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Part I: Relocating Ethical Criticism

Booth points out that we are surrounded by narratives; we cannot escape

them, they are everywhere, and they affect us in one way or another. He
encourages us to find an ethical way of discussing the values and worth,
the potential good or harm that can come from our exposure to all different
kinds of narratives. In doing so, we cannot shrink from our responsibility to
face difficult and sometimes unanswerable questions.

Paul Moses and Ethical Criticism

Booth begins The Company We Keep with a narrative: the story of a black
professor in his department, Paul Moses, who refused to teach the novel
Huck Finn because of his perception of the harm it caused him and his
students. Booth and his colleagues were shocked, and viewed Moses as
“violating academic norms of objectivity” (3). Booth himself “lamented the
shoddy education that had left poor Paul Moses unable to recognize a great
classic when he met one […] Moses obviously could neither read properly
nor think properly about what questions might be relevant to judging a
novel’s worth” (3).

In Company, many years later, Booth writes that the book “can best be
described as an effort to discover why that still widespread response to
Paul Moses’s sort of complaint, will not do “ (4). In effect, Booth states that
he and his colleagues were wrong in their reasoning and their responses to

Booth describes the stance taken by Moses as “an overt ethical appraisal”
and now sees it as “ a legitimate form of literary criticism” (4). Booth argues
that “if powerful stories matter” (and he certainly believes that they do) then
we cannot ignore the type of criticism Moses voiced when he claimed the
book was harmful to him and his students.

While cautioning against the excesses of zealots, Booth encourages the

very sort of examination and criticism that Moses made, and which he says
is still being resisted, today. By the time he wrote Company (1987), in fact
for some while before, Booth had come to believe that even the most
neutral and unbiased critic has “ an ethical program in mind—a belief that a
given way of reading, or a given kind of genuine literature is what will do us
most good” (6). Booth calls this estimation or appraisal of the worth of a
text, “ethical criticism” and spends the bulk of Company exploring how this
might be done well.

Booth introduces the concept and term, “coduction”. He arrives at the word
by joining the Latin prefix co- (“together”) with the Latin word ducere (“to
lead, draw out, bring, bring out”) (72). He intends it to mean:

what we do whenever we say to the world (or prepare ourselves to say): 'Of
the works of this general kind that I have experienced, comparing my
experience with other more or less qualified observers, this one seems to
me among the better ( or weaker) ones, or the best ( or worst). Here are my
reasons.' Every such statement implicitly calls for continuing conversation:
'how does my coduction compare with yours?' (72-73)

Particulars of coduction are discussed further in this section.


In Chapter 5 of Company, Booth builds on concepts of authorial and reader

responsibility first introduced in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth adds to his
previous delineation of roles by assigning specific responsibilities to the
author vis-à-vis the many other personae implicated in the act of making
meaning through texts: to the flesh-and-blood reader, as someone who
must 'live' through the moments of the text; to the author, him- or herself, as
a person, and as a career author; to those whose lives the author has used
as material for his work; to others whose labour is exploited in the name of
art; to “the world”, to “the future,” to the “truth”.

Booth assigns responsibilities to the reader as well, in his relationship with

the flesh-and-blood author, and the career author; in his or her role as
reader vis-à-vis the work of art; to his or her own self (or soul) as flesh-and
blood reader; to other individual readers; to society.

In this discussion of responsibility, Booth often introduces the questions that

he feels we should be asking ourselves. He does not provide clear answers
for us, but he does make us wonder about these responsibilities. This
section of the book prepares us for the process of discovery that Booth
hopes all readers will engage in. By asking us to think critically about these
ethical obligations, where we might have otherwise simply enjoyed a book
without feeling obligated, Booth prepares us for the process of ethical
examination he advocates throughout the book, and indeed in his life’s

The Purpose of Part I: Relocating Ethical Criticism

Part 1 of Company introduces Booth’s further concepts and terminology. He

defines the terms he uses frequently, such as “ ethical”, “character” “virtue”,
and so on. Concepts, such as “openness” “subjectivism” as a threat, and
“fixed norms” and “nonce beliefs” are all introduced, explained and
examined in their connection with ethical criticism of narratives.

