The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction

In a time when it has become difficult for scholars whose expertise is increasingly limited by their own specialization to communicate across disciplinary boundaries, a work that both contributes importantly to its own discipline and shares vital human concerns beyond its captive audience is genuinely worthy of celebration. For this reason alone, Wayne C. Booth’s The Company We Keep marks, for me, a high point in the recent history of literary studies. And, perhaps more importantly, it rejuvenates the once powerful idea that reading stories can indeed influence the development of character, our day-to-day ethical practices. The fundamental purpose of the book is to provide readers with a legitimate means of talking about stories and character without jumping too quickly to dogmatic conclusions that limit our capacity to make complex ethical choices. Since it would be impossible to offer all of Booth’s ideas in a short review, I will address what I believe to be three of the more powerful critical tools he provides us for ethical discourse about literature: the languages of pluralism, friendship, and emulation (“hypocrisy upward”).

Somewhat surprisingly, pluralism has gotten a bad name in the last twenty years or so. (Like criticism, it has taken on negative connotations and lost, for too many, its genuine meaning.) One of Booth’s important lifetime projects has been salvaging the idea of pluralism from attacks from groups he calls in this book “lumpers” and pursuers of “openness.” In other contexts, these groups might be called monists and relativists, but both are characterized by Booth as dogmatic. “Lumpers” choose to see the world always from one perspective, believing that their vista is singularly and always absolutely correct. Pursuers of openness accept all values, recognizing the existence of a variety of viewpoints but denying the need for evaluation of ideas and points of view.

In literary criticism, moral lumpers have chosen to take stands against novels, plays, and poems for a variety of different reasons, but the general goal has almost always been the same. They want a work banned or rejected outright on the grounds that it contains some material that may be offensive to a particular group’s values or because they perceive its influence to be corrupting. Most of us are aware of this mode of thinking and even have favorite examples of valuable works that shortsighted, narrow-minded readers have had banned for what they call “moral” reasons.

Purchase this Issue