The Rhetoric of Fiction  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Rhetoric of Fiction is a literary theory treatise by Wayne C. Booth first published in 1961. Amongst other things, he coined the concept of the unreliable narrator.

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.

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