with shameful ineptitude.
[d] Rhetorical Booth

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. 

[1] Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 396-398.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967.


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