Six Ways Not to Save the Implied Author

By Kindt, Tom; Muller, Hans-Harald | Style, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Six Ways Not to Save the Implied Author


Kindt, Tom, Muller, Hans-Harald, Style


"[I]t is evident that in all written works there is an implied narrator or 'author' who 'intrudes' in making the necessary choices to get his story... written in the way he desires" (Booth 164). Literary theorists may sometimes misconceive the provocative potential of their ideas. Rarely, however, they are so notably off the mark in this regard as Wayne C. Booth was when he first introduced the implied author concept in the above quoted passage from his 1952 essay "The Self-Conscious Narrator in Comic Fiction before Tristram Shandy." Far from being an "evident" component of "all written works," the implied author has given rise to a debate as intense and controversial as few concepts have in literary studies. For almost five decades now, Booth's concept has been eliciting responses ranging from devastating criticism to passionate advocacy.

In what follows, we shall add a short statement to this long debate. Our deliberations w ill draw on what seems to be the lesson to be learned from the implied author's history: it lies in the insight that making use of the concept reflects a wide range of deeply rooted scholarly aims and beliefs which are perfectly plausible when considered separately but which conflict with one another when combined in a single concept. (1) When dealing with concepts such as the implied author, it is therefore advisable to explicate them by identifying different key understandings and then examine the latter separately from one another.

For this reason, our discussion of the implied author presented in the following pages will not consist of a straightforward proposal for clarifying the concept. Instead, we shall comment on the dominant types among the ways of modeling the implied author. In principle, three competing suggestions are involved here, according to which Booth's concept should be taken as denoting either an aid to the description of empirical reception processes, a participant of communication, or a postulated subject behind the text, which in itself can be perceived in at least four different shapes. Thus, we will have to deal with six ways to understand and--to let the cat out of the bag at once--not to save the implied author.

1. The Implied Author as a Phenomenon of Reception

We begin our survey by briefly considering the thesis that the concept should be understood as an aid to the description of empirical reception processes. Such an understanding of the implied author is encountered in some of Booth's own remarks and in a significant number of contributions to the controversy surrounding the concept.

The thesis can be rejected straightaway as it ignores the differences between empirical research in reading processes and the nomatively based endeavour of literary interpretation: advocates of the view in question assume that actual reception processes should be taken as a point of reference for developing concepts to be used in the study of texts. However plausible such an assumption might be, it does not determine how concepts like the implied author should be modelled in detail. In other words, it is perfectly conceivable that the discourse of literary theory could come to see the implied author as superfluous, even if experiments in cognitive psychology were to show that readers of a text do form an image of its author. Conversely, it is also conceivable that Booth's concept could be retained in the academic study of literature, even if empirical studies were to demonstrate that author-images are not formed in the process of reading literary texts.

2. The Implied Author as a Participant in Communication

The second interpretation of the concept that we will consider is the idea that the implied author should be understood as a sender in the process of literary communication. The underlying idea here is that the communicative tasks in literature are shared between several parties; William Nelles has expressed this division pointedly when he says that "the historical author writes . …

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