Paratext in Nonfiction Books

If nonfiction is considered a genre of “truth,” how do these authors understand and approach the issue of paratext when their works are published? Paratext sets the authors at a disadvantage, placing the interpretation of their words one step further beyond their control. And in particular with nonfiction, I wonder if the danger of including some elements of paratext, particularly cover art. The truth and meaning of the text belongs, in disparate moments, to the author, and to each reader. Yet the design of any book cover inevitably influences the reader’s understanding—you see before you read.

Joan Didion, one of my favorite authors, is something of an icon in the writing world. At once, a widespread reverence for her talent as a prose writer has given way in recent years to a commercialization of her image and brand. Her crisp taste, her minimalist aesthetic, and ability to simultaneously reflect upon and dismiss the blundesr of her youth are the envy of many a twenty something woman today. The cover of The Everyman’s Library anthology of Joan Didion’s nonfiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, is plastered with the now cliché image of a young Joan leaning out the window of a convertible, looking ill-amused, cigarette dangling loosely from her right hand. This image fails to encompass Didion’s language, narrows her persona, and freezes her in youth. It does not do justice to the full scope of her prose—the breadth and depth of each essay, the deftness of her syntax.

So I wonder whether, for the sake of a genre that is, by definition, grounded in the real, nonfiction books might do better without cover art. If book covers were blank, would people still read? Without titles and cover art? With only words? And yet our visually oversaturated society calls, always, for images. Sometimes, it seems, for pictures before language in a world where the written word is increasingly phasing out of fashion. We cannot realistically afford to eliminate the visual. The connection between images and text and the space between them is flush with meaning. Yet as readers of nonfiction, it seems we are obligated to attempt to access the author’s story in its purest from. We owe it to them not to fictionalize fact.  At root, then, does paratext cheapen nonfiction text?

Cover of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Authorial Audience in Paratext and the Text Itself

Paratext, as we discussed in class, consists of contents other than the main text created by editors, printers, and publishers.  Each example of cover art for Homer’s “The Iliad” gave editions a certain context and would presumably appeal to different audiences.

Each story itself, without its paratext, has an authorial audience, or a group of people who the author intends the story to be read by. A narrator intentionally constructs the lens through which they tell their story, and a writer’s perception of their audience dictates the content that he or she includes.

For example, the book, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, is told through the lens of Christopher, a boy who has an autistic spectrum disorder. He is self-conscious about the pre-existing beliefs and biases that people have about those with special needs. His introspection and elucidation of his experiences, two skills usually not attributed to autistic individuals, disproves peoples’ expectations of him as unintelligent, unobservant, or insensitive. His audience, therefore, becomes  people who are uninformed about and biased towards his disorder. The intention of the author thereby is to educate them.

With this authorial audience intentionally imbedded in the text, I imagine that it would be incredibly frustrating for an author if the cover art wasn’t an appropriate representation. I wonder if the wrong cover could undo the carefully constructed intended audience due to the fact that we are so affected by the visual quality of something. Below is the cover art for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”:

Cover Art of Classics (Romeo & Juliet)

Paratext plays a critical role in shaping viewer’s perceptions of enclosed material in a book before even opening it. As mentioned in class, the range of book covers for Homer’s Iliad spanned from modern and stylized, to archaic and dark. Some were simple and others were heavily symbolized; all of which intended to emit some kind of message and reach a specific audience.

In comparing and analyzing some of the many book covers of Homer’s Iliad in class, I was interested in looking at another classic novel that has various versions of cover art: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. In some of the pictures I have attached below we can see that some paratext highlights a specific symbol, such as the rose (just like some versions of the Iliad emphasize the shield), and others focus on the characters. Some Romeo and Juliet covers are dramatized and serious, while others are playful and romantic.

Is it necessary to continuously remake the covers of classic literature such as the Iliad or Romeo and Juliet? I think it may be. As time progresses and generational interests, norms, and values shift, it is important for editors, publishers, and even marketers to consider what exactly will attract their target audience to a classic work, because a book’s exterior is instantly, maybe even unconsciously, perceived in a judgmental way. If paratext of classic literature continues to adapt to attract certain readers, it will not only benefit the reader, who was intrigued by the artwork and soaked up the content, but the author as well seeing as they made a profit. While I recognize that creating new cover art for classic works can potentially take away from the history or origins of a piece, I believe it is acceptable for creative minds to construct alternate versions of paratext through their own interpretations.

