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Implied Author: Its Meaning and Relevance in Literary Criticism

Implied Author: Wayne C Booth’s Unique Idea

Booth, the propounder of inplied authorWayne C Booth’s “The Rhetoric of Fiction” made a lasting impression on New Criticism’s efforts to make literary interpretation more “scientific” in its handling of the data one discovers in texts. Among the book’s important contributions was a distinction that Booth had made between narratives which come to the readers from the author named on the title page (for instance, Charles Dickens or Joseph Conrad), and narratives which come to the readers through the filter of an intervening persona (for instance, David Copperfield or Marlow). This persona is, according to Booth, the “implied author”. “The implied author chooses, unconsciously or consciously, what we read. We infer him as an ideal, literary, created version of the real man; he is the sum of his own choices” (Booth 75).

Implied Author: The Basic Qualities

Booth prefers the term “implied author” over “voice’, in order to indicate that the reader has a sense, not only of the timbre and tone of a speaking voice, but of a total human presence. The implied author, although related (but not equal to) the actual author, is part of the fiction. The author gradually brings it to life in the course of composition. The implied author plays an important part in the progress of the narrative.
A closer look at Booth’s definition of implied author reveals four major characteristics:
· Ideal
· Created
· Literary
· Exercise of choice

Why Ideal?
One must not consider “ideal” from a moral standpoint. Ideal refers to the authenticity of the implied author’s character as presented in the text. Booth maintains that, the reader’s sense of the implied author includes not only the “extractable meanings” but also the “intuitive apprehension of a completed artistic whole”; the chief value to which this implied author is committed. A great work establishes the sincerity of its implied author, regardless of the values exhibited by the author in real life. Therefore, the concept of an ideal implied author establishes a difference between the author’s real self and the persona he or she projects.

Ernest Hemingway in Milan 1918 retouched 3
Ernest Hemingway
By Whom Created?

Booth emphasizes that the implied author is a construct. For instance, in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, the narrator is surely not Elizabeth Barret’s loving husband but an insanely arrogant murderous misogynist. An author need not be recognizably subjective but the implied author is thoroughly engaged with life and does not conceal his/her judgement on the selfish, the foolish or the cruel. Even in novels with undramatized narrators, an implicit picture of an author is created who stands behind the scenes. Booth gives the example of Hemingway’s “the Killers” to show how “there is no narrator other than the implicit second self that Hemingway creates as he writes” (151).

Whose Exercise of Choice?

Consequently, one can understand what Booth meant by his insistence on the narrative agency as capable of exercising choice. Conrad has been thoroughly criticized as a racist by Chinua Achebe in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’”:800px Chinua Achebe Buffalo 25Sep2008 crop

“Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”

The readers may contend that the narrative is filtered through Marlow, a fictive narrator. However, one may also observe the authorial silence and indifference to any refutation of Marlow’s conception. This may be interpreted as Conrad’s self-equation with Marlow. The reader is in no position to pass judgement on the author solely based on this. The very fact that Marlow chooses to see the native Africans as beasts (victimized but bestial) is a revelation of Marlow’s temperament. Similarly, the description of Kurtz’s cottage is filtered through Marlow’s eyes. His choice of putting Kurtz in a state of crisis presupposes his own sense of economically advanced western civilization as capable of saner existence. However, one must not equate narrator with implied author. Perhaps, the agency which Achebe calls racist is neither Marlow nor Conrad but the implied author of “Heart of Darkness”.

 How Literal?
The notion of the implied author helps to recognize the function of the “unreliable narration”. Unreliable narration depends on “distance… between the fallible or unreliable narrator and the implied author who carries the reader with him in judging the narrator… If the narrator is discovered to be untrustworthy, then the total effect of the work he relays to us is transformed” (Booth 158).
For instance, the reader becomes aware that the narration of Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” is fraught with the mis-cognition of John Jim and ghost huck finnDowell, the narrator, even though there is no third person narratorial voice to make or provoke such judgements. The implied author is responsible for creating this effect. In this way, the implied author becomes a source for the text’s ethos, whose norms and values that seem to be embodied in the text. This may be at direct odds with the norms and values of the given narrator. For example, Huckleberry Finn’s conviction that he will go to hell for helping a slave to escape is countered with the reader’s inference that his act is, in fact, a profoundly moral one. It is the implied author who makes the reader recognize Huck as a being of sound moral judgement but too naïve to realize it.

Implied or Inferred?

Seymour Chatman adapts Booth’s nexus of moral weight into a structural principle of narration. Chatman’s conception of the implied author is “reconstructed by the reader from the narrative. He is not the narrator… but rather the principle that invented the narrator” (Chatman 148). This underlines an apparent contradiction that even though the implied author has “invented” the narrator, it exists as a reconstruction by the reader. The reader becomes the agent who activates the agency of the text itself. Chatman suggests that we might better speak of the ‘inferred’ rather than of the ‘implied’ author”.

Implied Author: Is it Relevant at all?

Therefore, the primary problem regarding narrative agency comes down to a confusion between creation and narration. The range and depth of knowledge that the text exhibits adds to the problem. A non-focalized narrator may feign complete knowledge of a diegetic world but it can never reveal all that it knows. On the other hand, what the novelist knows outside the text is quite irrelevant to the reader’s perception. Thus, when one infers the completeness and coherence of that diegetic process, one also assumes an agency that has “intended” this completeness and coherence.Abrams mirror and the lamp.svg
Some critics dismiss the usefulness or even existence of the implied author. However, implied author is a key to an understanding of the author as well and should not be disregarded. Just as authorship can be implied, readers also may be implied by the stance the narrator takes towards values in the text. As Roland Barthes maintained, the “inscribed” reader’s responses may be intended to guide our responses.


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Univ. of Chicago Pr., 2008.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Cornell University Press, 2007.

Photograph Courtesy:

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

Further Reading: Narrative Voice: Interpretations and Critical Responses

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