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The ethics of fiction, the question of how narratives act upon their readers in good ways and bad, is achieving (after years of relative neglect) increasing prominence [End Page 845] in critical discussion. Wayne Booth's lengthy treatment of the subject is learned, thoughtful, dedicated, and humane. However it is also wayward, self-indulgent, at times embarrassing, and finally unrewarding.
Much of the problem derives from the very breadth and comprehensiveness of Booth's approach. He is able to treat his topic only by enveloping it in a web of Aristotelian categories and subdivisions. One might suppose that some such method was the only way of discussing so complex a topic with coherence. Unfortunately this does not prove to be the case. We proceed through seven categories for measuring the excellence of narratives like "intimacy / Cool Reserve," "Tight Coherence / Explosive Disunity," and "Breadth of Range / Concentration" where the ideal is normally the golden mean. One goes on to learn that the innumerable individual metaphors of which novels are composed is each a miniature narrative in its own right with a complex ethical character of its own. Shifting from the microcosm to its opposite, we learn that fictions are macro-metaphors, rival worlds, that involve us inescapably with religion, philosophy, history, politics, cultural anthropology, psychology, and even musicology. Virtually everything Booth has to say about these myriad topics is well-reasoned and sensible. But the summarizing statements that punctuate the various sections are alternately inconclusive or banal. They return us, almost apologetically, to the host of questions with which Booth's discussion originates; and two-thirds of the way through the book the reader is apt to wonder where on earth he or she is.
Two facts stand out amid all this. One is that Booth is a critical pluralist, a position the merits of which he has argued before. The other is that the work of ethical interpretation, as he ideally conceives of it, proceeds by "coduction," a word he invents to describe that process of rereading, internal debate, and exchange of views that go to make up our individual appraisals, a process that many of his readers will discover they have been practicing all along. Beyond all the elaborate categorization, Booth's argument rests at bottom on an almost childlike conviction in the ethical power of fiction, that books are our truest friends. "You lead me first to practice ways of living that are more profound. . . . You correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mould me into patterns of longing and fulfillment. . . . You finally show what life can be." It is the ethics of fiction rendered as the twenty-third psalm.
The most vital parts of Booth's book are the individual "coductions" that run throughout, some gathered in a section toward the end—readings that take the form of a spiritual allegory. Thus he is converted to the cause of literature by reading Joyce, falls into sin through an over-enthusiasm for Rabelais from which he is saved by the timely strictures of feminist criticism, and is reclaimed, like the prodigal son, from the errors of anti-Lawrentian heresy. Each of these evaluative encounters is closely and individually argued but remains to some extent mysterious. For all of Booth's enthusiastic revaluation of Lawrence's use of narrative focus, one is never clear as to how he became converted from his original revulsion. "I have come to feel," he writes, "that here is one artist whose work serves life rather than bleeding it. . . . [With] his ultimate commitment to make each life count, Lawrence has won me." The impression one has is of someone who has suddenly seen a great light, or the handwriting on the wall. Nor do his summary statements do anything like justice to the power of Lawrence's moral (or immoral) view of existence. [End Page 846]
For all the apparent rigor of its analytic...