The Potential of Paratext in the Criticism of Fantastika

“SF is an ongoing conversation between fans and writers: a conversation that occurs at conventions, in fanzines, and in fiction magazines. Any study of a popular genre such as SF must include careful attention to the historical, editorial, and commercial details of the fiction as well as the literary contexts.” – Robert Bee

“Paratexts indicate the forces that have shaped a text: they show how contexts invade the text” – Samuel Kinser

Last week’s column on the work of SF/fantastic criticism generated some good comments, and it is from one of those comments that I want to proceed this week. Felix asked a reiterative question: “So, I interpret this as a call for grounded theory in that the theoretical concepts of SF criticism would emerge out of the ethnographic, yes?” My reply was “Yes.” I thought that her question codified one of the points I was driving at quite well, and I’ve been thinking about that in relation to the necessity within that idea of “reconsidering criticism’s mode of production.”

That may sound like fancy academic-speak, but if we want to facilitate critical conversations that engage more readers, present the range of interpretations of works and discourses with more finesse and resonance, and understand the effects we create and produce in the field of literary production, we need to think and imagine towards that reconsideration. Applying popular literary theories or general methods to the study of fantastic literature only reveals some of its facets and leaves out considerations and linkages that can heighten our appreciation of what the literature evokes in our imaginations. We need to bridge the literary and ethnographic spheres, and one approach that might accomplish this goal is to more consciously bring paratexts into the critical conversation.

Paratext is a term coined by the French literary theorist Gérard Genette to delimit textual elements and physical frames that exist external to the text itself. From the cover to the introduction, from publishing information to the typesetting and page design, Genette’s paratext was a codification of the ancillary material that bounded a text.

“More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or – a word Borges used apropos of a preface – a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back” (Paratexts, p. 1-2, emphasis Genette’s).

In his formulation, the paratextual elements are those that a reader conceptually passes through to access the text, “a zone not only of transition but of transaction” (p. 2, emphasis Genette’s). For Genette (to grossly simplify his application), these elements are designed to heighten the author’s intentions for the text’s reception. The exact composition of the paratext, however, is not constant: “The ways and means of the paratext change continually, depending on period, culture, genre, author, work, and edition” (p. 3).

The concept of paratext has been used in a variety of ways; sometimes it is applied narrowly and formally to a text’s bordering material, following Genette. For example, Samuel Kinser looks primarily at Rabelais’ own paratextual efforts to frame his work, focusing on the paratext that is situated next to the text in printed form. More often, the idea of paratext has been expanded, sometimes vaguely (such as the idea of “cultural paratext” used in Gomel’s Postmodern Science Fiction and Temporal Imagination). Roger Luckhurst has used paratext as a critical device for looking at SF literature, especially the work of J. G. Ballard. He builds on Genette’s idea more concretely: “For Genette, the paratext is that set of framing apparati which includes the framing on and around the text (peritext) and those at more distance (epitext: reviews, interviews, conversations). Since “a text cannot appear in a naked state, unadorned, this edge determines a reading” even if it is just an “auxiliary” one (The Angle Between the Walls, p. 157).

Like many critical terms, “paratext” is more of a lens than a consistent category. Many critics who have used the term work exclusively with texts and productions attached directly to them. Their analyses of the paratext’s role in framing interpretation of the text are very closely related to the text itself. But given Genette’s suggestion that paratext is historically, culturally, and even individually contingent, it may be possible to use it to gain new vantage points on fantastic literature.  In order to apply this idea with more usefulness to fantastika, especially now and in recent history, we need to move past Genette’s initial ideas and consider, as Luckhurst implies, a wider range of discursive methods and products that perform (and allow readers and writers to perform) paratextual acts. To do that requires us to consider what the essence of paratextuality is, and the many ways it manifests in the fantastic field of literary prodution.

I like the conception of paratext that Kristopher Nelson presents in his paper “A Pretext for Writing: Prologues, Epilogues, and the Notion of Paratext.” While he, like Genette, focuses on texts adjacent to the primary text, he states that “paratext is the liminal matter that forms the bridge between the context of a text and the text itself.” What defines paratext is not just proximity to the text, but the invocation of a linkage to the text, an explicit invitation into the text. This can take many different forms. Robert Bee (cited above) looked at this in the context of classic science-fiction periodicals: “Within the science fiction magazines, the paratexts include the editorial comments, the blurbs, the “about the author” text, the illustrations, the cover painting, the letters page, etc.” This extends the bridge further, touching not just on an author, editor, or publisher’s paratextual productions, but those of readers as well. This step opens up the paratext (not entirely unproblematically) into a critical lens that increases its utility for examining fantastika.

