The Margins of Bookishness: Paratexts in Digital Literature

The Margins of Bookishness: Paratexts in Digital Literature

Yra van Dijk (University of Leiden, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6002-1.ch002
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In this chapter, the author approaches the paratexts of digital literature from a post-structuralist point of view, according to which a paratext cannot be seen as simply outside a work but rather collaborates with it and helps shape its place in the world. The paratext is in need of analysis and interpretation as much as the text itself, and even more so in the context of the World Wide Web, in which the paratext has become more hybrid and more widespread. It performs the double action of, on the one hand, disappearing and merging with the text itself and, on the other hand, expanding into an infinite online context. Current critical practice involves focusing only on paratexts that communicate authorial intention directly. Here, that approach will be expanded to take in the “texts” that cluster around a digital text and become part of it, even if there is no authorial consent. The social space in which print literature is printed, sold, bought and taught is partly replaced by these paratexts in digital literature, which is analyzed with concepts borrowed from the sociology of art. The author begins by evaluating the possibilities offered by the theoretical expansion of paratexts within the digital realm. That evaluation leads to the conclusion that, in general, and contrary to standard assumptions, digital-literary artists seem to use traditional rather than disruptive avant-garde strategies. It also gives insights into the ways in which a new and dynamic genre of art is produced, consumed and evaluated.
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Transformations In Digital Paratexts

A text never comes to a reader directly. Various thresholds, in various forms, are found between a work and its reader: “a zone not only of transition but also of transaction, a privileged space of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public” (Genette, 1997, p. 1). In Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation, Genette distinguishes between peritexts, located within a book, and epitexts, outside it. Examples of the latter include an interview with the author, a publisher’s newspaper advertisement and the author’s correspondence. Examples of the former include elements such as a table of contents, the title, dedications, notes and the author’s name. Genette shows how all these elements can contribute to the meaning and status we attribute to the text. Obviously, how this takes place depends heavily on the historical and social contexts in which a work exists.

Genette's (1997) theory of paratext is both broad and narrow: narrow in that he considers paratext to be only that “which is characterized by authorial intention and the assumption of responsibility” (p. 3), but broad in that he, quite contradictorily, holds that context is also paratextual (the genre is paratextual, as is, for example, the periodical in which a work may appear). Moreover, Genette’s definition of responsibility is vague, for he places it with the author or “his associates,” who may be editors, colleagues, or agents.

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