Ethical Culture

The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction
by Wayne Booth
University of California Press $29.95


When I attended graduate school in the early eighties, the feminist-Marxist-deconstructionist incursion was already pretty well along, and I found myself gravitating to pro­fessors of a less trendy intellectual bent. The most interesting of them, as a group, were the Chicago critics. The good ones took my breath away: they could lay bare the intricate—and exquisitely coherent—plot structure of a sprawling Renaissance play faster than you could say Bussy d’Ambois; they could take a short Emily Dickinson poem and unpack patterns of meaning for three straight hours, and make the whole business as engaging as a top-notch detective story.

But then there were the other Chicago critics: the ones who lectured in a precise, dispassionate, almost dehumanized monotone, retelling for days on end the story of some mammoth eighteenth-century novel, every so often saying, “We’re getting a lot of work done here,” but never actually getting anywhere. Their common failing was a sort of cosmic humorlessness, an almost hilarious literal-mindedness; their common fate, it appeared, was to get bogged down for decades in grandly conceived projects that sounded as boring as they did ambitious. I came to realize that Chicago-style criticism, with its emphasis on system, scholarship, and evidence, was perfectly suited to both the most brilliantly analytical and the most ploddingly unimaginative of academic critics: its neo-Aristotelian ideas and methods could turn a smart student into a first-rate literary anatomist, and a dull-witted student into a tedious, uninspired critic-accountant.

Which brings us to Wayne Booth. A protégé of founding Chicago critic R. S. Crane, Booth—now a Distinguished Professor at his alma mater, the University of Chicago—continues, in The Company We Keep, to evince many of the preoccupations and prejudices of his first book, the celebrated Rhetoric of Fiction (1961): namely, a relentless fixation on grand (and sometimes nebulous) abstractions; a predisposition to relate literature to real-life values; and (unlike the New Critics) a tendency to talk more about fiction than about poetry. Booth continues to write a stolid academic prose that is more serviceable than it is scintillating; he continues, too, to make excessive use of his overworked concept, the “implied author,” and of his fallacious conceit of the author as the reader’s friend. For all the Big Questions he asks, however, most of them—to borrow a comment made by Thomas Benson in a review of Now Don’t Try to Reason with Me (1970)—continue to be left unanswered as Booth “gyrates in a continual process of discovery, development, and restatement.” Booth himself admits, in the latter book, that his criticism suffers from an excess of caution; and indeed he’s obviously far more comfortable meandering unhurriedly through familiar conceptual territory—all the while making commonsensical observations, reiterating endlessly, piling up mountains of “evidence” for even the most self-evident (or unprovable) of arguments, qualifying to death even the most modest of propositions, and avoiding definitive conclusions—than he is grappling with new and compelling ideas. For a critic who addresses Big Questions, he says precious little that is fresh, perceptive, or startling; he seems to have aimed no higher than meticulousness and modesty.

In many ways, Booth’s massive new book reads like a sequel to its equally capacious immediate predecessor, Critical Understanding (1979). In the earlier book, Booth speaks up (in good Chicago-critic fashion) for critical pluralism. “Let the voices multiply,” he proclaims; “the more voices we have, the more truth will finally emerge.” He proceeds (at great length) to show how it is possible for a single critic to profit from the insights of such diverse authorities as Crane and Kenneth Burke; at the same time (and also at great length) he argues that such a pluralism should not “embrace all meanings as equally valid and so, finally, meaningless.” But which meanings should be embraced, which rejected? In The Company We Keep he answers this question (if he can truly be said to answer any question) more or less as follows: embrace those who write ethical criticism, reject those who don’t.

What, you may ask, is an “ethical critic”? In Booth’s book, it’s pretty much anyone who acknowledges that literature has some connection to life and its values; and he defines ethics as broadly as possible, subsuming beneath it the concept of ethos. Yet he argues at the same time that even the most seemingly objective critical description (a) is covertly evaluative and (b) implies an ethical judgment (in the conventional sense of the word ethical). To say, for instance, “I read a book by a poet yesterday” is to imply, by the use of the word poet and not some such phrase as “would-be poet,” that the person in question has a certain degree of skill—and to say that someone is skilled, in turn, is implicitly to cite him (and here’s where ethics come in) as someone who cares more about his art than does a less accomplished colleague. But this is absurd: to call someone a poet is not to imply that he is a good poet; it is simply to indicate that he writes poems as opposed to, say, novels or essays. Nor is the author of a bad poem necessarily ethically delinquent: he may just lack taste or talent.

