Wayne Booth on a complicated pronoun

Wayne Booth on appealing to the authority of “WE”

CON: Against the use of “WE”

Something is wrong in these confident “we’s,” something worse than a mere stylistic tic. I am shocked at the confidence my younger self sometimes shows in reporting how “we” respond. Who are we, here? “We” flesh-and-blood readers are unpredictable, and no one can speak with high reliability about us.

The book [The Rhetoric of Fiction, 1st ed.] often sounds as if its author did not know about that. Yet every classroom and every staffroom debate had taught me differently, as had my own readings when they proved unstable over time. I had noted — and perhaps should have mentioned — the changes the years had produced in my reading of Anna Karenina. At eighteen I had found the courtship and marriage of the thirty-two-year-old Levin and that lovely teenager, Kitty (just my age!), a rather regrettable matching of January and June. Why should she throw herself away on a fussy old man? When I reread and taught the book at thirty-two, the marriage seemed, in contrast, a rather fortunate break for Kitty: “He’ll help her mature!” (And now, at sixty-one: “What are those two children doing, behaving like that?”) Yet I allowed myself frequently to talk as if “we” — the flesh-and-blood readers — do have or ought to have only one response, “ours.”

from “Afterword to the Second Edition,” In The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd Ed., (UChicago Pr, 1983), 420.

PRO: In defense of a different sense of “WE”

The author makes his readers. If he makes them badly – that is, if he simply waits, in all purity, for the occasional reader whose perceptions and norms happen to match his own, then his conception must be lofty indeed if we are to forgive him for his bad craftsmanship. But if he makes them well—that is, makes them see what they have never seen before, moves them into a new order of perception and experience altogether—he finds his reward in the peers he has created.

from Ibid, 397-8.

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