QofR: Materiality in literary theory

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

The first thing that came to mind when reading the question ‘How can materiality enhance an end user/audience experience?’ was a literary theory I’d studied as part of a module on textual transmission and the history of the book. In his 1997 work Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, Gérard Genette posits that literary works cannot exist as bodiless narratives, communicated in a raw state from author to reader. He states:

A literary work consists, entirely or essentially, of a text, defined (very minimally) as a more or less long sequence of verbal statements that are more or less endowed with significance. But this text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, reinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations. […] the paratext is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public.

There is a general idea that the words we read have an immaterial primacy that remains unaffected by their physical reality (the book) or their related presentation (reviews, author interviews, book displays). We very rarely consciously consider these costumes, other than to admire a nice cover design or a fancy dust jacket. But that’s not to say that our reading experience isn’t affected by these features, or that these features aren't worth paying attention to.

For example, when students study WW1 poetry at school there are hours spent researching the ‘contextual information’ of the poetry itself: pacifism, trench warfare and Craig Lockhart. But it’s rare that students consider how these poems got to be where they are, and how they became imbued with the cultural capital necessary to include them on a syllabus a century later. How often are students encouraged to consider the manner in which the textbooks the poetry inhabits, reinforce their status as syllabus-worthy? (Think: supplementary footnotes, an index or further reading list, and large margins to house reader response.) Or how we would think of these poems if we first encountered them within a jingoistic contemporary newspaper, or via a blogpost adorned with clipart poppies concerning the centenary of the war?

Between the ‘text’ and the ‘book’ sit a multitude of specialists - editor, critic, illustrator, publisher, marketing exec, bookseller and printer: individuals that leave their mark within, what Genette refers to as, the ‘paratextual elements’ of the book. Para-text because these elements extend, surround and augment a text. These are the marginalia of production: title page, blurb, review, inclusion on a book club, shortlist for a prize, Amazon algorithm, acknowledgements page etc. Each element is the result of a choice made by someone, which in turn acts as ‘a threshold’ to the text. These ‘book producers’ add their layers of signification to an author’s work long before we (the readers) even reach the opening line.

So it is, that before we reach that opening line, we have an understanding of whether a book is fiction or fact, and, if the former, what kind of genre it falls into. Often, we’ll know what age group it is aimed at and when it was written. We may even have an idea if it is considered ‘high’ or ‘low brow’, or politically left- or right-wing.

According to Genette, a text without a paratext does not exist. Even a manuscript from the Middle Ages, devoid of ‘any formula of presentation’, has, due to ‘the sole fact of transcription' some degree of materialisation. (Interestingly, he also suggests paratexts without texts can exist – think of the lost or aborted works which we know nothing about except their titles, or the critical discourse that conjectures how they were lost.) Simply put, the materiality of a text - let's call it the text made book - is of critical importance to the audience's experience of that text, more than that, it is inseparable from it.

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