The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction

  1. What are implications of Booth’s title, “The Company We Keep”? What does he claim to mean by “fiction”?
    What kinds of fiction tend to dominate his examples?
  2. What does Booth indicate in the introduction is the sense in which he will use the term “ethical”? What definitions of ethics will be excluded?
    Is his definition clear? Is its breath and inclusiveness confusing? In practice, what does he tend to mean by ethical criticism?
  3. Why does Booth believe there is a need for a category of ethical criticism? Do his many citations of examples bear him out?
  4. When was this book written? Published? What critical schools and trends seem to have influenced Booth’s thought?
  5. If one were writing a book on “ethical criticism” after absorbing the tenets of post-colonialism, linguistic psychoanalysis, post-modernism, etc., how might the focus of this topic have changed?
  6. What teaching/collegial incident prompted Booth’s thoughts about this topic? How did he respond?
  7. What might have been the reactions of Kolodny, Hughes, Gates, Said and others we have read to the same incident? Or to the incident in which a high school chose a play other than the Merchant of Venice for its reading list?
  8. In chapter 5, what categories does Booth use in order to explore the responsibilities associated with reading and writing? (125)
  9. What are some of the categories of responsibility Booth lists? For each, please select an instance in which the principle may be well or poorly applied? Which of your instances are controversial?
    e. g.--What is an author’s responsibility to the real reader, and to the implied reader? (127) A writer’s responsibility to him or herself, as a person who lives in a world in which art plays only one of many roles?
    What is the writer’s responsibility to his/her career? To those whose lives are used as material? (130) To those whose labor is used to make the work possible? (131)
    What is the writer’s responsibility to society, the world, and the future? (132) To truth? (132)
    What are the reader’s responsibilities to the writer, author or career author? (134) Should one tell the truth about a book? Buy rather than borrow?
    What are the reader’s responsibilities to works of literary art? (135) To his or her self? (136) To other readers? To make appraisals public?
    What are the reader’s responsibilities to his/her society, beyond honest expression of critical judgment? (137)
    What are some of the reader’s responsibilities to the author? (138)
  10. Do some of Booth’s categories need to be expanded? Some which should in your view be omitted?
  11. If some of our critics such as Barthes, Foucault, Iser, Kristeva or Lacan were rewriting Booth’s categories, how might these have been changed? Would the notion of responsibility be meaningful for any of them?
  12. What points does Booth make through his discussion of an interpretation of an Aesop fable? How does he complicate the interpretation? Are any possible points of view omitted?
  13. What distinction does he make between nonce beliefs and fixed norms? (142, 145) How does the tension between the two influence a work of fiction?
  14. Are other fictions didactic, and how is the interpretation of that didacticism rendered more difficult?
  15. What lines of ethical criticism does Booth pursue?
  16. What is his final guidance to the reader? In what way does this emphasis differ from/resemble that of other critics we have read?
  17. In his conclusion, what traditions of ethical response to reading does Booth define, and what are the limits of each? (488)
  18. Do you believe there are ways in which a reader may be said to have an obligation to a text? Or to other readers? (say, a teacher to students or vice versa!)

    Can one speak of an obligation to an audience?
  19. Are there ways in which one can speak meaningfuly of the implication of plots, myths or lyrical sequences--or even if not, ways in which they may be said to affect the consciousness of the reader? To what extent can these effects be shared?
  20. Which of the many quotations in Booth’s initial sections and his appendix seem relevant or valuable in considering this topic?


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