Wayne Booth, 84; Teacher of Literary Criticism Wrote ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction’
Wayne Booth, an internationally known teacher of literary criticism and author of “The Rhetoric of Fiction,” a landmark study of narrative technique, has died. He was 84.
Booth, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Chicago, died Monday of complications from dementia at his home in Chicago, one of his daughters, Katherine Booth Stevens, told The Times.
An intellectual who was fascinated by how literary fiction is made, Booth used “The Rhetoric of Fiction” to analyze the techniques of novelists. First published in 1961, with a second edition in 1983, it became a basic text and was translated into seven languages, including Chinese and Arabic.
In the book, Booth identified key aspects of storytelling and created terms that are now commonly used to discuss the craft. He referred to “the implied author” as one of three who write a novel. The first is the actual person who does the writing. Then there is the narrator who tells the story. The third is an “implied” presence that conveys irony, judgment and other guideposts throughout the story. The implied author serves as a companion for the reader, Booth said.
In the same book, he compared a “reliable narrator,” one who seems to share the author’s judgment, with an “unreliable narrator.” One is trustworthy, while the other may lie or simply get things wrong.
By dissecting fictional narration and looking at each component separately, Booth was able to show the complex communication between an author and a reader.
The book remains “the single most important American contribution to narrative theory,” said Bill Brown, chairman of the English department at the University of Chicago. It is “a book that continues to be read, taught and fought about.” Booth’s writing and teaching demonstrate “how significant the act of literary analysis could and should be,” Brown said.
Booth wrote almost a dozen books and for some years was a co-editor of Critical Inquiry, a quarterly academic journal.
Though he explored ethics, rhetoric and narrative in many of his books, critics saw one work in particular as a culmination of his years of study. In “The Company We Keep, an Ethics of Fiction” (1988), Booth described how readers receive literature and what effect it has on them.
To him, there was no single definition of a good writer. Each had strengths and limitations, Booth pointed out. In some cases, he shifted his views about a certain author in light of changes in modern culture. For example, he once considered Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” a classic. Then a black colleague on the University of Chicago faculty announced he could no longer teach the novel to his students because Jim, the leading black character, was a stereotype that was offensive to African Americans.
Booth remained an admirer of Twain, but listening to his colleague moved him “from untroubled admiration to restless questioning” of Twain’s book, he wrote.
“Other critics teach us things we’ve missed in our own readings, points of view we’ve overlooked,” Booth said in a 1989 interview with the New York Times.
He had a similar experience reading feminist criticism for the first time. It startled him into recognizing perspectives “I never would have recognized on my own,” he said in the same interview.
One of Booth’s most successful books arose from his passion for classical music. “For the Love of It, Amateuring and Its Rivals” (1999) describes how he learned to play the cello at age 31. Knowing that he would never be a professional, he spent more than 40 years performing with friends in amateur chamber music groups. The book that came of it was “a celebration of what it means to do something worth doing for the sheer love of it, with no thought of future payoff,” he wrote. He included diary entries that tracked his progress over the years. “Start playing as a lover, not a competitor, fearer, showoff, ego-ridden idiot,” he wrote in one entry. Critics praised the book for its humor, candor and intelligence.
Born in American Fork, Utah, Booth graduated from Brigham Young University in 1944.
He served in the Army during World War II and later entered graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in English in 1950. He worked as an English instructor at the university while finishing his graduate studies.
He taught at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Earlham College in Indiana during the 1950s. In 1962 he returned to the faculty of the University of Chicago and was dean of the undergraduate division from 1964 to 1969. He became an emeritus professor in 1991.
He married Phyllis Barnes in 1946. The couple had three children. Along with his wife and daughter Katherine, he is survived by his other daughter, Alison Booth, and three grandchildren. A son, John Richard Booth, died in 1969.