Wayne Booth, Ethics and Unreliable Narrators

Wayne Booth – The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction 1988

The observations Booth makes in the book are similar to those I have so often faced as a writer and a reader. 

Wayne Booth’s 1988 book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction covers too vast a territory to adequately summarise here, and his loquacious means of expression make highlighting his ideas via pithy quotes quite difficult. Further, the book addresses critics – and in particular, ethical criticism, rather than the authors themselves, but I will attempt to recap the major points that would seem to be most applicable to this argument.

Please note also that Booth returns often to Twain’s 1884 novel Huckleberry Finn. Although he enjoyed the work as a whole, he was torn by recurrent racism in the text and the limited world presented by unreliable Huck. Much of the debate in the book, and therefore in the quotes below, revolved around this specific quandary.

Booth began by talking about censorship and the reasoning behind it - how texts are likely to influence our character (as readers) as we read them.

But the censors are likely to know, because of the way they themselves read, that literary parts can carry their own meaning and power quite independently of any correction an author may have built into the whole. (p 161)

Most overtly ethical critics have dwelt on whether a given narrative will work for good or ill in the life of other readers, after the last page has been turned …
But what happens if we begin instead with the qualities of experience sought or achieved by authors and readers during the time of the telling or listening? Instead of asking whether this book, poem, play, movie, or TV drama will turn me toward virtue or vice tomorrow, we now will ask what kind of company it offers me today. (p 169)

Booth introduces the idea of friendship as a metaphor for the relationship readers have with books.

The point in turning to the metaphor of friendship is not, of course, to revive this sort of extremely general talk about book-friends, as if all books were equally friendly, and friendly in the same way … What we need is a vocabulary of discrimination among kinds of friendship, and for that we are forced to return to an ancient tradition that made true friendship a primary goal of life, and the study of how to achieve it the center of all ethical inquiry… The quality of our lives was said to be in large part identical with the quality of the company we keep. Our happiness is found in a pursuit of friendship… (p 172).

Much of the text then sets about examining those types of friendships offered by books, and by authors. Booth concludes that:

The fullest friendships, the “friendships of virtue” that the tradition hails as best, are likely to be the works that the world has called classics… I meet in their authors friends who demonstrate their friendship not only in the range and depth and intensity of pleasure they offer, not only in the promise they fulfil of proving useful to me, but finally in the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own. (p 223)

One of the tenets of narratology is that narratives are fundamental to how we communicate to others, and also how we receive and process ideas internally. Booth claims we are all engaged in ethical criticism of the narratives we encounter continuously.

We cannot avoid choosing among them [narratives as friends], consciously or unconsciously; even those of us who do not read or watch TV… are offered innumerable stories each day, unless we have no human converse whatever, and just by living we choose some and reject others.
…We thus practice, willy-nilly, an ethical criticism regardless of our theories: we choose our friends and their gifts. (p 177)

Booth talks about stories as communication between parties to steer conduct and demonstrate the rules of a culture or society.

Each culture provides every member with an unlimited number of “natural” choices that seem to require no thought. Such intuitive choices tend to get articulated into gossip, which consists of a kind of free-wheeling narrative appraisal of people not present. Though we may not think of gossip as “ethical culture” – it is still fashionable to condemn it, in theory, as inherently immoral – the best gossip is wonderfully educational, an essential exchange that speaks to us learners messages like: “You should try not to be like that”; or “You should hope to be so brave!”; or “save us all from becoming such creatures!” (p 484)

Booth also expanded on how a writer as a communicator has a particular responsibility where the power relationship between the two parties is unequal in the writer’s favour (which is always). He talks about the ethics – not only of technique, but of the themes and norms being addressed in the novel.
Here Booth talks about ethical deficiencies of the novel Huckleberry Finn (which he identifies as racial stereotypes, and the catering to chauvinism) being attributed to the character, Huck, rather than Twain, his creator. The first person narration allows the creator to get away with discourse throughout the novel that offends.