In this section of the book, Booth disentangles the various roles and
responsibilities of authors and readers-a variation an extension of what he
does in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This enables a precise discussion of the
subtleties of ethical criticism.

Booth explains here why ethical criticism fell out of favour and
demonstrates how it was badly done in the past. He addresses the inherent
dangers of the excesses of ethical criticism, including censorship. He also
mounts his arguments as to why an ethical appraisal is still necessary and
suggests ways in which it might be done well.

Part 1 introduces subjects that Booth deals with at greater length in

previous books as well as those he proposes to tackle later in the book.
Booth draws together all the strands from his previous books in this one
book. He incorporates his previous discussions of authorial voice and
narrative personae from The Rhetoric of Fiction, and refers frequently to his
advocacy of assent and rejection of dogma, treated in Modern Dogma and
the Rhetoric of Assent. Booth alludes to his discussion of irony from A
Rhetoric of Irony but treats it in greater detail later in this book. In so doing
he tells us where he has already been, and establishes a foundation of
understanding for where he is going with his argument. Booth later builds
on concepts introduced in this first part (for example the concept of

Booth anticipates and attempts to answer the criticisms of skeptics and

adherents to other critical schools of thought. As he introduces each
segment of his argument for a return of ethical criticism, he deals with the
notional criticisms of modernists, structuralists, feminists, Marxists and
several other “ists”.

Booth clearly tries to make room in his theories for at least the partial
dogma of other critical groups, such as Feminists and Marxists. In his
pursuit of pluralism, Booth is clearly trying to be as inclusive as he can
without diluting his position.

Methodology and Criticism ( What does it mean to us)

Booth approaches his subject in Part 1 through a process of questions and

answers, to demonstrate his rational progression and the soundness of his
approach, and to build trust with the reader. He declares up front that his
topic is a difficult sell and that some questions are unanswerable.
Booth walks the fine line of self-contradiction that attends an advocacy for
pluralism: he argues for an inclusive, pluralistic approach to ethical criticism,
advocating that all voices should be heard if the welfare of readers is at
stake, but while he tackles head-on the probable contrary arguments and
beliefs of many of the other factions of rhetorical criticism, he almost
completely ignores and certainly dismisses those critics whom he considers
extremists, on the fringe of critical, political or religious society. Indeed, he
appears to grant an audience to only mainstream, “responsible critics”, and
the “more or less qualified readers”. We are tempted to ask: “What about
those who advocate book banning for similar reasons to those of Paul
Moses? Where do we draw the line between whom we will listen to and
whom we will tune out?” And the ever-present question, “Who decides?”
Booth does not address this question directly, in this first part of The
Company We Keep.

Company and Booth’s earlier works

In Company, Booth continues discussions begun in his earlier works. The

author of this book is clearly an older and wiser Booth, a man not afraid to
change his mind and say that he was wrong about beliefs he previously
asserted. In so doing,

Booth shows himself to be the embodiment of his own theory. Frederick

Antczak, in the introduction to his book, Rhetoric and Pluralism, writes that
Booth has “modeled in his writing about good reasons […] the capacity to
change his mind in response to good reasons. To an extraordinary extent,
Wayne Booth has been living in his critical discourse the kind of critical life
that he has been writing about” (9).

Part 2: Narratives as Would-Be Friends--Booth’s Critical


In Part I, Booth presents a new vocabulary in support of ethical criticism

and introduces us to the concept of coduction in a metaphor of textual
friendship. In Part II Booth expands the discussion of this notion of
narratives as potential friends.

There is a step preceding coduction. This step entails the evaluation of a

work as it effects the single reader, before he or she introduces his or her
evaluation into the community. To describe this step, Booth employs the
metaphor of “would-be friends,” as he considers the relationship between a
reader and text as comparable to the relationship between two would-be
Also worth noting in this section is that Booth presents us with some of his
most “philosophical” writings to date—ideas he hopes will resonate beyond
the confines of the text—as he continues blurring the boundaries between
literary and social critic.

