Wayne Booth and the "Implied Author," "Implied Reader," and "Inscribed Reader"

        Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction made a lasting impression on New Criticism's efforts to make literary interpretation more "scientific" in its handling of the data we discover in texts.  Among the book's important contributions was a distinction Booth made between narratives which come to us from the author named on the title page of a printed book (e.g., Charles Dickens or Emily Bront) and a narrative which comes to us through the filter of an intervening persona, an "implied author" like "David Copperfield" or "Jane Eyre."  New Critics vigorously resisted simplistic identifications between what we read in a work of art, like a novel or medieval fabliau or sonnet, and the life and personality of the author who wrote it.  For Chaucerians, this service already had been performed by E. Talbot Donaldson in his 1954 PMLA article, "Chaucer-the-Pilgrim," building on George Lyman Kittredge's observation that Chaucer could not be the "naif" or nitwit that he represents himself to be because of what we know about Chaucer's real-life occupations: "a naf Collector of Customs would be a paradoxical monster."  For this reason, any time we read narratives in which the implied author is other than the historical author, we must understand the tale being told as part of the characterization of that implied author.  For a famous instance, read any of Robert Browning's story-poems like "My Last Duchess," in which the narrator is surely not Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sweetie, but an insanely arrogant, misogynistic, and murderous Italian nobleman, and the "implied audience" is neither a group of horrified Victorian readers nor some violence-saturated Hong-Kong-action-movie-watching Post Modern readers, but the persona the duke appears to be talking to, a marriage negotiator for the duke's "next duchess" who might have been suggested to Browning by Geoffrey Chaucer's Italian journey to advance the marriage suit of Prince Lionel in the household of the fabulously wealthy and powerful Gonzaga family in Florence.

        Just as authorship can be implied in the persona of a prose or poetic narrator, readers/audiences also may be implied by the stance the narrators take toward values and behaviors in the text.  Notoriously, Mark Twain forces his late C19 readers into the role of Antebellum slave-holding Americans by having Huckleberry Finn assume that they think enslavement of African-Americans to be normal, a satiric strategy which even today causes some readers to believe the novel encourages slave-holding mentalities.  Many early authors assume their readers are male, a not surprising fact if we consider the facts of literacy and gender in the period before the invention of printing.  More recently, an international reading audience has come to be assumed by many authors of languages spoken by populations beyond their original nation-states' boundaries.

        In some cases, literature actually represents an audience for itself within the work, an "inscribed reader" (Roland Barthes) whose responses may be intended to guide our responses, or who may be there precisely to frustrate incorrect responses by modeling their consequences.  Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, in the frame-narrative for each tale, constitute such an inscribed audience, and some tales receive the equivalent of a critic's "review" from some tellers, as when the Host interrupts Chaucer's parodic "Rhyme of Sir Thopas" with the exclamation "thy drasty rhyming is not worth a turd!"  Inscribed audiences present interpreters with an advantage over implied audiences in that their evidence is more readily available in the text, instead of requiring us to infer its presence, but the implied audience, as a more subtle effect, might be said to offer the greater critical challenge to our skills.

        For more great interpretive advice from a master of the game, read the book.  It's remarkably jargon free and filled with wonderful examples of our "craft and sullen art."

Author Booth, Wayne C
Title The rhetoric of fiction
Pub. info. [Chicago] University of Chicago Press [1961]
LOCATION CALL NO. STATUS
  Main Collection  808.3 B72  c.2   AVAILABLE
  Main Collection  808.3 B72  c.3   AVAILABLE