Ekphrastic Hope

W.J.T. Mitchell opens the chapter on ekphrasis by saying “ekphrasis is impossible” because “No amount of description […] adds up to depiction” (Mitchell 152). While it is true that in most cases it is not possible to explain every detail of a visual piece of art so thoroughly that anyone reading the description would be able to perfectly visualize the original work, this fact is what makes the literary genre of ekphrasis so interesting. Presumably, one would only put in the work required to write  poem describing a piece of art if that artwork had a truly profound effect on the poet, made him feel some emotion or appreciation of beauty that he wanted to share in his own way. I find poetic ekphrasis fascinating because it allows a writer to honor a work of art and share it with others while simultaneously making it his own. The general sense of the artwork, or at least the parts the poet finds most significant, can be conveyed in a way unique to the writer.

In writing such a poem, the poet in a way creates an infinite amount of new pieces of art, the ones his readers picture in their minds while reading his work. It is seemingly impossible for any two readers of an ekphrastic poem to visualize the exact same thing, which was demonstrated by our drawings of the Shield of Achilles in class. However, I would not consider this to be an example of a failure of ekphrasis, but rather an instance of the potential it creates for one piece of art to inspire the creation of many more.

Interpretation as an Obstacle to Ekphrasis

I find the concept of ekphrasis rather ambiguous, in that Mitchell states that on a semantical level, there exists essentially no difference between images and language. The same amount of information and meaning can be articulated through speech and through an image. However, the relationship between the two and the degree to  which they correlate with one another becomes the obstacle. In certain cases, an illustration can serve to support a speech or verbal element, as a picture is worth a thousand words. In other cases, the opposite occurs: speech can help better understand an image.

Although this signifies that verbal and pictorial factors are correlated on some level, the exercise we did in class with Achille’s Shield proved that while images and language are able to support one another, they are not a replacement for each other. The exercise demonstrated just how limited the practice of ekphrasis can be. No matter how detailed and descriptive the passage was, there still remained infinite ways to depict the shield because while images are concrete and straight-forward, textual and verbal descriptions leave room for imagination. Hence, interpretation obstructs the practicability of ekphrasis.

Can Ekphrasis Be Applied to Art and Music?

As I read Mitchell’s “Ekphrasis & the Other” I couldn’t help but mutter “duh.” Ekphrasis, which can be simply defined as a verbal representation of a visual, is a practice we students have been using since we learned how to write.

“Hw would you describe this flower?” a teacher may ask, to which we would responds, “It has red petals and a green stem.”

However, the more I read about ekphrasis and the more I began thinking about ekphrasis as a complication or a mixing of representations (image vs. language), I began to wonder what others mixings could be made to create a new perspective. Could I use dance to represent a body of text? What about painting to represent music?

Take for example “Burning Down the House” by Martin Klimas. In this piece of artwork, Klimas chose to visualize sound. More specifically, Klimas reinterpreted the music of Jimi Hendrix into a visual piece. This visual representation of music, called visual music art, is similar to ekphrasis, and how writers turn image into text.

Burning Down the House by Martin Klimas

The result of Klimas’s interpretation (in my opinion) is both striking and beautiful. It gives the viewer a whole new perspective on “Burning Down the House.”

Exploring visual music art helped me better appreciate ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is not just a retelling or a description of an image, it is a reimagination.

The Dimensionality of Ekphrasis

It’s interesting to consider the definition of illustration and how we understand it. When I think the innumerable movie versions of books, it makes me realize how often we interpret ideas across different mediums. From the various covers of the Iliad that range from images from greek pottery to comic strips, it becomes clear that in the realm of written and visual arts, we are very familiar with the interchange of visual and verbal representations. There is a constant dialogue between the two whether we are conscious of it or not and the complex iterations of this dialogue are evident through ekphrasis.  As a verbal representation of a visual object, Ekphrasis provides the reading of the work with another dimension, pulling in issues of identity and culture that make the experience both provocative and personal.

