Wayne C. Booth  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Wayne Clayson Booth (February 22, 1921October 10, 2005) was an American literary critic. He was the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College at the University of Chicago. His work followed largely from the Chicago school of literary criticism.

He was born in American Fork, Utah and educated at Brigham Young University and the University of Chicago. He taught English at Haverford College and Earlham College before moving back to the University of Chicago.

His major work was The Rhetoric of Fiction. In this book, Booth argues that all narrative is a form of rhetoric, that is, an argument on the part of author in defense of his or her "various commitments, secret or overt [that] determine our response to the work" (The Rhetoric of Fiction 71). The majority of these commitments are based on morals and morality, Booth argues. The speaker in narrative is the author or, more specifically, the implied author, which Booth also calls an author's "second self" who "chooses, consciously or unconsciously, what we read; we infer him as an ideal, literary, created version of the real man; he is the sum of his own choices" (The Rhetoric of Fiction 74-75) (the term "second self" was actually created by Kathleen Tillotson).

The implied author is a compromise between old-fashioned biographical criticism, the new critics who argued that one can only talk about what the text says, and modern criticism that argued for the "eradication" of authorial presence. Booth argued that it is impossible to talk about a text without talking about an author, because the existence of the text implies the existence of an author. Booth's argument was, particularly, a response to modern critics who, starting from Henry James, emphasized the difference between "showing" and "telling" in fiction, always placing a premium on the importance of "showing." Such a distinction is deeply flawed according to Booth, for authors routinely both show and tell, deciding which technique to use based on their aesthetic decisions about which way to convey their "commitments." Authors often make their own contributions in their works, and they also include those of narrators, whether reliable, unreliable, partial or impartial. Booth notes the important differences among these contributors, however, pointing out that the author is distinct from the narrator of the text. He uses the examples of stories with an unreliable narrator to prove this point, observing that, in these stories, the whole point of the story is lost if one confuses narrator and author.

A later work is Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, in which he addresses the question of what circumstances should cause one to change one's mind, discussing what happens in situations where two diametrically opposed systems of belief are in argument. His central example is an incident at the University of Chicago. In it, students and administration were engaged in fierce debate that eventually degenerated into each side simply reprinting the other side's arguments without comment, believing that the opposing side was so self-evidently absurd that to state its propositions was to refute them.

Another book of note is 1974's The Rhetoric of Irony, in which Booth examines the long tradition of irony and its use in literature. It is probably his second most popular work after The Rhetoric of Fiction. A later work is The Company we Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, in which he returns to the topic of rhetorical effects in fiction, and "argues for the relocation of ethics to the center of our engagement with literature" (cover note, The Company we Keep).

In common with most Chicago school critics, Booth has been attacked for making overly broad claims about the nature of humanity and for marginalizing cultures in the process.[citation needed]

The University of Chicago Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching was established in 1991 in honor of Booth.

Sources Cited

The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

The Company we Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.


  • Rhetoric of Fiction (1961)
  • Boring from Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay (c. 1963) pamphlet
  • Now Don't Try to Reason with Me : Essays and Ironies for a Credulous Age (1970)
  • Autobiography of Relva Booth Ross (1971)
  • Booth Family History (1971)
  • A Rhetoric of Irony (1974)
  • Knowledge Most Worth Having (1974) editor
  • Modern Dogma & the Rhetoric of Assent (1974) Ward-Phillips Lectures in English Language and Literature
  • Critical Understanding : The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979)
  • The Harper and Row Rhetoric: Writing As Thinking, Thinking As Writing (1987) with Marshall W. Gregory
  • The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988)
  • The Harper & Row Reader : Liberal Education Through Reading & Writing (1988) with Marshall W.Gregory
  • The Vocation of a Teacher : Rhetorical Occasions, 1967-1988 (1988)
  • The Art of Deliberalizing: A Handbook for True Professionals (1990)
  • The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging (1992) editor
  • The Craft of Research (1995, 2003) with Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams
  • Literature as Exploration (1996) with Louise M. Rosenblatt
  • For the Love of It : Amateuring & Its Rivals (1999)
  • Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication (2004) Blackwell Manifesto
  • My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony (2006)

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