Paratext

Surely you must have heard someone say, don't judge a book by its cover. As it turns out, it's not all bad to judge a book by its cover. According to literary theorist Gerard Genette (1930–2018), the cover and other external aspects of a book provide helpful insights into a literary work. The cover, therefore, is one of the several components that package the book as a whole for a potential buyer. Genette called these elements 'paratext'. 

Paratext Paratext

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    If you have ever wondered about the processes behind the making of a book, you might find the concept of paratext useful. Let's have a look at the definition of paratext and paratextual elements.

    Paratext: definition

    Paratext is a term coined by literary theorist Gérard Genette, referring to elements that surround the main text of a book but aren't part of the narrative itself. These elements help frame the narrative and influence the reader's interpretation of the text. Examples include the title, author's name, prefaces, introductions, footnotes, afterwords, and cover art. For instance, the introduction in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) provides context about the origin of the story, helping shape the reader's understanding of the novel.

    Genette discusses the concept of paratext in the book Paratext: Thresholds of Interpretation (1987). The term paratext is a combination of the Greek word 'para', meaning beyond, and the word text, referring to the main body of text in the book.

    One sentence summary: Paratext refers to the components of a published work other than the main text, for example, the covers, title, frontmatter, blurbs, footnotes, et cetera added during the publishing stage.

    While the text is created by the author of the book, the author may or may not have a direct role in choosing the paratextual elements of the book.

    In 'Introduction to The Paratext' (1991), Genette argues that the main content of the book, be it a novel, poem, or non-fiction never appears on its own. It is accompanied by elements that, in a way, present the text to the world. These factors, thus, influence the perception and reception of the work.

    It is increasingly common in literary criticism to factor in the paratextual features in the analysis of a book. In the case of rare and antique works, the paratextual information can even help to find out the book's author and origins.

    As Genette observes, the author of a paratextual message need not always be the author of the book. For example, many books come with an introduction or preface written by someone other than the author of the book. Similarly, different paratextual elements address different types of audiences. While some are intended for the general public, some are for the individual reader, and some are for booksellers or critics.

    Paratext, a book shelf of very old books with degraded spines, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Paratext refers to the elements in a printed book that are not part of the main body of the text, but which help to shape its reception and interpretation.

    Difference between text and Paratext

    The difference between text and paratext can be described in many ways. In literary theory, a text is anything that can be read. By this definition, a text can be anything from a billboard to an award-winning novel.

    Roland Barthes (1915–1980) describes the text as an interaction between a work and its reader that creates meaning. According to Barthes, a 'work' is a concrete, physical object that you see in front of you. A text, on the other hand, is more dynamic and not bound by the limits of the book.

    The text refers to the part of a book that comes out of an author's creative process. The paratext is added during the publishing stage and even after. There are two parts of the paratext: peritext and epitext.

    Paratext: elements

    Paratext analysis involves examining the peripheral elements of a text—such as its title, preface, illustrations, or author's notes—to understand how they influence a reader's interpretation of the main body of work. These elements can set the tone, suggest a genre, or provide historical or cultural context

    In Genette's view, paratext is how a fictional or non-fictional text is presented as a book for a potential reader and the public in general.

    A simple way to understand how paratextual elements determine the reception of literature is to think about how famous works like that of Shakespeare might be read if you were completely unaware that you were reading Shakespeare.

    While the concept of paratext can be applied to many forms of art, it is most commonly associated with books. Books carry multiple paratextual elements. The paratextual features are not mandatory or universal as not all books have all these elements, and sometimes, authors refuse to engage with the public.

    Peritext

    Peritext includes elements that surround the main text, such as the foreword, table of contents, index, and source notes, which shape the text in order to make it ready for public consumption.

    • Cover art: the illustration or artwork that appears on the cover of a book.
    • Front and back matter: dedication, acknowledgement, opening information, foreward, and endpapers.
    • Notes: footnotes and other information that is not directly crafted by the author.
    • Blurbs: a short description of a book or film (usually found at the back of a book or DVD) added for promotional and marketing purposes.

    Editorial decisions like the formatting or typography of the text also come under the category of paratext. The author may or may not be involved in these decisions.

    Typography refers to the way the text visually appears on the page, e.g., the font style and font size.

    Epitext

    Epitext refers to the elements related to the book but outside of the boundaries of the book. This may include all conversations surrounding the book, including news coverage, press meetings, promotional events, author interviews, book readings and so on. These may, in turn, shape the way a book is perceived and remembered. Epitext can also influence how likely a text is to be bought and how much attention it may receive.

