On Paratextuality

I was proofreading a book on the representations of Asian women in Canadian literature and came across an concept I have not pondered in a while: the paratext.Unlike a lot of useless literary terms, this word is not as menacing as it sounds. It simply means that when the reader reads a work, that work doesn’t just come to them in a vacuum. There is a body of text, the paratext, surrounding the work: from blurbs to jacket design to cover copy. Even the interior layout of the pages in itself is a statement that surrounds the book itself.
Naturally, this idea is incredibly fascinating for me as someone who works in publishing. And it’s not just about the paratext per say, but what it represents in terms of the reading experience. Take jackets and covers, for example. Even though the cover visually is not strictly a text, it still forms a frame of reference for the writer’s work.As much as we’d like to say that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, the reality is that covers matter in publishing. Profits are made or lost simply because of cover design. Therefore, sales and marketing departments love ‘good’ covers: covers that are buyer-friendly. During my internships, I would see book covers get praised, shot down, passed around, and even when there were glorious covers that by some miracle no department could find any fault with, I found myself thinking: “That’s it. That’s the only door the reader can open before submerging themselves in the book.” And even if the designer has somehow managed to strike the heart of the book’s content, the reader is still relegated to one way of looking at it. Whether that authentic translation translates into more book sales is another issue, and if it doesn’t, marketing and sales will trash it.

For me, there is no perfect cover. Because slapping on a cover at any work is a frame of reference. It says to the reader “this book looks so-and-so because that’s the only way of looking at it.”

I would love to think that e-books are one way of breaking out of the confines of paratext and an outer frame of reference, at least in its exterior appearance. Because a book, ultimately, should speak for itself. I was struck by this idea the most when I read Jeff Bezo’s welcome message on the Kindle: that the Kindle should, really, disappear in your hands when you are reading. I love the idea that when I am reading something–especially a work of fiction–that for me the work is speaking for itself. There is no pretty cover to trot around on the subway and show off. It’s a veiled relationship.  Just you and the book.

Is the medium really the message? To some extent, it always is. But even while e-books don’t undergo the fancy packaging books go through and do not subject the reader to whatever cover it pleases to have, e-books are still part of the greater paratext. There’s still the marketing, the blurbs, the synopses–really, all the descriptions the reader comes across when realizing that this book exists and then making the decision to read it.

How much of our purchasing decisions, the extent to which we enjoy a book, is influenced not by the book itself but its paratext? We may never be fully aware of its influence on our readerly psyches. No work, no matter how great or terrible, comes in a vacuum.

Only something divine can. For a true revelation has no paratext.


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