The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction

Booth, Wayne

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Annotated by:
Donley, Carol
  • Date of entry: Sep-30-1998


For Booth all encounters between a storyteller (author) and listener (reader) are ethical in that they bring together the character (ethos) of each. These good and bad qualities of character describe both the author and the reader who "keeps company" with the author. Narratives, in addition to whatever aesthetic pleasure they may give us, always interpret life; they tell us about our lives and other possible lives. We are changed by our reading; the quality of life in the moment of our listening is not what it would be if we had not listened.

While we may disagree about what is great literature within and between cultures, Booth asks if we can hope to find a criticism that will respect variety and yet offer knowledge about why some fictions are worth more than others. His answer is "yes," and he devotes several hundred pages of careful argument and plentiful examples to support his claim.

Fictions are the most powerful of all the architects of our souls and societies. The ethics of criticism is a universal concern; no one can escape the effect of stories because everyone tells them and listens to them; therefore everyone consciously or not asks and answers these questions: Should I believe this narrator and thus join him? Am I willing to be the kind of person this story-teller is asking me to be? What kind of company am I keeping?

Ethics of narrative is a reflexive study, because it starts with one of its conclusions: that some experiences with narrative are beneficial and some are harmful. The minds we use in judging stories have been in part constituted by the stories we judge; there is no control group of untouched souls who have lived without narrative. We absorb the values of what we read; we have been that kind of person for at least as long as we remain in the presence of the work. The ethics of narrative is reciprocal; it affects teller as well as listener. Ethical debate about narrative values can lead to ultimate questions about the quality of life as it is lived.

Booth says every use of language carries freight of cultural values and norms. Ethical criticism cannot divorce itself from social and political contexts. Therefore, he says we come to our sense of value in narratives by experiencing them in context of others that are like and unlike them. We rely on past experiences to make judgments; validity is checked and corrected in conversation (a process he calls coduction). Coduction incorporates what we have experienced of other poems and poets; it judges by comparison and conversation (like a case-based approach). Whenever a narrative really works for us, we are sure to feel that the author's choices and ours are alike in kind, that he or she is our kind of person, practicing skills, virtues, moral powers that we admire.

In reader-response theory, regardless of what the author has tried to give, we can judge only what we manage to take. The reader-response denial that literary works have any intrinsic power or value comes in 2 forms: (1) all aesthetic values are subjective, belonging to each individual; (2) evaluations are corrected and improved in a given community; the community confers value. (Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? Harvard Univ. Press, 1980) Booth says that the question of whether the value is in the poem or in the reader is radically ambiguous. On the one hand, value is not there actually until it is actualized by the reader; on the other hand, it could not be actualized if it were not there in potential in the poem.

When we read a story we find ourselves in a world different from our own; we are exposed to the "Other" and to other value systems, which we "try on" and evaluate in comparison to the ones we know. We can surrender uncritically to whatever appeals to us, or we can stay aloof so we don't have to really examine these other values, or we can correct and refine our own experience once we have really understood the other value system (coduction).

According to Booth, serious ethical disasters produced by narratives can occur when people sink themselves into an "unrelieved hot bath" of one kind of narrative, such as one of racial superiority. He also notes that writers who come from ideological positions, such as Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, often hold those positions against the mistaken views held by their characters, so if the reader cannot distinguish the author's position from his characters' the reader is likely to misinterpret the message. He comments on that problem in Twain's Huck Finn, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. He refers to Chekhov's story, Home (annotated in this database), and many of Dostoevsky's works.

Booth says that we conduct our lives with and in metaphor, and he warns us not to think we have a literal picture when we're really dealing with metaphor. Some think ordinary language is unfigured and refers literally to a real world behind their language. They don't recognize their own metaphoric world. (See also Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, annotated in this database.)

In a discussion pertinent to medicine as a "battle against disease," Booth points out that the war metaphor implies a world where winning or losing is primary. While that cultural value may dominate western culture, it does not accurately describe the value systems of many people. Even the simplest narratives imply whole worlds according to which the narrative makes sense; all narrative is metaphoric.


Booth calls this masterful work "a conversation celebrating the many ways in which narratives can be good for you--with side glances at how to avoid their powers for harm." This work is important reading for anyone using narrative in the classroom because the reader/student may be harmed or helped by the narrative, and the instructor ought to be conscious of the narrative's power.

Some works, for instance, demean women or minorities or the disabled. Some works open readers' minds to ways of seeing and sets of values different from what the reader already knows, and thus can be helpful. The instructor using narratives has the responsibility of being sensitive to the effects the narratives are likely to have, and the responsibility to facilitate discussion of the conflicting values involved when readers "keep company" with narratives.


Wayne Booth is the Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He has written several major works of criticism including The Rhetoric of Fiction and The Vocation of a Teacher.


Univ. of California Press

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