As in Robert Alter’s recent The Pleasures of Reading, Booth’s principal target is the deconstructionist conceit that a literary text refers only to itself and other texts, and that criticism is too subjective to be regarded as a road to truth. Booth submits that texts do refer to things beyond themselves, and that we should concern ourselves with the ethical implications of such references. Good for him; serious literary critics have always felt this way.  Yet Booth fixes his attention upon the crudest, most academically modish kinds of “ethical” charges: that (for instance) Huckleberry Finn is racist, The Merchant of Venice anti-Semitic, and Cosi fan tutti sexist; he recalls how, a quarter century ago, a young black colleague named Paul Moses (to whose memory The Company We Keep is dedicated) decided not to teach Huckleberry Finn because of its “distorted views of race.” Booth says that he used to consider such objections invalid because these works are classics with complex moral dimensions. But no more. “The Company We Keep,” he writes, “can perhaps best be described as an effort to discover why that still widespread response to Paul Moses’s sort of complaint will not do”—and, one might add, to explain why Moses’s race-oriented reading of Huckleberry Finn represents (in Booth’s view) a perfectly valid example of one kind of ethical criticism. In the course of this “explanation”—and, for that matter, throughout the book—Booth all but ignores the gulf separating the aesthetic concerns of some critics and the sociopolitical slant of others, insisting that all ethical critics are partners of a sort and can learn from each other.

And as partners, they should be friendly. Booth, for his part, is extremely friendly, finding ample space to lavish compliments on the (at best) marginally relevant books of a wide range of colleagues: M. H. Abrams’s “great” Natural Supernaturalism, Peter Novick’s “monumental” That Noble Dream, W. J. T. Mitchell’s “splendid” Iconography, and dozens of others. Even the deconstructionists come in for praise. (“From many a deconstructionist we can receive the valuable warning not to think that we have a literal picture when what we’re really dealing with is metaphor.”)  These gratuitous expressions of praise are balanced by equally   gratuitous cheap shots—at Ronald Reagan, for instance, and at ruthless “Melvin Belli types”—that Booth undoubtedly realizes will please most of his fellow academics. (Predictably, Booth says nothing about ruthless academic types: even the most insipid careerist is treated re­spectfully here.)

The only time when Booth is not friendly to colleagues is when he is attacking dead, no-longer-popular critics for not being as friendly as he is. He blames the spread of deconstruction, for instance, largely on ethical critics who “have inadvertently discredited the whole enterprise” of ethical criticism by their “slapdash arguments and hectoring tones” and by a failure to practice “exemplary rigor and sensitivity.” Chief among these insensi­tive types are Yvor Winters and F. R. Leavis, both of whom Booth faults for considering some literary virtues preeminent over others, and for taking an unpleasant tone, in which (Booth gripes) many readers heard “a threat of censorship.” An odd complaint, given that it’s Marxist and feminist ideologues, not humanists like Winters and Leavis, who are inclined to call for censorship.

Yet to Booth, it must be remembered, ideology is not a dirty word: in his view, we’re all ideologues of one kind or another. (A previous draft of The Company We Keep, he tells us, was entitled “Ideology and Form.”) It’s a view that, I think, fatuously blurs the vital distinction between groupthink and individuality, between a ready-made philosophy that is bought into wholesale and one that is shaped by learning and experience and takes form gradually. The best literary critics, it cannot be too strongly emphasized, are not ideologues at all. Booth, himself the very model of a modern academic disciple, is blind to this fact. Nor does he seem disturbed that most Ph.D. candidates in English today shop for critical methodologies the way teenagers shop for clothes, picking something fashionable off the rack without thinking much about what literature means to them and why they’re in academia in the first place.

Given his groupthink mentality, it should not be surprising that Booth’s reply to the deconstructionist tenet of critical subjectivity is that of a classic faculty-meeting type: ultimate critical truths, he proposes, are determined not by independent critics but by “coductions”—a word that he has coined to mean

what we do whenever we say to the world (or prepare ourselves to say): “Of the works of this general kind that I have experienced, comparing my experience with other more or less qualified observers, this one seems to me among the better (or weaker) ones, or the best (or worst). Here are my reasons.” Every such statement implicitly calls for continuing conversation: “How does my coduction compare with yours?” …The validity of our coductions must always be corrected in conversations about the coductions of others whom we “trust.”