Booth’s Metaphor: Texts as Would-Be Friends

Fundamental to our understanding of Booth’s theories is his notion that all

texts (narratives, arguments) are essentially rhetorical acts: authors shape
readers into the audience they envision while writing, and readers attempt
to join those implied audiences. Essentially, texts become arenas facilitating
the interaction between people—the meeting place where a conversation
between the implied author and implied reader occurs. Inherent in this
relationship are ethical qualities and consequences. As we see in The
Rhetoric of Fiction, whenever an author makes choices as to what we read,
whenever an author exhibits intention, he or she imbeds ethical qualities
into the work.Booth notes

When human actions are formed to make an art work, the form that is made
can never be divorced from the human meanings, including moral
judgments, that are implicit whenever human beings act (Rhetoric of
Fiction, 395).

Further, he asks us to explore the values implicit in literary works by

examining the way these values are transmitted to us by asking such
questions as

Should I believe this narrator? Am I willing to be the kind of person that this
storyteller is asking me to be? Will I accept the author among the small
circle of my true friends? (Company 39).

Fundamentally, Booth is asking “How do you tell the good guys from the
bad guys?” (Rhetoric of Fiction, 457).

With this question in mind, we begin this investigation by examining the

qualities of experience sought or achieved by authors and readers during
the time of telling and listening. Instead of asking whether this narrative will
turn us toward virtue or vice tomorrow, we ask what kind of company it
offers us today, and what are the relations we build with author(s) as we
read—what kind of live encounter is a given reading experience like
(Company, 169)?

Booth compares this live encounter to a meeting between two people. Two
people come together in conversation with the goal of establishing, not just
a relationship, but a friendship.
This metaphor of the reading experience as the development of a friendship
is central to the questions Booth asks and wants us to ask of literature. He
stresses the idea that we people our lives with the authors we read; and
calls friendship with books “a neglected critical metaphor” (Antczak, 62).
Booth contrasts this metaphor of people meeting as they share stories with
some current metaphors used in literary theory—where books are
described variously as texts, webs, mazes, codes, rule systems, speech
acts, semantic structures, myths, and fields of power. In contrast, Booth
asks us to view stories not as puzzles or games, which are in need of
deciphering, but rather as companions, friends—or as potential gifts from
would-be friends (Company, 175).

The relationship of friendship is constituted in and by the “quality” of the

companionship between implied author and implied reader(s) during the
time of reading. All fictions are like the would-be friends we meet in “real”
life, and, just like in real life, we cannot avoid choosing among them
(consciously or unconsciously). Just by living we choose some and reject
others, and we always make our choices on the basis of evidence that is to
some degree inadequate (Company, 177). Choosing between friends in
literature is as difficult as the choices we make in “real” life (Company, 178).

In this way we practice an ethical criticism regardless of other theories we

bring to the text: we choose our friends and the gifts they offer us, and by
extension who we will be for the duration of our relationship with them
(Company, 177).

As Booth says, “All the art, then, in this kind of metaphorical criticism, will lie
in our power to discriminate among the values of moments of friendship that
we ourselves have in a sense created. We judge ourselves as we judge the
offer.” We ask, “Do you, my would-be friend, wish me well, or will you be the
only one to profit if I join you?” (Company, 178).

Implied authors of all stories offers us a type of friendship. And we should

reject these offers unless we think we’ll get something worth having—we’re
persuaded by offerings of genuine “goods”.

Further, if we choose to employ this metaphor, then ethical distinctions do

not depend on choices among the traditional moral virtues (good and bad,
etc.). Instead, we simply ask, “What will keep us conversing with any
narrative?” As Booth notes, some friends, in life as in literature, are
wonderfully beneficial to our souls, even though they are clearly immoral on
many a scale (Company, 179).