    Reviews

    The commercial culture in the digital age is driven by how we interact with other consumers. Like other products, consumer decisions around books are also influenced by online reviews. It is now increasingly common for publishers to include snippets or ratings from reviews on the covers of reprints. Similarly, reviews might become part of the legacy of the book or the author.

    Promotional events

    Gone are the days when promotional interviews and events were reserved for high-profile films and celebrities. Depending on their fame, authors now go on extensive, multi-country book tours to reach a wider audience. It is often the case that they might engage in conversations around the book's themes, inspirations, and origins, which end up shaping the public image of the book.

    Literary criticism

    Although books are rarely considered for academic study or literary analysis of books right after they are published, literary analysis is an important part of the conversations around a book. It eventually establishes the book's and, subsequently, the author's place in the literary canon.

    Literary canon: a set of literary works considered to be the best in history.


    Genette argued that the paratext functions as an auxiliary to the main text and should be considered a subordinate.

    The paratext, in all its forms, is a fundamentally heteronomous, auxiliary, discourse devoted to the service of something else which constitutes its right of existence, namely the text.1

    Gerard Genette, 'Introduction to the Paratext'

    Therefore, the paratext is defined as a set of practices and features that contribute to the discourse regarding a text.

    Peritext vs paratext

    Peritext refers to all the elements found in a book, including the cover art and other elements that frame the book and its contents for the reader. Paratext is peritext and epitext combined.

    Paratext: examples in Literature

    The most obvious examples of paratext are book covers, dust jackets, title pages, preface, footnotes, author biography, or any textual or visual components that provide context for the main text. Book covers in particular provide visual cues and sometimes also include comparisons to well-known authors or recommendations from other established authors who have read the book. It is a common practice these days during reprints to add labels like 'international bestseller' to signal the success of a book.

    Let's look at three of the most popular books of all time and how they were packaged using paratextual features.

    The Harry Potter series (1997-2007)

    The logo of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling is evidently stylised to reflect the fantasy elements in the books as well as their film adaptations.

    Paratext, a book with harry potter and the philosopher's stone on the cover and a wand on top of the book with glasses and chocolate frog wrapper next to the book, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - The Harry Potter logo is stylised to capture the book's theme.

    Arabian Nights

    Originally known as One Thousand and One Nights, the Arabian Nights is a collection of folk tales translated into English and other languages in the 1880s. It was subsequently translated by John payne (1842–1916) and Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890). Set in the Middle East, the book covers often contain a visual aesthetic known as Orientalism.

    Orientalism: a way of depicting the East or the Orient, especially during the colonial era, based on stereotypes. The concept of Orientalism was first discussed by the literary theorist Edward Said (1935–2003).

    Wuthering Heights (1847)

    Many reprints of the Victorian novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte reflect the romantic story set against a Gothic backdrop, often using a silhouette of a house and a tree.

    Gothic refers to art, architecture, and literature characterised by darkness, mystery, and horror.

    Paratext, an example of Wuthering Heights book cover which is yellow and has a scenary with trees and mountains. The title is in Irish, StudySmarterFig. 3 Cover art of an Irish translation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights

    Silhouette: outline of an object against a bright background.

    Paratext - Key takeaways

    • The term paratext refers to the elements of a book that frame the text within it for public consumption.
    • The concept of paratext was developed by the French literary theorist Gerard Genette.
    • Peritext and epitext together make up the paratext.
    • Peritext includes features like the book cover, title, typography, notes, and index found on or within the book.
    • Epitext refers to the discourse around the book, including book reviews, interviews, and literary criticism.

    References

    1. Gerard Genette, 'Introduction to the Paratext', 1991
    2. Fig. 3 Emily Brontë, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Paratext

    What is paratext?

    Paratext refers to all the external elements that make up a published book other than the main text which is created by the author, e.g., cover art, title page, forward, illustrations, footnotes, back cover, and end pages of a book. 

    Why is paratext important?

    Paratextual elements are used for marketing and promoting a book. These influence how a book is received by the audience. 

    What is a paratext - example?

    Examples of paratext include the book cover, title page, forward, illustrations, footnotes, back cover and so on. 

    What is the purpose of a paratext?

    The paratext is mainly used to package a book in order to promote it and increase its appeal among consumers. It is also helpful in literary criticism to analyse the paratextual elements to understand the book better. 

    Who coined the term paratext?

    The concept of the paratext was first discussed by the French literary theorist Gerard Genette. 

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