Dealing with any first-person narrative, we can explain away any fault, no matter how horrendous, if we assume in advance an author of unlimited wisdom, tact, and artistic skill. But such an assumption, by explaining everything, takes care of none of our more complex problems. If we do not pre-judge the case, the appeal to irony excuses only those faults the book invites us to see through, thus joining the author in his ironic transformations. Our main problems, not just with the ending, but with the most deeply embedded fixed norms of the book as a whole, remain unsolved. (p 470)

This brings me back to the very beginning, and the dilemma that sparked my academic pursuits. My character, Jenna-Belle, in Girl Next Door is a chauvinist, of sorts. I expected readers to absolve me of her flaws and to see the irony arising from the recognition that the character’s views are not ones that I hold. I believed any failure to comprehend the irony to be an inadequate reading of the text. Not my fault.
Booth’s text argues that the limitations of the unreliable narrator are not just a problem of technique, but more broadly an ethical problem for the writer and the reader.

Booth’s text encouraged me to look for the qualities of friendship being offered to the audience of the novels I read, and the influence novels have, not only at their conclusion, but throughout the experience of reading it.

The Company We Keep provoked me to look at the quality of friendship that I am offering. And in all my novels to date, not just Girl Next Door, I have not been the friend I aspire to be.

Review of Alex

Posted from http://www.lambdaliterary.org/

If there were such a thing as the perfect YA novel, Alex As Well  (Text Publishing) would be it. Alex has stopped taking her medication. The other Alex–male Alex– lives in her mind, constantly jibing as fourteen-year-old Alex transitions. Born intersex and raised male, Alex changes schools without her parents’ knowledge so she can try to lead her life the way she needs to. At first she makes friends and gains admirers, even handling coming out as lesbian in the high school environment. But things get complicated when the school repeatedly asks for her birth certificate which states she’s male. Desperate not to be discovered, Alex seeks the advice of a lawyer to find out if she can legally reassign her gender on her birth certificate: “Why does it matter whether I am a boy or a girl?” “But it does. It really, really matters. People want to know which one you are.” (p15) Alex tells her parents that she’s a girl and tensions at home mount as Alex’s father leaves, and her mother, Heather, despairs to her online cohort on a parental forum. Alex still has friends at school for now, though, and a crush on one particular friend – the school secretary’s daughter, Amina. With the question of the birth certificate still on her mind and the school persistently asking for it, Alex becomes increasingly worried and works for her new lawyer friend as an office painter in exchange for his help. Alex hides in the attic at home when things get too much, discovering reports from when she was in pre-school, detailing her aggressive behaviour and excessive crying: “The medication that made me want to punch people. The medication my parents made me take to make me a boy.” (p70) This is a revelation for Alex as she realizes exactly what has been going on all her life. Heather discovers Alex has stopped her medication and attributes this to Alex’s new identity, rather than accepting that Alex consciously wants to stop hormone therapy. As Alex continues to hide the truth at school and negotiate her parents’ reactions, she is also asked to model, making money from shoots which allows her to plan her independence. At first this part of the story felt a little too dreamy, but then I thought, why not? A young trans person making it through their own hard work – yes, please. Despite it seeming like a typical teen novel fantasy, to be a model, Alex’s voice keeps it believable and typically hilarious and cynical. I was entirely convinced that Alex not only deserved everything good she worked for, but she was also conscious of when she was behaving like a total brat. Just after I read Alex As Well, I found out about the recent German law to recognize babies born with ‘undetermined sex.’ Brugman highlights the issues surrounding choosing the gender of a child with undetermined sex, but also provokes thought on the matter of gender assignment in general. Alex’s parents realize the impact of choosing her gender for her: “We should have just waited and asked you.” (p134) The only other books on the subject of intersex I can recall reading are the fantastic Intersex (For Lack of a Better Word) by Thea Hillman, an adult memoir, and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. In the YA world I haven’t read or seen anything like Alex before. The fact that it is one of only a small number of fiction books on the subject makes it a remarkable and important book, as do the writing and characterisation. What is so brilliant about this novel is not just Alex’s voice but the glimpses of parental perspective shown through Heather’s internet forum posts, with both insightful and outright crazy replies from other regular posters. Alex As Well is a treasure of a novel, with laugh out loud moments as well as unsettling scenes that will stay with you.  

 - See more at: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/01/02/alex-as-well-by-alyssa-brugman/#sthash.AVC1JUCD.dpuf

(Hopefully) Ruining your Melbourne Cup Day

I'm going to get ranty.

