Ebooks and the Digital Paratext: Emerging Trends in the Interpretation of Digital Media

Ebooks and the Digital Paratext: Emerging Trends in the Interpretation of Digital Media

Patrick Smyth (CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6002-1.ch015
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Since its publication in 1987, Gérard Genette's Paratexts has provided a productive means for engaging with those peripheral texts that frame, present, and bound a central work. However, advances in digital media and, in particular, the increasing prevalence of the ebook have altered or replaced many of the conventions outlined by Genette in Paratexts. This chapter explores these new paratextual conventions, employing case studies drawn from the “front lines” of the ebook revolution in concert with more recent scholarship in the field of paratextual studies. By examining the recent development of ebooks through the lens of the five paratextual dimensions outlined by Genette—spatial, temporal, substantial, pragmatic, and functional—this chapter argues that Paratexts continues to offer a crucial tool for the interpretation of texts in a new digital milieu.
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Introduction: Ebooks And The Digital Paratext

In his seminal Seuils (1987), later translated as Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997), Gérard Genette undertakes a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the various elements—forewords, dedications, titles, and so on—that surround and frame a published book. In doing so, he provides precise commentary on the cultural and social conventions that contextualize a written work. According to Genette, paratexts are those items accompanying a book which “surround it and extend it, precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text's presence in the world, its ‘reception’ and consumption in the form...of a book” (p. 1). In recent years, the emergence of the ebook as an increasingly prevalent cultural and commercial force has challenged many of the literary conventions that Genette documented in his landmark work. However, the ephemeral nature of the ebook has given a new importance to the paratext as an arbiter of form—increasingly, digital books depend on paratextual markers for definition as a distinct mode of expression. Without paratexts, the ebook as a form cannot be truly “present in the world,” and an examination of these digital books depends on paratextual markers for definition as a distinct mode of expression.

In this chapter, I will attempt to apply Genette’s landmark work on paratexts to an elusive and paradoxical new medium: the ebook. While the ebook has profoundly altered how texts are produced, published, and consumed, the changes wrought in this space have only served to expand the importance of paratextual boundaries. This chapter will attempt to update Paratexts for a new digital milieu, building on the work of recent scholars, such as Henry Jenkins, Jonathan Gray, and Ellen McCracken, while demonstrating the continued validity of Genette’s own interpretive methods and taxonomy.

In analyzing various paratexts, Genette makes use of a set of features which, when taken together, reveal the function and purpose of the central text. Each section of this chapter will focus on one of these five features, which “describe a paratextual message's spatial, temporal, substantial, pragmatic, and functional characteristics” (1997, p. 4). When taken as a whole, these five paratextual dimensions reveal an author’s intent in publishing a work and provide a context in which a reader can receive and interpret a central text. Some scholars, such as Ellen McCracken, have proposed alternative taxonomies for understanding the changes wrought by the advent of digital books. McCracken’s conception of paratexts along centrifugal and centripetal vectors provides a crucial framework for employing Genettian concepts such as epitext and peritext in today’s commercial digital environment. However, in many cases, analysis of a paratext must go beyond directionality and space to encompass temporal, substantial, pragmatic, and functional considerations. Although there is considerable overlap between these categories, Genette’s original paratextual taxonomy provides a comprehensive epistemological framework for an examination of the changes brought about by the advent of the ebook as a medium.

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