Booth: the Company We Keep

What is the point of writing? Moreover, what is the point of writing about what others have written? Even more over, what is the point of reading these metatexts?

There are a number of answers to these questions, and most of them begin with the words “it depends”. It depends on the text, why it is read/written, and what result is expected to be gained from going through the motions. There is no one mode of writing, or reading, or metareading; there are as many as there are writers and readers, and it all depends.

This makes for awkward discussions with regard to why writing or reading happens – for any one answer that comes along, there are any number of other possible answers that are equally legitimate for other circumstances, different or similar. Trying to agree on one singular answer or – more dramatically – settle the issue once and for all would most likely only end in dissent or conflict. As one answer comes along, another equally good answer accompanies it, and choosing one over the other becomes a matter of circumstance.

It becomes very much akin to choosing which book to read during a non-hurried moment: a question of taste and what readings happen to be at hand. Or, phrased another way: which company we keep.

Booth uses the metaphor of company throughout the Company We Keep. Books are friends, which we keep around because they make for good company whenever we want or need them. In the act of reading, we are in the company of the text and the motions it performs during its course. In the act of writing, we provide company for someone else as they (eventually, maybe) read our words and take in what we have to say. The point of writing thus, at some level, becomes to provide good company, and the point of writing about what others have written is to become a part of this company of friends. And, perhaps, to shed light on what it is these texts do that make them such good company.

Being in someone’s company is to be in relation to them. Your presence affects the other, and their presence affect you. What you say and how you act has consequences, and the same goes the other way around. There is an ethical dimension to being in someone’s company, and Booth reiterates this ethical dimension again and again. Reading certain books will affect you in some way, and writing certain books will affect your readers in some similar way. You are in the company, and you are the company; thus is the dual nature of reading and writing.

Booth stresses that this ethical dimension has significance for the act and art of criticism. Indeed, the quality of company a particular piece of writing brings is one of the main aspects to critically evaluate. Not merely if the text depicts its subject matter accurately (although that is an important part of it), or if it provides all the facts needed to properly understand said subject (which is important too), or even if it is well written in a technical sense (which, again, is also important). These qualities can be either excellent or lacking, and a proper critique will have to take them into account, but they are secondary to the overall quality of the company the text provides. A critic asks: what manner of friend is this text I describe?

Somewhat counterintuitively, this is more important when it comes to writing a positive critique than a negative one. The purpose of a positive critique is to provide the knowledge needed to appreciate the good parts of something (and to draw attention to these same parts). To do this, it is necessary to convey why and how the good parts do what they do, and to gently introduce the context at hand. It is akin to standing next to a statue or a monument and pointing to different parts, explaining what they are and why they matter. The point of the extended expounding is to, when all is said and done, have a shared understanding of the present situation. A critic is not merely providing a technical description, but also the patient company of a knowing party who wants you to know, too.

A negative critique may or may not share this same ambition. If it is well written, it does. But, in this day and age, it might also just want to point out and emphasize that something is bad, in general. This is an easier task, which requires less attention to detail and nuance. It is an unfortunate aspect of the human condition, but we are willing to trust the opinions of our present company when they proclaim something to be bad; the fact that they proclaim it with such emphasis and pathos means there must be something to it.

For this reason, it is more common to see critics tear things down than bring praise. It is an easier thing to do, and listening to someone go on about something with confidence lets us borrow from this sentiment and feel confident as well. In uncertain times, being in the company of someone who can proclaim which things are bad is a comfort, and more than one critic has made their name by virtue of projected confidence alone.

Booth does not object to giving negative critiques, or of tearing something down should it be necessary. But he asks us to consider what manner of company we provide when we are doing what we do, and what insights our discoursing brings to our readers. If the only thing we are able to bring to the table are reasons why everything sucks, it might very well be that we are not being a positive influence on our peers, who enrich their understanding of what they see, read and feel. We might not be as good or constructive company as we think we are.

This extends to the topics we choose to write about. Every text is an introduction of the thing it depicts, and as good companions it behooves us to make good introductions to our friends. If, on reflection, we discover that we have only written about bad things and why they are bad, then those who have partaken of our company have been introduced to many a bad thing, and the company we have kept have been exclusively with these bad things. Whether or not it was our intention, the result is that our readers are now more familiar with the bad than the good. Our friends listen to what we have to say, and if all we have to say is to expound endlessly on the evil things in this world –

Why, we might not be the company we want to be. Or company worth keeping. Or reading.

Booth: the Company We Keep

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