As a working hoof trimmer and equine nutrition consultant, I see a lot of off the track thoroughbreds, and they are mostly stuffed. They are lucky, because they are not dead.

I'm writing about it in my latest novel, but here is an interesting article from the Guardian today, listing some of the reasons that we should not be celebrating Melbourne Cup Day.


Here is an excerpt:

A University of Melbourne study found race exertion sees half of race horses bleed in the windpipe and 90% bleed deeper in the lungs. High-concentrate grain diets (rather than extended grazing) can lead to gastric ulcers. A study of racehorses at Randwick found 89% had stomach ulcers, and many of the horses had deep, bleeding ulcers within eight weeks of training commencement.
Then there are the more obvious muscular-skeletal injuries, such as torn ligaments and tendons, dislocated joints and occasional fractured bones.Jumps racing is a whole other world of pain (which at least cops its fair whack of scrutiny).

I'm going to spend my Melbourne Cup Day rehabilitating some ex racehorses. How about you?

Feliks (phoooarrr!!)

What many of you readers might not know is that I have a day job. I trim horses' feet and consult on equine nutrition. It's a physically demanding job and accounts for my big guns! (And legs like tree trunks which I am not showing you).

I love this job. I trim three days a week. I trim about ten to fifteen horses a day, and most of my ladies are on a six week cycle, which is the perfect amount of time because stuff has happened in six weeks, which means there's always lots to talk about! Most of my clients have become dear friends (you know who you are).

Many of my hoof care clients have said to me that they loved the Shelby books, but what they are really after is the Shelby books older and with some sex in it. Could I write some of those, please?

The client is always right! So I did that! It's a bit of a departure from what I have done before. I have spent twelve whole books avoiding sex. But I am now leaping in! Younger readers avert your eyes, please.

There has been a great deal of consultation between me and my ladies, and between us we created a perfect man for my main character to have as a lover.

This is what Feliks looks like:

Phoooarrr!! (Thank you, younger Jude Law)

But importantly, he doesn't say anything! My ladies decided if he said anything he would just ruin the whole thing. It took many trims to figure out how he could be legitimately silent, but we came up with a solution, which will become apparent. (Of course, they do end up communicating with one another).

About ten minutes ago I reached 40,000 words, which is about half way, and to celebrate, I will be debuting the lovely Feliks for those ladies who have been so patiently waiting.

For a bit of background, the main character is Dr Lu Lightsey. She is a vet, and her old anatomy professor (his name is Warren) has just sent her for a short term project doing AI with rhinos at a zoo in Dubbo for her friend Peter, who is the head vet there.

With the caveat that this is a SFD (shitty first draft), here comes Feliks:

