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  • Paratexts
  • Joshua Ratner

symbiosis, paratext, peritext, epitext, zone of transition, zone of transaction, authorial intention, antebellum publishing practices, Gerard Genette, Washington Irving, John Neal

Paratexts are the parts of books we skip in our zeal to get to the real stuff—the “body” text. Sir Walter Scott, recognizing that readers often skip prefaces, offers a “Postscript, which should have been a preface” to Waverley, and he gives as his rationale the habit of readers who skip prefaces and even major parts of the novel to read final chapters first, so “these remarks, being introduced last in order, have still the best chance to be read in their proper place.”1 Scott’s hope that his remarks would be read “in their proper place” reveals the desire for readers to engage his text in a particular way, but it also obscures the interactions with the book most readers will already have had. Readers will have seen its spine and looked past copyright notices and title pages and advertisements for other books, and each of these paratexts, over which an author usually has little control, affect how the reader encounters the text. When authors do control paratexts, those prefaces, dedications, and footnotes make vivid their efforts to create a direct relationship with readers. Even as they work to circumvent the publishers’ and booksellers’ roles in guiding readers to purchase or judge a book, the paratexts that authors write reveal how much they depend on and write within a literary ecosystem in which publishers, periodical reviewers, and booksellers play mutually dependent roles in shaping readers’ opinions and purchasing habits. Keeping in mind that author-composed paratexts sometimes ignore or discount that mutual dependence, attention to publishers’ and authors’ paratexts can help scholars more accurately describe the author, publisher, and reader experience in early nineteenth-century America.2 [End Page 733]

The French structuralist Gérard Genette coined the term paratext in his 1982 book Palimpsestes and then explored it at much greater length five years later in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, in which he classified paratexts on the basis of many factors, including their location in a book, their function, and the timing of their production. For Genette, paratexts are either “peritexts” or “epitexts.” Peritext is the “spatial category” Genette uses to designate a paratext that is part of or embedded in the same volume as the body text, whereas an “epitext” occurs first outside the volume that contains the body text; nineteenth-century authors, editors, and publishers made extensive use of both.3 One of Genette’s most useful descriptions refers to the paratext as “a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that . . . is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it.”4 Genette’s definition of what is and is not a paratext is explicitly limited to those parts of a text “characterized by an authorial intention and assumption of responsibility,” which presents some problems for its application to the nineteenth-century literary marketplace.5 Though Genette does create an additional category for “the publisher’s peritext,” nineteenth-century authors and publishers frequently negotiated responsibility for these sections too.6 Hence, what might be for Genette a publisher’s peritext—a spine title, title page, copyright notice, advertisements for other titles from the publisher, or any element of the front matter authors do not regularly compose—might still be influenced by or actually composed by the author, while the authorially driven peritexts (dedications, prefaces, footnotes, epigraphs) might also have considerable input from publishers. The same can be said of publisher epitexts (advertisements and prospectuses that appear in other books or periodicals) and authorial attempts to use those same channels, or authorial epitexts (interviews and contributions to periodicals regarding the text, regardless of when they are published).7 [End Page 734]

Just as peritexts can signal or facilitate transitions within a volume, epitexts can encourage readers to shift their attention or to contemplate financial transactions they had not planned to make. Describing the paratext as transitional because it guides or directs...