I thought the exercise we did in class with the Shield of Achilles was a very clear illustration of both the limitations and complexities of ekphrasis. Although it’s a passage filled with incredible description and vivid imagery, it became clear with the variety of interpretations and illustrations that it didn’t necessarily conform the images we saw in our minds. Quite the opposite, it seemed as if the complexity of detail actually resulted in even more interpretations of the shield.  Whats even more interesting is how the ekphrasic passage allowed us all to make into reality an object that never existed in reality.  And this perhaps speaks to the limitations of art forms that don’t hinder the written word. When we see a picture there is little left to imagination but, as in the case of the shield, any one description can result in any number of imaged interpretations.

Judging a book by its cover

It is interesting to consider the concept of paratext in terms of how the editors, printers, and publishers choose to illustrate the text. It is especially fascinating to me that the authors of a book are relatively uninvolved in the creation and selection of their cover art. Covers of books are the selling point, the image that draws us in as readers, and whether we like to admit it or not, we do judge books on their covers. So why are authors often detached from this process?

A book cover is a marketing tool; it is ultimately designed to engage and more importantly, sell. Even if the cover doesn’t represent the text in the way the author intended, the cover is still illustrating something, thus it will always convey meaning. This makes the cover art away to convey a text’s meaning in addition to the author’s text, giving this form of paratext even more power in its affect on the audience.

I experienced this inconsistency in meaning on a smaller scale this past winter break. My dad recently decided to self-publish a novel he had written, and hired one of his friends, a graphic designer, to produce cover art for the novel. I had read the book a while back, and saw the final copy this past month. The cover art, in my opinion, poorly represented the meaning I found in the book when I read it. While the art itself was relevant to the plot of the novel, I felt the stylized nature of the images gave off a vibe that I felt was inconsistent with the story. My point is that everybody has a unique reaction to a text, and no one’s interpretation will be exactly the same. Cover art serves a purpose, to pull in the reader, and everybody has their own tastes and opinions about what serves this purpose the best. The intersection between paratext and illustration poses a conflict of interest between the marketing tools of materials supplemental to text and the author’s intent of the meaning their text should convey.

Banksy + Metapictures

After class this morning, I left wanting to look at more Banksy graffiti art. Whether you believe graffiti is vandalism or not, the artistry and commentary behind Banksy’s work is both relevant and inspiring.

Metapictures, as defined by Mitchell in Picture Theory, are “pictures that refer to themselves or to other pictures; pictures that are used to show what a picture is” (Mitchell 35). In class, we discussed how Banksy creates artwork that seamlessly utilizes the exterior world as part of the display. These meta-“graffitis” are incredible to analyze. After class, I found this Banksy image online:

This Banksy creation was done on the side of a house near the UK Government Communications Headquarters. Three men dressed in trench coats “wait” patiently next to a telephone booth with recorders, microphones, and camera equipment. To me, the artwork seems to suggest a lack of privacy. Potentially, even deeper, commenting on encroaching government surveillance… especially due to it’s location. Not only does this piece kind of make me laugh (as it’s pretty comical to envision yourself going into the telephone booth), it also makes me think critically about government surveillance. Are we being watched at every turn?

By simply incorporating the outside world (aka the telephone booth) into the piece, Banksy successfully creates a metapicture worth talking about.

The Ambiguity of Ekphrasis

Melissa Watts's "How to Paint a Sigh"

As we discussed in class, ekphrasis refers to the verbal description of a work of art.  The image/text relationship is characterized as the self/other relationship.  One one hand we have an image that is supposed to concretely express something visual, while on the other we have the context, perspective, and cultural implications of the text.  Sometimes there is the threat that ekphrasis will never be fully capable of describing an image (ekphrastic fear), other times ekphrasis can help us “sense” an image to make it more real (ekphrastic hope), while in other cases it is neutral (ekphrastic indifference).

These different relationships between an image and text mirrors how we view other people.  People can experience fear in the idea that we are all one unit (humanity).  We can also feel hope in the sense that we are not alone.  Lastly we may be apathetic to our relations with others.  Viewing and discussing images and text is then, in a sense, like taking a psychology class.  Our opinions may be colored by our view on the world, or how we wish the world to be.  They may differ from visual to visual, or we may consistently wish for a particular relationship.  I am curious to see this theory practiced in class!