Lu drove through the casuarinas and past the hay shed to the hospital at the back. From the outside it looked like a late seventies built house - dark brown brick, and aluminium windows.
After she parked her car, she skipped down the steps.
Lu’s friend Peter came through the screen door at the side and hugged her. She and Peter had done their post grad veterinary science at the same time, and both had Warren McCrae as a supervisor for their thesis. He was a short, flamboyant, middle-aged, South African.
Peter was a good vet, Lu had always thought. He kept up with the reading. He was mid-career, respected, and had a strong international network. He could pretty much pick his post nowadays, and he followed the interesting work – not the money.
'Good to see you, darling! You look great. Fit. Have you been running?’
‘Mostly butchering horse carcasses with a scalpel,’ she replied.
‘Nice. I was so pleased when Warren suggested you. We’ve always had fun. Don’t you think?' He leaned in to kiss her cheek. He smelled of aftershave and antibiotics.
Just inside the door was a staff room, like any small office, a sink in the corner with somebody's rinsed coffee cup and lunch box, an urn on the wall. Kitsch signs that said things like, ‘Don’t ask me, I just work here,’ were pinned to the wall, but faded as though they were not the product of the current occupants. The rubber doors to the treatment area were closed. She could vaguely see someone in scrubs moving around in there.
'Want to see my new rhino?'
Peter explained that he had negotiated the purchase of a white rhino bull from a private zoo in South Africa that belonged to a family friend. It had arrived by boat a few weeks before, and was still in quarantine.
'Want to help me collect a sample? We’re draining the poor bastard dry.'
Lu curled her lip. 'Not really, no,'
'Since when have you been squeamish?'
'I've just driven for four hours and you want me to jack-off a rhino? Can I have a cup of coffee first?'
'We're floating lemur fecals this afternoon. Would you prefer to do that?'
Lu leaned against the door jamb and shook her head. 'Bloody Warren! Go to Dubbo, he said. It's exotic, he said, but really it's just the same old shit isn't it? It doesn't really make a difference if it's bull shit or orix shit, does it?
Peter tilted his head to the side. 'I don’t think we do orix shit. They are on the exempt list.'
'Ok, then seal shit, it's exactly the same.'
'Oh no, seal shit is quite different,' he argued. 'You would definitely know if it was bull shit or seal shit. Have you forgotten all of your nutrition? Pinniped fecals are fishy, but kind of sweet.'
Lu considered. 'Like Thai food?'
Peter grimaced. 'No, nothing like Thai food. Are you insane?'
Lu giggled. 'I'm so glad that I am not the only one obsessed with poo.'
‘We don’t even have any seals in this collection, you great goose. Wrong zoo!’ He shook his head. 'Coffee then.' He set up three mugs on the sink and spooned in instant.  ‘Although, I can get you a seal poo. I know a guy who doesn't ask questions.'
When he passed her a cup she pulled a face. She hated crap coffee.
'What’s wrong with you Miss Sour Britches!' He smiled. 'I've got someone in here that will cheer you up.’
'I'm not sure I like your surprises. Do I have to jack him off?'
'Only if he consents.' Peter pushed through the plastic clinic doors with his elbow, holding the mugs away from his body.
Inside the clinic, a vet nurse wrestled a lion cub, trying to clip the cub’s nails. The cub let out a tiny yowl, and batted the vet nurse with a furry paw, biting his hand. The vet nurse attempted to hold the two hind paws in one hand, and tucking a front paw between his elbow and ribs. The lion cub put the nurse’s whole hand in his mouth, and bit down, but the vet nurse didn’t pull away, taking the opportunity while the cub’s head was still to slip one of the claws into the clipper with his other hand. The cub drew his back legs away, kicking sharply, ripping the nurse’s shirt. The vet nurse hissed, and the cub turned his back, shaking his head and lashing his tail smugly
The nurse would have been about twenty-five she guessed. Slightly curly blonde hair, blue-eyed, olive-skinned, surfer type. He looked like a young Jude Law. A dreamboat. His scrubs were tied with a drawstring just on his hips. When he lifted his arms to inspect the damage to his shirt, Lu could see a tantalising glimpse of muscular belly.
It was the sexiest thing Lu Lightsey had ever seen. He was beautiful.
‘Close your mouth, dear.’ Peter drawled in his thick South African accent. ‘He’s deaf you know.’
‘Yes. Fantastic nurse. The best I’ve worked with. You can’t poach him, if that’s what you were thinking.’ Peter sipped his coffee.  ‘Can we entice you into exotics now?’
‘Maybe,’ Lu said, tilting her head to the side as she watched the vet nurse scratch the lion cub’s belly.
Peter walked into the nurse’s view, holding up the coffee. The nurse turned around.
‘Lu, this is Feliks.’
Lu waved.
He smiled and then beckoned her over to see the cub. He put her hand on the cub’s throat so she could feel it purring. He rubbed one of his hands over the other. It was a sign, she realised.
Behind her Peter snorted. 'We've been having this argument for days now.' He gestured to Feliks, signing as he was speaking. 'I keep telling you! Cats that roar don't purr.'
Feliks appealed to Lu.
Lu stoked the cub under the chin. 'It feels like a purr, Pete.'
'It's not a true purr. It's only on the exhaled breath.'
'But it reverberates at the same frequency as a purr. Isn't that the material quality?' She gave Feliks a wink. 'It's a purr.' She rubbed one hand over the other, mimicking the sign he had done.
‘Why am I surprised you took his side? Can I drag you away now?’ Peter laughed.

‘No. I might stay here and watch Feliks wrestle the cub, and then hopefully he will take that shirt off and eat a mango.’