Value of Booth’s Metaphor: The Social Self

A symptom of our modern times, Booth observes, is not just a decline in
talk of books as friends, but a neglect of friendship in general as serious
subject of inquiry.

He notes that Aristotle dedicated a third of The Nicomachean Ethics to

topics concerning friendship. For Aristotle, the “quality of our lives was said
to be in large part identical with the quality of the company we keep…our
happiness was found in a pursuit of friendship, of something more than our
limited ‘selves’.” We are naturally, essentially social animals. And further,
“the fullest friendship arises whenever two people offer each other not only
pleasure or utilities but shared aspirations and loves of a kind that makes
life together worth having as an end in itself. These full friends love to be
with each other because of the quality of the life they live during their time
together” (Company, 174).

An overriding goal of Booth’s in this book is to reintroduce the idea of

community to critical theory—the idea that we are only wholly our selves in
relation to others. We exist not as individual selves, but as “fields of selves.”

Resistance to Booth’s Metaphor: The Isolated Self

Booth notes that since the Enlightenment, our search for character, our
search for self-identity, has turned away from the belief that our character
exists fundamentally in relation to others and instead turned inwards. This
turning inwards was characterized by the belief that “sooner or later one
hopes to locate and remove all alien stuff and discover bedrock—but what
one discovers instead is emptiness, and the making of an identity crisis”
(Company, 237).

Booth resists this extreme opposition of self and other, and argues that as
social beings we have no alternative to this arrangement—we need other
selves in order to complete our own selves. The isolate individual self
simply does not, can not exist, says Booth. Not to be a social self is to lose
one’s humanity (Company, 238).

Bakhtin’s dialogical view of the self reinforces Booth’s notion of the social
self. Bakhtin considered each of our “own voices,” not as a single voice, but
as a choir made up of a multiplicity of voices (Company, 238). This notion of
the social self is further echoed in the Marxist philosophers who “have
always insisted, [that] any sense of radical isolation—of essential
separation or full alienation—is a disease” (Company, 240).

I think, at this point, our understanding of the self as the collection of many
selves would benefit from a return to an idea Booth proposed in Modern
Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent. In this work, Booth states that any
discussion of self, and the meeting of selves—this laying of the foundation
on which assent and advancement can take place—should “begin with our
knowledge that we are essentially creatures made in symbolic exchange,
created in the process of sharing intentions, values, meanings; in fact more
like each other than different, more valuable in our commonality than in our
idiosyncrasies: not, in fact, anything at all when considered separately from
our relations” (Modern Dogma, 134).

To deny the influence of others on ourselves is to break off parts of our own
self. As Booth dramatically puts it, “each of us has a life-and-death stake in
cultivating a social order that will nourish rather than destroy” (Company,

Practicing Roles: Becoming a Character and Avoiding Hypocricy

The “problem” with accepting this notion of opening ourselves to the

influence of other selves, and this is an issue we first encountered in
Modern Dogma, is that this action requires a degree of vulnerability on our
part in order to fully realize the power others can have in shaping our
character. For Booth, this “openness” is hardly a liability, but an immense
asset; especially when you consider the fact that he includes narratives
within this group of “others” who wield potentially influencing power over us.

We “know” (through consensus and experience) that narratives influence

behavior. During reading—during our engagement with a narrative—we
experience what Booth terms the “efferent effect,” a carry-over from
narrative experience to behavior. “Real life” is lived in images derived in
part from stories (Company, 227).

Narratives change us: “Within the textual relationship, the author influences
the reader in the same ways that physical companions engaged in
conversation shape each other’s experiences of their present shared
reality” (Clark, 54).

