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  • Expanding Genette's Epitext/Peritext Model for Transitional Electronic Literature:Centrifugal and Centripetal Vectors on Kindles and iPads
  • Ellen McCracken (bio)

Although avant-garde digital literature made inroads among a few experimental artists and a very small number of readers in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not until 2009 that sales of small portable electronic devices and easily obtainable digital texts changed reading patterns in the developed world. Sales of dedicated e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle mushroomed from early 2009 on, and with the introduction of Apple's iPad in April 2010, a new form of transitional electronic literature began to take hold—an intermediary form between print and digital platforms without the complexities of avant-garde, digitally experimental literature. Whereas early multiform digital literature excluded much of the reading public with its extensive hyperlinks and sometimes confusing hypertextual pathways, the new transitional texts on small portable e-readers engage in much more moderate adaptations of traditional printed literature. In contrast to "digital born" literature such as blognovels, interactive texts with complex rhizomatic paths and algorithmic sequences, and multi-media digital genres that blur the borders between video, game, and literature, a much more palatable transitional literature is in the forefront of cultural change now—electronic texts that mimic the format and appearance of print books and add a few innovations.1 [End Page 105]

This new transitional literature represents a key stage in the shift between print and digital books underway in the 21st century. At this moment in history, a new electronic literature that seeks widespread mass consumption and encourages extensive readership of literary texts precedes and supersedes the radically experimental electronic literary forms for which the public is not entirely ready. Dedicated e-readers such as the Kindle, the Nook, and the Kobo compete with multi-function tablets such as the iPad, the Kindle Fire, and the Nook Tablet, and smaller smart phones including the iPhone, the Blackberry, and Android devices to offer readers a series of convenient, portable platforms on which to read transitional literature.

Gérard Genette's formulations on paratexts—the framing elements both inside and outside printed texts that shape the reading experience although they are not part of the text proper—need augmentation and modification for the analysis of transitional electronic texts. Elements such as covers, epigraphs, footnotes, auto-commentaries and publishers' ads take on new paratextual functions in the age of digital reading and join a large array of new paratexts not developed in print literature. Literary expression is both enriched and impeded by the new or modified paratexts at this moment of transition between print and digital platforms. This study examines the new paratexts of literature on portable electronic reading devices and the ways in which they encourage readers to perform centrifugal and centripetal movement.

Important new elements of motion pervade the reading experience on portable electronic devices, beyond the standard page turning and eye movements involved in traditional print literature. A wider array of paratexts is made possible by these additional modes of motion involved in the new technology of reading. Concomitantly, paratexts can no longer be studied as singular fixed objects. They exist temporally and spatially within particular dynamic viewing practices. It is therefore useful to focus on the centrifugal and centripetal motion to which they invite readers who use portable electronic devices. If one conceives of the principal verbal literary text as the center, one can identify exterior and interior pathways leading readers both away from and more deeply into the words at hand.

Genette's groundbreaking 1987 study Seuils expanded traditional notions of the text and painstakingly documented a wide array of paratextual devices throughout several centuries of print literature. Seuils gave us the terminology and conceptual model with which to understand, evaluate, and take into account the elements authorized by the publisher or author that surround the text proper and affect its interpretation. The concepts of "epitext" and "peritext" continue to be useful for the analysis of digital literature on portable electronic devices but need expansion as categories. New paratexts sometimes move beyond Genette's precise formulations but continue to function in the spirit of his analysis. Rather than attempting to...


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pp. 105-124
Launched on MUSE
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