Breaking brumbies

I'm cross posting this, because I am putting in a scene in the latest WIP where the main character and her companion catch brumbies, break them in and ride them for the next week, and there will be many horse owners who will go 'Pfft! As if THAT would happen."

But I saw it! I have pictures of it!


About Bindy

When Bindy first came out it had mixed reviews. Bindy is 13, while Megan from "Walking Naked" is 15 and Rachel from "Finding Grace" is 18. I really should have written them in reverse order, because many reviewers who had read the first two novels found Bindy immature. And she is! Compared to the other girls. But they were disappointed by it. They called it 'lightweight'. Maybe because nobody died.


In an ideal world I would have written all of my novels in advance and sent them out in an order that made the most commercial sense, but it doesn't work that way. I write a novel when we need new kitchen appliances, or if we want to build a shed. I do love the arty, self-expression part, but it's also a job and I need the money! It's a stupid job for making money, but it turns out, the only other talent I have is taking half-dead horses and making them well, so you have to feed them for even longer, which is not a great way to make money either!

I was a bit excited to find this review in "Publishers Weekly" in the US, because the reader understands what I was trying to do with the adults in the novel. This is a novel about blended families, and how relationships that we imagine to be rock-solid (parent-child for example) are actually quite transient and often fraught.

Conflict between the parent and child is useful because it's how the child forms their identity as separate from the parent - experimenting with the opposite of what they have been taught in order to test the legitimacy of the rules they have obeyed up until this point. It's how the parent lets them go (or pushes them out!). I find that interesting and have looked at versions of that in all of the stand-alone books.

The structure of this novel is more solid than the previous two, because I was learning! (Always learning) Every manuscript teaches you a whole bunch of new techniques and skills. The big lesson for me with this book was that at the climax of the novel Bindy had to choose between two options of equal value. It took several rewrites of the back end of this manuscript to get that balance right.

It's old, but still worth taking a look if you haven't read it.

This is the US cover.

In this intermittently poignant and humorous book, Australian author Brugman (Finding Grace ) introduces a feisty heroine whose life is in anxiety-inducing flux. Bindy's longtime best friend Janey drops her for a mean-spirited, clothes- and boy-crazy classmate, with whom she teams up to humiliate the narrator in front of the entire school. When Janey does deign to come to Bindy's house, she prefers hanging out with Bindy's older brother, Kyle. Bindy's good-natured father, with whom she and Kyle live, begins courting Janey's big-hearted mother, making Bindy fear that she might eventually have to share a bedroom with her ex-pal. Meanwhile, James, a fellow eighth-grader, endearingly and clumsily jockeys to become more than friends. One of the book's many strengths lies in the parallels it draws between the adult and adolescent dating rituals. When James attempts to kiss Bindy, she protests that she doesn't know him well enough to determine whether they even have anything in common—never mind to kiss him. To her earnest would-be suitor, that isn't a problem: "If we're kissing, then we don't have to talk." Bindy's self-absorbed mother, who didn't even bother to tell her children that their grandmother died, has a live-in beau. Their mother's emotional disconnect leads to the novel's most heartbreaking scenes, including one in which Bindy's mother snaps, "What do you want from me?" and Bindy blurts, "I want you to love me." Both the adult and teenage characters come across as fully formed, with both faults and strengths. Ages 12-up. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 05/29/2006 

The Equen Queen

Back in 2006, or maybe 2005, I was at Ipswich Writers' Festival in Queensland when I saw a presentation by Michael Pryor and Paul Collins on their Quentaris series. I knew I wanted to try my hand at fantasy, so I approached them to do a book in the series. Paul had recently started his own publishing house, Ford Street, and was in the process of writing the first in a new Quentaris series. I agreed to do the second one.

The brief was to begin my story where Paul's had left off, using the characters that he had created. Paul sent me drafts as he went along. It was a terrific project and I really enjoyed it! James Roy did the book after mine. He had to begin where I finished, again using the same characters.

You can find e-books  here:  

iBooks (Apple) URL

Kindle (Amazon) URL

Wheelers URL

Google URL

Kobo URL

RHYW (Large Print eBooks) URL

Sony URL


On writing Finding Grace

It was a long time ago.

