New Criticism's "Sub-Author" Functions and PoMo "Sub-Readers": Wayne Booth, Roland Barthes, Walter Ong

        Although the biological/historical entity known as "the author" was declared off limits as a source of interpretive "intentions" by Wimsatt and Beardsley in "The Intentional Fallacy" (1954), Wayne Booth soon established a set of sub-authorial functions that can be used in literary analysis in place of attempting to detect what the author might be thinking by some act of mind-reading.  In The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), Booth outlined a series of author-like presences in narratives which we might legally refer to in our analysis.  Foremost among the distinctions Booth reminds us to make is that between the Narrator and an Author.  The latter is a human being whose actual thoughts are not relevant to the work of literature, in itself, but the former is a speaking persona used in many novels and narrative poems to tell us omniscient or semi-omniscient versions of what happened.  The Narrator-persona often operates as a character in the plot, like Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby, and that raises the issue of the Narrator's self-interest in his dealings with the other characters and with his readers.  Such a narrator often is said to be "unreliable," though the critic may really be attempting to establish patterns of unreliability upon which we can rely as evidence of the unreliable narrator's hidden agendas, or unconscious drives.  Because narrators are not always identified, we also can detect "implied narrators" whose characteristics must be inferred from the way they narrate.  The biological/historical "Authors" also may erect "implied authors" between themselves and their works by writing under pen-names (also called a pseudonym or nom de plume).  The Post-Modernist critic, Roland Barthes, noted that some plots contain "inscribed readers" whose reading of the text before us is literally "written into" the plot, as when a character reads a letter written by another and reacts to it, leaving us the choice to agree with the inscribed reader's reading or to read against it.  Walter Ong pointed out that authors always already are writing "for someone" whose knowledge, tastes, values, etc. can be inferred from the way the text reveals the narrative.  This implied reader's characteristics may be inferred by the analyst by looking for the text's appeals to that knowledge, those tastes, and those values.

        This way of looking at the terrain of narrative leads us to a series of shell-like layers between the unreachable "Author" and our own position as "Reader":

Author--Implied Author--Narrator--Implied Narrator--Inscribed Reader--Implied Reader--Reader

For instance, Samuel Langhorne Clemons wrote under the Implied Author identityof "Mark Twain," but he also often created Narrators like "Huck Finn" to speak for Mark Twain, and at some times Huck appears to be telling stories given him by Implied Narrators, as when he adopts Tom Sawyer's inflated mock-romance tone for the dreadful "Freeing Jim" section that concludes the novel.  The Inscribed Readers of many of Huck's narrations are the many characters to whom he speaks/lies, some of whom believe him and some of whom see right through him, like the wise old widow who penetrates his cross-dressing disguise with her rats and lump of metal.  The Implied Reader of the entire novel, though, is the 1884 American Middle Class which apparently was trying its best to forget the realities of Anti-Bellum slavery and the conventions Huck so dutifully reminds them of with his obedience of the racist proprieties of his own culture.  Hence his prolific use of the "N-word" and his belief that, in saving Jim from slavery he was breaking a divine commandment and was headed straight to Hell.  The "modern American" "Reader" who encounters a text designed to disturb the 1884 American Middle Class "Implied Reader" can find this relationship extremely uncomfortable, especially because our own era's racial ideologies become involved in our attempt to read and interpret the novel.  Just such an "uncomfortable" reading was developed in a famous essay by Ralph Ellison ("Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," rpt. Shadow and Act (N.Y.: Random House, 1964), as Ellison sought to reject the racist-reader persona he thought the novel demanded of him (see also Fetterly, "The Resisting Reader" in Feminist Criticism).  Nonetheless, one has to confront one's own dangerous involvement as "the Reader" in literature in order to fully interpret it when authors make Implied Readers into significant meaning-making elements of the text. 

        Never trust an "ordinary ethical reader" position to produce a safe interpretive position, especially because it renders such readers vulnerable to deception by implied authors designed to manipulate commonplace social pieties.  Modern literary "frauds" like "JT LeRoy," "Nasdijj," and "James Frey" are created by their authors in much the same way that "Mark Twain" was created, though they do not appear to have been wise enough to delegate the narration of their tales to a self-avowed liar like Huck, which largely defangs much of the criticism Twain's novel might otherwise have faced.  They appeal to their "ordinary ethical readers" by manipulating currently popular ethical trends to attract buyers for their stories.  Nevertheless, such un-avowed Implied Authors are fictional characters or literary personas (Greek "masks") just as Twain and Huck were, but they asserted their tales were non-fiction.  The death, in 2006, of "Trevanian," a pseudonymous novelist who also published as "Nicholas Seare," "Benat LeCagot," and "Edoard Moran" (real name, Rodney William Whitaker) draws our attention to a crucial phenomenon which classical critics, and psychoanalytical critics, would explain in remarkably similar ways.  Whitaker said, in an interview before his death, that the implied authors were fully-realized identities that he invented when he had a story to write, in essence, inventing the person who would be best able to tell such a tale.  If an identity is a "mind," then an author who writes outside his/her own identity and inside the identity of another must be said to be "out of his/her mind" in some basic sense.  (See Plato's "Ion" for the earliest attempt to argue that thesis.)  However, with typical inconsistency, our culture dispraises and condemns one type of this "insanity" while praising and giving prizes to the other. 

        A skeptical reader might well simply conclude that it's all fiction, no matter whether it says "autobiography" or "novel" on the cover.  Can we afford to do that?  We will get back to this issue with the New Critics, who will introduce the importance of excluding (for most purposes) the author's biography from consideration of the work's meaning, and who warned us long ago to beware "unreliable narrators," as well as implied authors, narrators, implied narrators, and other layers of fictional insulation and inspiration authors routinely erect between their own identities and the prying minds of their readers.  If you don't believe this is serious, try talking to an author and confusing the author's novel's protagonist's experiences with the author's real life.  Or consult the front matter and first paragraph of Twain's Huckleberry Finn and "think about it some."

Relevant Critical Works

Barthes, Roland.  S/Z.  Trans. Richard Miller.  Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992.  302.2 B285sBm 

Booth, Wayne C.  The Rhetoric of Fiction.  Chicago: U Chicago P, 1961.  808.3 B72 

Ellison, Ralph W.  Shadow and Act.  N.Y.: Random House, 1964

Ong, Walter J.  "The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction."  PMLA 90:1 (January 1975): 9-21.  Durable URL: