- Hearing an Audience:Wayne Booth and the Propagation of Deep Listening
The late Wayne Booth's seminal work of criticism, The Rhetoric of Fiction, changed the language of literary scholarship and continues to inform the study of narrative decades after its first publication. In Booth's lifetime of teaching and scholarship he authored and edited more than a dozen books, working on recurring themes of ethics, rhetoric, and critical pluralism—all of which matter in English but also engage thinkers in multiple disciplines. Characteristically, The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication is not trying to reach only literary critics. This, his final book, addresses "all readers who care about misunderstanding and the skills required to achieve understanding" (xv).
Booth's desire to appeal to practically everyone is understandable, considering the urgency that he invests in the project of improving rhetorical education. But rhetoricians who choose the book because the title implies a meta-analysis of their methods of inquiry will be disappointed. And given Booth's observation of the widespread association of the term rhetoric with language of bad faith, if he really wished to reach a lay audience, something like Deep Listening and the Quest for Effective Communication might have been more broadly inviting while still accurately representing his chief purpose. But because of Booth's other purposes, rhetoric figures prominently in the title.1 I suspect that readers like me, a graduate student and college writing instructor positioned somewhere in the fuzzy place between lay and expert, are those whom this book addresses most directly. People like me have done a bit of rhetorical study, are continually rethinking what education is for, and are selecting texts for our undergraduates. So it is primarily as an instructor that I evaluate The Rhetoric of Rhetoric—its coverage, what I take from it, and how I imagine using parts of it with my students.
Booth's purposes for writing this manifesto are multiple and correspond roughly to the three sections of the book. Part 1 is a whirlwind rhetorical education that includes a brief history and an unusual taxonomy of rhetoric using ethics rather than formal features as the framework for division. In part 2 he builds the case for more attention to rhetorical education for all. In the third part he formalizes and reiterates the grand claim that is [End Page 359] the impetus for the book—that defensible rhetoric is our best hope for a way through conflicting ideologies without violence.
Booth's investment in each part of this effort is evident, so it is sometimes difficult to determine which of the reasons for the book matters most to him. Does he most desire public rehabilitation of the term rhetoric, as he does in chapter 1, from the glib connotations it has acquired in popular usage? Or to contribute to the cross-disciplinary resurgence of interest in rhetorical studies that he traces in chapter 2? Is it more important to insist on ethical criteria for rhetorics or to promote broad rhetorical education? Or is his central project spreading the practice of making genuine effort at understanding across differences—a practice that he calls listening-rhetoric? With the possible exception of his aversion to the negative connotations of the term rhetoric, most of the things that Booth gets worked up about lead into the latter.
Like many terms in this book, listening-rhetoric is Booth's coinage. But unlike his rhetorology and rhetrickery (useful concepts but unusable words), I can actually imagine myself saying this one to students. I anticipate using chapter 3, "Judging Rhetoric," with undergraduates because it makes fine, clear distinctions between rhetorics based on their end goals, and it would be interesting to have students compare this to the ends ascribed to classical rhetoric's forensic, deliberative, or epideictic categories. In these divisions, the rhetor and the audience are separate, and the ends, though different for each type, all depend on the rhetor's persuasive effect on an audience. In Booth's taxonomy, however, the ideal listening-rhetoric changes both the audience and the rhetor and encourages role reversals between two parties.
In order to distinguish the ideal, Booth must also show...