I had no money. None. I had moved to Sydney, and I had a job as a check-out chick for which I got paid exactly the same amount as my rent. Some weeks I paid my rent, and other weeks I ate.

I lived in a granny flat, but it had no kitchen, so I would boil up precooked pasta in the kettle. Are you picturing that? The kettle turns itself off after it has boiled, which meant I had to keep turning it on over and over until it was cooked.

Also, I had just been dumped by my uni boyfriend. He wanted a break (he wanted to go and see if he could find someone better, but still reserve the right to come back if it turned out he couldn't).

There was a pathetic Dalmatian belonging to the neighbours. I felt sorry for him because they never took him for a walk. He was huge and he would knock me down every time I stepped out the door.

So it was all a bit of a struggle.

Then a lady at my work said that her husband had taken a year off to write a novel. I asked why he needed to take a year off. Why couldn't he just write it at night? She laughed at me, and I went home and started to write a manuscript.

It felt easy. Hard but easy. This is the way it has worked for all of the manuscripts that have become novels - I just sat down and it was as though the character was whispering the words in my ear, and all I had to do was write it down. I listen to other writers talking and all of the really serious, grown-up writers say that's a kind of immature and naive way to write, and it should be about structure and art and semiotics, but I have tried doing it that way too, and those are the manuscripts that don't get published. I am so busy making art that when I stop to listen for the voice, there's nothing there.

You know when you fall in love for the first time, and you think you're the only two people in the world who have ever been in love? It was like that. I was in love with writing the book, as though no one had ever written a book before, and I wanted to read bits out aloud to people the way people want to show you pictures of their cat. I was feeling all bloated and full of myself. I read some to my father on the phone and he was very quiet for a while and then he told me, 'if you don't try, then you won't fail.'

So I set it aside for six months, but then I pulled it out and read it, and I thought, 'no, it's actually bloody good!' and I finished it anyway.

I only sent it to one place. I entered it in the Vogel and I didn't win, but Allen and Unwin offered me a contract. If they hadn't I would have given writing away and made jams, or joined a community theatre, because while I loved it, I was not committed at all to being "a writer". I didn't begin to think of myself as a writer until I saw Bindy on the shelves.

I was lucky to have Sarah Brenan edit Grace. She made me rewrite it over again until I hated it, but it was much, much better. I don't know that writers talk enough about the role of editors. Editors are the difference between manuscripts and novels. You don't want to read manuscripts. Manuscripts are a mess.

I have not read it since it was published. I can't even look at the cover without blanching. I can't even really remember what happens.

It's kind of like looking at the volcano project you did in year 8.


I've just been asked to contribute a story to an anthology. Really looking forward to that. I am in very esteemed company! This is my writing buddy for the project.
Phoar! Talented much?
I'll post more info about that soon.


I'm having a problem with my current WIP. I can't seem to write it unless I am staying at the place where the character is in the book. This is new. I've never done proper research before. Just Dr Google.

Most of my novels I have written at home, in the living room, with the TV blaring, and people doing all their living around me - dogs under foot, children shouting at Dora ('map!', 'backpack!'). I've just made it up as I go along! It's odd, because in the past, I've never been able to write on the road. I wrote a whole draft of Solo on a notepad I bought in St Kilda during a week of school visits, and kept maybe two thousands words of it.

For some reason, when I open this particular document, I keep alt-tabbing to facebook, or my email, or equine science update, or The Iconic, which is getting quite expensive!

Very odd.

The other day I wrote a whole chapter in a cafe in Newcastle Private Hospital. No problem. A few weeks ago I took a day off, and went to a little restaurant on the foreshore on Newcastle Harbour, and put down a thousand words.

I stayed in the Crowne Plaza in Newcastle. Wrote like mad. I wrote in the car on my tablet on the way to Dubbo Zoo a zoo in Dubbo, but I had a few hours spare today, here at home, and you know what I did? I bought crop tops for wearing to the gym, which I don't really need.

Maybe I should just surrender and go with it?

So my girl is going to Alice Springs soon. And I'm going too!


Hopefully I will be able to get some serious writing done on the road. I'll let you know.

Curious Fox

Curious Fox have bought the UK rights to Alex. They have blogged about it here:


I'm very excited to be working with them. I haven't had a novel out in the UK for some time!