Paratext: Prefaces and Prologues
Influencing Readers from the Edge
In reading The Book of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, I noticed the page numbering is backwards, moving from the highest number on the first page to the first page at the end. When I read Memoir’s of a Geisha, my first section was the “translator’s note” an opening meant to deceive me. Then I realized that I was being drawn into narratives by way of paratext. If you think about writing tools, we think of plot, character, voice, point-of-view, but one thing that might influence a story even before you start reading is paratext (text that is outside the principle text). This would include prefaces, prologues, front notes, end notes, indexes, footnotes, page numbering and other things. If you need an introduction to paratext (because I never really thought about), then dive into Gerard Genette’s book Paratext: Thresholds of interpretation. It shifts the way you look at books and how writers influence readers in different ways. Once you explore the concept of paratext, then you start see paratext and marginal influences all the time.
Prefaces and prologues are always places in novels that create questions in reading. Building a novel, a writer would begin building scenes that interconnect. Then, writers create characters and conflict and drive these elements to something that is powerful and meaningful. It feels strange to suggest that writers want to say something before we even start the story or novel, something outside the narrative.
Prologues and prefaces seem to off set the beginning of a narrative. Even the “Translator’s Note” in the novel Memoirs of a Geisha by Author Golden, he is putting ideas in our head before we even begin to hear the story. He is building an illusion. In the tradition of Virginia Woolf who created a biography of Orlando, she was playing with ideas and expectations in her book. Golding was shifting his writing, pushing us to believe his fiction as facts, changing our expectations.
Thanks for reading Suspension of Disbelief! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Prologues and prefaces are also paratext. They are often positioned to help us see the story or explain some previous caveat. I started to look at prologues and prefaces suspiciously once Gerard Genette gave me a reason why. Genette explains, “The term prologue, which in ancient drama designates everything that, in the play itself, precedes the entrance of the chorus, must not mislead us: its function is not to make a presentation, but still less to comment, but to provide an exposition in the dramatic sense of the work, the most often in the form of a character’s monologue.” He explains the history and purpose of the prologue in terms of the shape and style of the “paratext”. And the fact that he discusses this so much as a paratext (text outside the principle text) suggests that he sees these prologues and prefaces as something suspect. Once we make an impression upon a reader, or we create a signpost, Genette suggests writers are imposing upon the reader to see the story a specific way. An example is an introduction from Borges, which “is offered somewhat as the key to a riddle… it is Borges revealing, in the prologue of Artifices, that “‘Funes, the Memorious’ … is a long metaphor for insomnia.” Impossible after that to read the story without having the authorial interpretation hang over your reading, compelling you to take a position, positive or negative, in relation to it.” (224) Are we positioning the reader? Are we blatantly telling the reader that this will be purpose and point without allowing the reader to form their own interpretation of the text? This is an unfair position to put a reader into before reading a book.
Often, prefaces and prologues are merely explaining or telling (not showing). When I am sitting in a student reading, the writer comes up to the podium and gives a rolling preamble about the story, and I feel like I am hearing about a patch or a fix that isn’t clear in the writing. I don’t mind if they pick a chapter in the middle of their novel and have to explain what happened before. But to have a writer caveat: warning us that it won’t make sense if I don’t tell you a few things, that typically raises red flags. “The main disadvantage of a preface is that it constitutes an unbalanced and even shaky situation of communication: its author is offering the reader an advance commentary on a text the reader has not yet become familiar with.”(237). This undermines the purpose of the novel, to read each page and accumulate an unique creative experience from beginning to end.
It feels like some of the modern versions of prologues and prefaces are based in a sense that readers can’t possibly understand this amazing world that I’ve thought up (speculative fiction), so I need to tell you some interesting things. Again, lazy writing. If a novel is an immersion into something new — why are you telling me something that you can’t show me in the novel?
Part of the fascination with prologues and prefaces might come around the idea of film making, and visual storytelling. How many times have we started a show or film and they show something — a scene, a weapon, the wreckage and then run the titles, only to go back in time and tell us how we got there. Common film technique and speaks to the way stories are told. But it is still an element of the story. When prologues and prefaces get confusing, it is because they are outside the narrative or forcing ideas on us before we even get into the story. Assuming a reader has purchased a book, has the ability to read critically, and wants to immerse into a novel — why force them into preconceived ideas before they know what to expect?
In some cases, (nonfiction, short story collections, anthologies, and translations), there may be a specific need to an introduction, prologue, or preface in terms of the design and collection. Editors sometimes explain why they selected stories in a collection for their purpose and focus. Some writers create a preface as a response to printing or publishing the book after a long period of time. I will leave introductions out of this conversation because most of the introductions to books I’ve read are written by scholars as reference to the book (often for critical or academic use). I typically leave the introduction until I finish the book and then go back and read the scholarly context of the introduction. There are exceptions and if you read (please do) the experimental novel House Of Leaves and don’t read the introduction you will never figure out what is happening. Some of the content might be historical context, translation notes, or other para-text information. All of this is consider paratext, and it is all purposeful, until it influences the interaction between the story and your comprehension. Paratext is fascinating and Genette’s book is a great critical look at this concept and how it pushes on narratives and storytelling. It gets tricky when it changes the way you think about the story.
Agents and publishers who look at thousands of proposals and samples don’t tend to like this preamble. And many readers would say, just make this the first chapter. Are these elements inside or outside the narrative? Are they unnecessary fixes or tools that just make writing easier? What if we all wrote prologues and then when we finished the book, took them out, like a metronome for a musician. We don’t hear the tick-tock of time keeping because it is inherent in the music, but it might have been there to help start the shape and vision of the music.
Lastly, I am not a hater of these elements, but I feel like they should be discussed in terms of outside or inside the narrative and how we should be trusting readers, trusting good storytelling, and trusting people to understand the dynamic vision you have. Question those things we set up to get started and maybe we can just turn them off like metronome now that we clearly know and hear the music.
Genette, Gerard, and Jane E. Lewin. Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation (literature, culture, theory). Cambridge: Univ. Pr, (1997).
Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha: A Novel. Vintage, (2005).
Tokarczuk, O. J. Croft, Trans. The Book of Jacob. Fitzcarraldo Editions, (2021).