Guide to Literary Terms

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What is paratext and how does it serve as a function of the text?

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Paratext is all the matter that surrounds the text on the page; it includes the format of the text itself, such as the font used and the point size of the type. It encompasses cover art, what is put on the back cover of a book, illustrations, footnotes, introductions, prefaces,...

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Paratext is all the matter that surrounds the text on the page; it includes the format of the text itself, such as the font used and the point size of the type. It encompasses cover art, what is put on the back cover of a book, illustrations, footnotes, introductions, prefaces, and afterwords: any part of the produced work that is not the words of the main text itself.

The paratext of a work influences how we receive it. We are likely, for example, to take more seriously a book that is printed on good paper with a high-quality cover than a book printed on shoddy paper with cheap cover art. Even in cyberspace, the layout of a website or a book influences how we react to it and if we will return to it.

As it happens, I just yesterday participated in a webinar on Harlem Renaissance writers, black writers of the 1920s and early 1930s who lived or worked in Harlem, New York. The main presenter spent a good deal of time talking about paratext. For example, she noted that anthologies that include a variety of poems from different Harlem Renaissance poets tend to standardize these poems and enshrine them as all equally good and equally classic. Poems that were originally printed on different paper and in different fonts appear in an anthology in the same font, on the same paper: therefore, to get a better sense of how a poem first appeared, it can be helpful to go back to a first edition. An expensively produced anthology by a prominent publisher can make works that were first highly marginal appear as if they were always mainstream and accepted.

This speaker showed the kind of flimsy paper and cheap stapling holding together the periodicals in which some of these poems first appeared, underscoring that many of these works were produced on shoestring budgets with little hope that the authors would achieve lasting fame.

Thinking about all the issues surrounding a text can be interesting and illuminate our understanding of literature.

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Paratext combines the prefix para- (meaning beyond or adjacent to) and the root text referring to the written word. Thus, beyond the written word. In the case of literature, paratext refers to everything that constitutes a book that is not the story itself. The cover is an obvious example of paratext. The art on the cover of a book will place the reader in a certain frame of mind prior to reading. The font and font size of the title will also impact the mood of the reader. Any quotes about the text or the author will give the reader certain thoughts and expectations regarding the text. Furthermore, the method and style in which the story is printed on the pages alters the reader's interpretation of the text. Even the type of paper that the book is printed on can lead the reader to respond differently to a text. All of this is paratext.

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