In other words, critical truth is arrived at communally, and in the long term: no single critic can be trusted to recognize the whole and precise truth about a given work of literature, but many skilled critics, amplifying, contradicting, and refining each other’s perceptions over a period of time, do tend to interpret and judge works of literature accurately. Thus the only way to produce useful and reliable literary criticism is to encourage “coductions” within the community of ethical critics.

This is the closest thing to a thesis that Booth’s book has. Generally speaking, of course, he’s right: in practice, we’re all pluralists of a kind, learning from some critics, dismissing others. But this is hardly news. Certainly, one imagines, Booth must be saying something more than this. But what? Is he suggesting that the process should somehow be formalized—that there should be some official list of “in” critics and “out” critics? If so, who makes up the list? How? What makes a critic “qualified”? A Ph.D.? A professorship? Or simply an “ethical” approach to criticism, no matter how foolishly conceived or applied? And what would happen to the “outs”? Would they be prohibited from publishing, from teaching? Surely Booth doesn’t intend any of this; probably he’s not really proposing anything that is not already the case. Perhaps all he’s doing, in fact, is defending the idea of criticism as a communal endeavor—as, if you will, a profession (in the dreariest sense of the word)—and of reading as something that should always be followed by a discussion. “To me,” he writes, “the most important of all critical tasks is to participate in—and thus to reinforce—a critical culture, a vigorous conversation, that will nourish in return those who feed us with their narratives.”

Yes, critical culture is important. But Booth appears to rely altogether too much on those “vigorous conversations.” At times, indeed, he doesn’t quite seem to understand how an independent critical response is properly arrived at. He describes how, emerging from a theater in tears after seeing The Color Purple, he was told by his wife that the movie was corny: in the reconsideration that followed, he says, a “revaluation” of his critical reaction took place. But sentimental tears do not constitute a critical reaction; such a reaction is the product of thought that takes place after the aesthetic experience—thought that takes the tears into account and understands them. Al­ternatively, Booth sometimes appears to think that a legitimate critical reaction can be formed without an aesthetic experience: he distinguishes reading “for the sake of reading” from reading “for the sake of obtaining material for an essay, dissertation, or book,” and implies that it is perfectly acceptable for the reader, in the latter instance, to be detached, emotionally uninvolved.

Booth’s emphasis on community, furthermore, helps to explain his tireless use of the conceit of the author as the reader’s friend. “Whenever a narrative really works for us,” he writes, “we are sure to feel, when challenged, that the author … is our kind of person, practicing ‘virtues’—both skills and morals and intellectual powers—that we admire.” But this isn’t so at all: one often admires books by people one dislikes, and dislikes books by people one admires. Comparing a Norman Mailer book to one by Anne Tyler, Booth says that “on the scales of quantity, reciprocity, and range, Tyler will prove to be the better friend.” But what do such scales—or any literary values, for that matter—have to do with the values of friendship?

Not surprisingly, the conclusions of The Company We Keep—if they can even be referred to as such—are tentative and politic in the extreme. Ultimately, the 557-page opus adds up to little more than a pallid plea for ethical pluralism: “We only live, only suspire, pursuing both common ground and respect for difference.” Well, one can hardly argue with so noble and empty a sentiment. But man does not suspire by ethical pluralism alone; and Booth’s opacity on this score is perhaps best illustrated by his inane rewrite of an Ajax jingle to make it pro-Shakespeare—his point being to “underline the difficulties in our project” of devising “an effective ethical criticism.” What difficulties? Well, Booth knows he’s not supposed to like the jingle, whether it’s about Ajax or Shakespeare, but he hasn’t the foggiest idea how to demonstrate this fact ethically—so he merely presents us with the two versions of the jingle and (in effect) shrugs. One can see immediately, of course, where his difficulties lie. For what his exercise splendidly demonstrates (and what he apparently misses entirely) is that the jingle’s mediocrity is not an ethical but an aesthetic question—a kind of question, supremely important in the enterprise of literary criticism, for which Booth’s critical approach simply doesn’t leave enough room.