In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth describes the unique relationship between

reader and story as:

a special kind of double role-playing: as the actual listener or viewer,

capable of joining an unlimited number of authorial audiences, I am “made”
to join the ones that are postulated by this particular story—to join them, as
we might say, really and not just in pretence; but as a member of the
narrative audience, I pretend to go much further and may even weep tears
that I know to be “false” though they are physically real. The resulting
tension between belief systems (a tension ordinarily not brought into
consciousness) is the essential mark of the domains of fiction, and it is the
source of many distinctive effects, including our freedom to dwell in worlds
expanded beyond what we could permit ourselves to dwell in “reality.” (424)

Authors play roles by creating characters, and readers and spectators play
roles by re-creating them. As Booth notes, a kind of play-acting with
characters, or characteristics, a kind of faking of characters, is one of the
main ways that we build what becomes our characters (Company, 252).
This influence of narrative on our selves is unavoidable. “The ideal of
purging oneself of responses to persons, the ideal of refusing to play the
human roles offered us by literature, is never realized by any actual reader
who reads a compelling fiction for the sake of reading it” (Company, 256).
And furthermore, “When we lose our capacity to succumb, when we reach a
point at which no other character can manage to enter our imaginative or
emotional or intellectual territory and take over, at least for the time being,
then we are dead on our feet” (Company, 257).

As Booth notes, we need not fear that our “individual” voices will be
drowned out by the choir as a whole:

If…I am not an individual self at all, but a character, a social self, a being-in-
process many of whose established dispositions or habits belong to others
—some of them even to all human kind—then I need have no anxiety about
finding and preserving a unique core for the various characters that in a
sense have colonized me and continue to do so. I should be able to
embrace the unquestioned ethical power of narratives, in order to try on for
size the character roles offered to me. I can hold a fitting of various ‘habits,’
to see if they enhance or diminish how I/we appear to myself/ourselves.
And I should then be able to talk with my selves…about the strengths and
weaknesses I have found—found in one sense in the narrative but in
another sense in me/us. Some of the roles opened to me as I move through
the field of selves that my cultural moment provides will be good for ‘me/us,’
some not so good, some literally fatal. It will be the chief and most difficult
business of my life to grope my way along dimly lit paths, hoping to build a
life-‘plot’ that will be in one of the better genres. (Company ,268)

What we have to decide at this point is “whether a proffered new role,

encountered in an appealing narrative, is one that we can afford to take on,
or ought to take on” (Company, 260). Essentially, our relationship with a
narrative has to be decided based upon whether we have good reasons to
assent to the influence of the other presented.

Otherness: Moving Across Boundaries

Fundamentally, Booth is interested in how we are shaped through our

relationship with the Implied Author. Narratives ask us to accept and pursue
a pattern of desire imposed by an “other.” Becoming the kind of desirer the
narrative ask us to be requires our full engagement with the story, and that
means engaging with the author in a patterning of desire for the kind of gift
offered (Company, 201).

And thus, as we enter into a conversation with an other we decide whether

or not to assent to the desires and fulfillments being offered to us.

Booth notes that “the most powerful effect on my own ethos, at least during
my reading, is the concentration of my desires and fears and expectations,
leading with as much concentration as possible toward some further, some
future fulfillment: I am made to want something that I do not yet have
enough of” (Company, 201). This desiring after the gifts offered by the
other, in turn, determines who we (as readers) will be for the duration of the

A blurring of boundaries occurs between the implied reader and the real
reader through the merging of desires. Booth states “[t]he implied reader I
become cannot desire fictional blood without my desiring it” (Company,

In essence, narratives propose a way of living. They ask us to consider

whether what the narrative asks us to desire and fear and deplore and
expect as we experience the lives of the characters within provides a good
kind of life for us…as we recreate it for ourselves (Company, 205).

To engage with the story is to accept the implied world constructed by the
implied author. We seek not words or propositions in isolation, or even
overall “themes,” but the total pattern of desires and rewards that the author
commits us to (Company, 396).

