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  • Implied Author, Authorial Audience, and Context: Form and History in Neo-Aristotelian Rhetorical Theory1

Neo-Aristotelian rhetorical theory has been mainly developed by the second and third generations of the Chicago School of criticism. It is widely believed that all three generations of the neo-Aristotelians share a concentration on textual form and a preclusion of the historical context of creation despite the fact that the first generation is concerned with poetics (i.e., the text) while the latter two, by contrast, with rhetoric (i.e., author-audience communication). As far as the critical practice of the three generations is concerned, this belief is well grounded, since no matter whether the concern is the poetic or the rhetorical, neo-Aristotelian critics in general have consciously precluded consideration of the historical context of creation (see Shen, “Neo-Aristotelian”). However, the picture is quite different when we explore the theoretical potential itself. If we examine carefully the relation between the theory of the first generation and that of the latter two and come to grips with the central rhetorical concepts of the “implied author” and the “authorial audience” (“implied reader”), we may discover that the theory of the latter two generations differs essentially from that of the first in that this later theory, in fact, has an “unseen” or unacknowledged contextual requirement, implicitly calling for the consideration of the historical context of literary production and reception.

I will start with a defense of the rhetorical concept of the “implied author” against recent attacks. Based on the defense, I will reveal the implicit contextual requirement [End Page 140] of this concept and the essential difference of the latter two generations of the neo-Aristotelians from the first in terms of the relation among author, textual structure, audience, and context. Then I will proceed to discuss the contextual requirement of the rhetorical concept of the “authorial audience” and show that some historicized challenges to the rhetorical approach can be viewed as realizations of the implicit rhetorical call for paying attention to the context of literary creation and reception.

Implied Author: Writer of the Text

Neo-Aristotelian rhetorical theory was pioneered by Wayne C. Booth, who, in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), put forward the key rhetorical concept of the “implied author” (IA), which has aroused heated critical debate for the past several decades. In 2011, Style devoted a whole issue—entitled “Implied Author: Back from the Grave or Simply Dead Again”—to this concept and presented arguments for and against the implied author. The guest editor, Brian Richardson, observes in his introduction to this issue, “Most new concepts in narrative theory either wind up gradually incorporated or quietly ignored; the debate over the implied author, however, has become rather entrenched” (1). As I argued in my paper appearing in this special issue, the entrenchment is to a large extent to be attributed to the misunderstanding of the referent of the “implied author,” resulting primarily from the misinterpretation of Booth’s metaphorical expression in various forms that the real author “creates” the implied author. When putting forward the concept of the “implied author,” Booth writes:

To some novelists it has seemed, indeed, that they were discovering or creating themselves as they wrote. As Jessamyn West says, it is sometimes “only by writing the story that the novelist can discover—not his story—but its writer [the novelist himself in the writing process], the official scribe, so to speak, for that narrative.”7 Whether we call this implied author an “official scribe,” or adopt the term recently revived by Kathleen Tillotson—the author’s “second self ”8—it is clear that the picture the reader gets of this presence is one of the author’s most important effects. However impersonal he [the novelist himself in the writing process] may try to be his reader will inevitably construct a picture of the official scribe who writes in this manner. . . . His different works will imply different versions, different ideal combinations of norms. Just as one’s personal letters imply different versions of oneself, depending on the differing relationships with each correspondent and the purpose of each letter, so the writer sets himself out with...


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