To usefully bring the idea of paratext into fantastika we need to conceptualize it more encompassingly and apply it with more creativity and reflexivity. Book reviews, blog posts by authors and fans about specific texts, promotional media, convention panels, author readings, online book clubs, and other forms of discursive engagement could all fall under the rubric of paratext. Certainly there comes a point where the borders get fuzzy, where the line between context and paratext may be hard to discern, but part of the exercise of using paratext as a lens is to discover how these discourses relate directly to a specific text (or texts, as in series, for example). Paratextual acts are those that create that sense of invitation to a work, service as the vestibule that a reader can pass through to a specific text or texts. And in fantastika, perhaps more than other fields of literary production, paratextual acts effect how readers find, read, and receive texts. Fantasika may be a rich field for playing with the idea of paratext, for finding out its potential and pitfalls as a critical idea.

Because criticism itself is a paratextual practice, we cannot think of the framing effects of it as static or monovocal. And with the growth of electronic texts as discrete reading objects, we need to consider if and/or how the paratextual aspects of these texts work and what changes they create both in the reception of texts and in the idea of what paratextual practice is. To look at paratexts in fantastika, we need to look at the social effects that shape them too. This means inculcating more ethnographic sensitivity and grasping why dedicated fans and readers seem so invested in not just reading fantastika, but talking about it and influencing the field. This means understanding practices of identity, commercial pressures, and the circulatory system of texts. It means examining how some texts serve as paratexts to other works. Part of applying the idea of paratext to fantastic literature is figuring out what qualifies as paratextual and how paratextual elements are exchanged and produced in the field. Paratexts are a significant part of the field’s mode of production, both in political-economic and socio-literary terms. We need to examine paratexts are active, sometimes contested, and rarely immutable.

To do this, we need to think of new questions to ask. One potential problem with using paratext to examine fantastika is that we only examine the most obvious linkages and discourses. We look just at authors,  fans, and the commercial system that makes texts available. We have to consider how fantastic texts create their representations and how they help create the other side of the “bridge.” Seo-Young Chu’s book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sheep? tries to examine science-fictional representation as it emerges from a host of texts and creates a revised terminology for understanding how it works.  She briefly invokes paratext to discuss some works (most particularly Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five), but does not develop the idea. What makes her work (which I am still absorbing) suggestive in relation to the idea of paratext that I am advocating is that she see a different set of potential bridges.  What makes SF compelling is not the “sense of wonder” it can generate or its unmooring from reality, but that it creates a sort of lyrical transgression that can dissolve and redefine boundaries.  The dialectic in fantastika between reinforcing and redrawing boundaries may be a dynamic in its paratexts as well as its texts. Thus, one potential new question is how does fantastic literature now just create, but undo stories, preconceptions, and verities? If we want to find that out, we need to do more than just deconstruct texts; we need to understand what draws us to the texts, what influences our reception of them, and how our imaginations use them.

5 thoughts on “The Potential of Paratext in the Criticism of Fantastika”

  1. It’s interesting to consider the role that paratexts have played within individual science fiction novels. Think of the “simulated” paratexts of Asimov’s “Foundation” books (the various ‘Encyclopedia Galactica” excerpts that head the chapters), or Herbert’s “Dune” books (the excerpts from the histories of Princess Irulan, for example). In contrast to that (and I think the contrast is quite deliberate), we have the excerpts from actual, real literary criticism that head the chapters of Samuel Delany’s “Neveryon” books — paratexts that don’t come from within the fictional world of the novels but rather from “outside”, in the “real world” context of the novels.

    1. Hmmm. . . I had forgotten about the chapter openings in Delany. I think that would be fruitful to look at more closely as paratext. But I wonder if we can characterize the other examples as paratext, although the idea of “simulated” sets them off from, er, “real” paratext :-). Do we consider them within the boundary of the text, or do they function as invitations to enter the text? That’s a fascinating question, although my first thought is that they work within the text. They create a different sort of bridge. . . parafictional?

      Thanks for pointing that out!

      1. Hey, did my comment get eaten? Hunh. Lost my train.

        I do like it when paratexts pop up in genre. I think they are an invitation, John, for the reader to even more fully engage with the world in question.

        I recall that the paratexts of Enemy Mine (by Longyear) themselves got fleshed out and published in The Enemy Papers

        1. I think that is point to explore further too; do at least some fantastic stories use paratexts to create verisimilitude and draw the reader further in? Of course, in cases like NEVERYON the use is very different. Hmm. . . .

  2. Hi John,
    I think this paratext idea is very useful, in part because it acknowledges the experience of reading as inherently contextualized but I can also see how very difficult it might be to apply in practice. Where and when would the paratextual line be drawn? I would love to see a paratext history or trail from a variety of readers of what constituted paratext for them for a given “text”. I recently read 1Q84 and I would have a hard time pinning down where to draw the line on the paratexts that I would consider part of my reading experience for that text. (As a side note, the Kindle format I read it on also influences the creation of paratexts involved). Beyond the obvious, Orwell and other Murakami, I would also have to include a wide variety of other speculative fiction and books that discuss the writing of books (If on a winter’s night a traveler) and perhaps Star Wars and the Star Trek I grew up watching since that represented what I thought speculative fiction was for a while. It could be anarchy! But lots of fun…

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