Pillars: #3. A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth

Borrowing from William H. Gass’s essay “50 Literary Pillars” (found in A Temple of Texts), I’m writing about books and authors that have been pillars for my aesthetic as a reader and a writer. Although these items are numbered, these are listed in no particular order. See more Pillars here.

Maybe the best way to start this is by saying that A Rhetoric of Irony by Wayne Booth is probably the book that I most often recommend to people. Part of this is due to the fact that there are very, very few people out there that I don’t think could get a lot out of reading Booth. He wrote about some hugely important, hugely complex ideas, but he did it in a way that makes them accessible to anybody. Really. His tone is remarkable conversational, considering the level of his erudition, and he manages to find ways to talk about very complex things in down to earth language.

Probably the other half of why I recommend A Rhetoric of Irony so much is my perception of Booth as a person who has not yet gotten his due, a thinker who is beloved by a certain cadre of readers (I have met many such individuals), but is still not nearly as known as he could or should be. And, in particular, if you do know Booth, it’s probably for his considerably larger and comparably more famous The Rhetoric of Fiction. You may have loved and gained much from that book and have no idea that A Rhetoric of Irony exists—and that many would say it’s the better book.

What I love about Booth as a thinker is that he really, really cares about ideas. I mean really. It’s impossible to read him and not be taken by his passion for the ideas he’s talking about. Booth cares whether or not the ideas he had dedicated himself to are moral, whether or not they’re right or are just dogmas that we’ve been taught to spew. He cares about their lives in our culture, where they came from and whether or not they’re headed anywhere worthwhile. I get goosebumps just writing about how much Booth cares about ideas. He’s that kind of a writer.

In A Rhetoric of Irony he’s writing about one of the strangest concepts out there. In the society that we live in—particularly, a consummerist, cool, post–David Foster Wallace society that many, many people just love to call “post-ironic”—the word “irony” is a term that is grossly overdefined. Everybody knows what it means, which is a pretty good sign that in actuality virtually no one knows what it means. The fact is, except for the most blatant and obvious ironies, to really read well for irony takes a very, very perceptive and experienced reader. And Booth is exactly the reader to school us in it.

In this book, Booth gives us a taste of what irony really is, and what it really is is one of the strangest, most impenetrably bizarre and fundamentally literary ideas we’ve got. Booth manages to demonstrate just how strange and unfathomable irony really is, how we’ll probably never fully understand its depths, and all the surfaces of irony that literary authors have barely even begun to scratch.

So what exactly am I talking about? Well to start off Both posits two main categories of irony: stable irony and unstable irony. He further breaks down these categories with subcategories (more on that in a minute), but the main idea is that the stable ironies are the friendly, regular ones that we’re used to seeing—the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the irony world—and the unstable ironies begin to get into the truly bizarre things, the neutrino and quarks and Higgs bosons of the irony menagerie.

The most basic irony Booth gives us is as follows: stable (they resolve to one clear meaning), intended (there’s some sense behind the irony that the speaker is attempting to communicate), covert (there is data “below the surface” of the remark), and finite (at some point you “reach the end” of the irony). As an example, he supplies the image of an exasperated postal office clear telling an annoying customer: “well, you can take your business and you know what you can do with it.”

From here, Booth investigates various combinations of those four categories (including their opposites), eventually concluding with the truly strange unstable-covert-infinite (he quotes the first paragraph of Beckett’s The Unnamable), and, last of all the (really-really-strange-if-you-think-about-it) “stable”-covert-infinite (because how can something with infinite regress (like, oh, the universe) also be stable?).

This final category may be a little something like this:


The introduction to Booth’s section on “stable”-covert-infinite ironies simply must be quoted at length. Please read this:

We can say that all truths can be undermined with the irony of contrary truths either because the universe is essentially absurd and there is no such thing as coherent truth or because man’s powers of knowing are inherently and incurably limited and partial. We can imagine, on the one hand, a chaos, an order of truth so far beyond man’s powers that any attempt at formulation is vulnerable to ironic discounting. We face two radically different kinds of ironic reading, depending on which of these two grand ironic truths stands above us, laughing of weeping at our hopeless efforts to achieve final clarity. The difference depends on whether “the Gods” . . . laughing “in the background” . . . are real or imaginary.

If the universe if ultimately an absurd multiverse, then all propositions about or portraits of any part of it are ultimately absurd, all stories and poems are in at least once sense absurd, and the “readings” one gives can be infinitely various with no fundamental violations of the text; there is no such thin as a “fundamental violation” of any value. Indeed, the more variety the better, because only in absurd variety can the absurdities of the things be echoed—though again once could ask how one defends the use of a word like “better” in such a universe. . . .

This should give a sense of the weight of the questions Booth is bringing to bear in this book, as well as his capacities as a theorist. And, it must be said, everything that passes on the road from Booth’s charmingly normal “stable” ironies to these cosmos-implicating final one is nothing less than a complete tour de force.

I owe so much to Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony. Truth be told, it was his contextualization of Beckett, his ability to make that first paragraph of The Unnameable feel so completely intriguing and utterly fascinating that finally got me to decide Beckett was worth my time. The book also made me understand completely new ways of looking at a text and attempting to make sense of it—so many new questions could be brought to bear on a single line, so many implication of how I chose to interpret it, things that were completely invisible to before I started reading Booth. His discernment was such a revelation, just to know that you could look so deeply into what seemed like a relatively straightforward statement, you could tie in so many implications that stretched into obscure realms of knowledge. Before I read him I did not know such things could be done.

And also, seeing the methodical and seemingly simple way that Booth reasoned through his questions on the page taught me just how clear and coherent one’s thoughts could be in the written form. I had been taught to believe that complex things much be articulated in confusing language (preferably with lengthy sentences thoroughly separating subject from verb), and Booth showed me how the most inscrutable riddles could be put in plain English—not only that, but then they could be reasoned through in equally plain, but powerful, language. It showed me that these questions could be discussed in such a way that anybody really could follow along, if they had the time and the patience for it. And they really should, because Booth is always careful to show you just how much is at stake and why you should give a damn about the problems he discusses.

I could just as easily recommend other books of Booth’s—you really can’t go wrong with him—but for me A Rhetoric of Irony occupies a certain revelatory place. It’s a book that has always stayed very present in my mind, and one that I return to again and again, always discovering new things. It is absolutely a pillar of the way I try to write about the questions surrounding the books I read, as well as one that is a foundation for how I understand just what a text is and how I can read it.

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Fabulous, added to my wish list. Thanks!

Didn’t know you were a fellow Booth-ite, Scott! Like you, I was pulled in by his ability to make difficult books seems irresistible. (For me it was Henry Green’s “A Party Going.”). His discussion of unreliable narration in A Rhetoric of Fiction is still (IMO) the best treatment of that topic I know. I’m also glad you mentioned the incredible clarity of his writing style. He’s someone you can really grapple with, even as an undergrad, because he so damn clear. That may be one of the reasons he’s neglected; it’s still more fashionable to bewilder than it is to inform.

Thanks so much for doing your “Pillars” series, Scott. These postings have enhanced your blog while illuminating to its readers some titles which we may have thumbed through @ the bookstore or (I indeed) missed altogether. Please keep going!

MUCH BETTER than the dial tone of things underlined and photographed earlier. (However your CESS photo brilliant. Made me pre-order the book immediately, and from a publisher I never heard of.)


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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