This idea of being open to the entire narrative world is an integral one, and
includes the notion that we have to be open even to that part of the world
that, at first, looks like vice or corruption. For Booth, a worse vice is to be
self-protective, to close ourselves off to experiencing the other (Company,

He believes that “we must open ourselves to ‘others’ that look initially
dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off
whenever, after keeping company with them, we conclude that they are
potentially harmful. Which of these opposing practices will serve us best at
a given moment will depend on who ‘we’ are and what the ‘moment’ is”
(Company, 488).
The value of our engagement with otherness is in the experience it offers us
in ways of dealing with the unfamiliar or the threatening. “It is not the degree
of otherness that distinguished fiction of the highest ethical kind but the
depth of education it yields in dealing with the ‘other’” (Company, 195).

As Booth notes, an “important moral effect of every encounter with a story,

good or bad, is the practice it gives in how to read moral qualities from
potentially misleading signs” (Company, 287).

Similarly, Booth says that would-be friends, “those that I care about most
offer so much ethical value so intensely, with such clear evidence that they
are themselves pursuing the goods they offer, that differences of opinion
seem trivial by comparison—the act of deciding whether to accept gifts—is
itself a gift” (Company, 222). Further, our would-be friends help us
distinguish between what we desire, and what we ought to desire—they
allow us to evaluate our own desires in relation to the creation and
fulfillment of desires within the narrative.

We try out each new pattern of desire offered in the narrative against those
that we have found surviving past reflections, and we then decide, in an
explicit or implicit act of ethical criticism, that this new pattern is or is not an
improvement over what we have previously desired to desire (Company,

Booth insists that we must take responsibility for what we are to become—
for what we desire (Company, 271), and that good narratives, good friends,
help us achieve a second-order desire: a desire for better desires.

When we converse with an implied author, we are essentially saying:

You are an idealized version of the writer who created you, the
disorganized, flawed creature who in a sense discovered you by expunging
his or her duller times and weaker moments. To dwell with you is to share
the improvements you have managed to make in your ‘self’ by perfecting
your narrative world. You lead me first to practice ways of living that are
more profound, more sensitive, more intense, and in a curious way more
fully generous that I am likely to meet anywhere else in the world. You
correct my faults, rebuke my insensitivities. You mold me into patterns of
longing and fulfillment that make my ordinary dreams seem petty and
absurd. You finally show what life can be, not just to a coterie, a saved and
saving remnant looking down on the fools, slobs, and knaves, but to anyone
who is willing to work to earn the title of equal and true friend. (Company,
According to Booth, “learning to meet ‘the others’ where they live is the
greatest of all gifts that powerful fictions can offer us…[and] one that
nobody can afford to reject. We must “travel” or we die on our feet”
(Company, 414).

Concluding Part 2

If we allow ourselves to be open to the metaphor Booth constructs in this

text—the notion that our relationship to narratives is equivalent to the
relationship built between would-be friends, then a key question we must
ask during our encounters with these would-be friend becomes:

Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might
well pursue together? Or is this the offer of a sadist to a presumed
masochist? Of a seducer or rapist to a victim? Of the exploiter to the
exploited? Is this a friend, lover, a parent, a prophet, a crony, a co-
conspirator, an agent provocateur, a bully, a quack therapist? Or perhaps a
sidekick, a lackey, a vandal, a bloodsucker, a blackmailer…? (Company,

And furthermore, if we open ourselves to Booth’s notion that we are not

individual selves, but a field of selves, and, further, that this field of selves
can consist of selves adopted from narratives, we have to entertain the idea
that “who we are, who we will be tomorrow depends thus on some act of
criticism, whether by ourselves or by those who determine what stories will
come our way—criticism wise or foolish, deliberate or spontaneous,
conscious or unconscious: ‘You may enter; you must go away—and I will
do my best to forget you’” (Company, 484).

Booth’s concept of openness recalls an idea of Helen Cixous’. For Cixous,

the possibility for escape from, essentially, a world of dogma resides in the
artist. She says, “Thinkers, artists, those who create new values,
‘philosophers’ in the mad Nietzschean manner, inventors and wreckers of
concepts and forms.” What all these “poetic persons” share is an
acceptance of the Other, the things in life excluded by traditional discourse
(Sorties, 581). As Cixous sees it, without the Other invention, and (as Booth
shows us) ethical criticism, is impossible.