The Rhetoric of Fiction?

No, I haven’t read Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, although it sits there on my office shelf looking at me, begging to be read.

(Random side-note: do books want to be read, or does it annoy them? Like, when I reach down and pick up Booth’s book, does it start silently squealing, “Yes, pick me! It fulfills my purpose to be read!” or is more of a, “I was sitting here, relaxing and enjoying myself, until YOU had to come along and start bending my spine, riffling my pages, all touchy and creepy”? And what about food–does it want to be eaten or left alone? Oh, I’m off-topic….)

In fact, I don’t really have a solid idea of what Booth’s book is about, exactly. But here’s an example of what his title makes me think about:

In my last post I brought up Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die, which I’m listening to on my commutes to Tampa. I’m on CD 11 of 12, and I admit my excitement with it is rapidly dwindling. Here’s why:

I can’t figure out where McDevitt stands on any of it. Not that authorial intention/purpose is ultimately knowable or even to-be-searched-for in a text, I know. But on the level of tone, purpose, audience, I admit I’m confused about where he stands–what he wants to criticize, which characters’ actions and motives are ultimately laudable or laughable, where he hopes we’ll land on our (inevitable) judgments about how characters acted in given situations.

I bring up Booth because these seem like rhetorical issues to me. If McDevitt is trying to make points with this book, even the complex and ambiguous and undefinable points that abound in fiction and art, they’re largely not coming across to me. The communication that could be happening isn’t happening. And again, I’m not saying that I want every author to preach at me in crystal-clear terms, a la Robert Heinlein or something. But I’m not even quite sure what general areas I should contemplating.

The easiest example is the main characters themselves. Both of them are rather similar to each other, flattish guys in their 30s who are dissatisfied with life and hope to find it through adventure and women and money. I know I haven’t finished the book (which might force me to totally change my estimations here, I know), but I don’t have any grip at all on if there’s a general suggestion about the kinds of things that really do lead to satisfied lives, or if McDevitt agrees with the protagonists’ choices, or what.

It reminds me of when we watched Hustle & Flow in Dr. Pamela Fox’s course “Class Fictions” at Georgetown. She said something like this: “The first time I watched the movie and saw the prostitute sing, ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,’ I figured it must be ironic. I mean, here’s this woman who is being oppressed by this man, singing about how hard life is for him! But then I watched the DVD commentary, and the director was like, ‘This is the heart of the whole movie. Women need to get behind their men and support them, just like she’s singing here.'”

In other words, she read a certain rhetorical message in the scene that the director, it turns out, didn’t mean to be there. The communication event didn’t happen.

So when I actually get around to reading Booth, I hope he has something to say about this kind of non-communication, about the rhetorical expectations readers have when they come to fiction, and what happens when those expectations lead to confusion.

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One response to “The Rhetoric of Fiction?

  1. Pingback: More on Rhetoric in Fiction « Transmedia Me

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