On Paratext: An Essay Near Knowing

Note: This post is an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat, 2016).

On Paratext

Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

The first context in which I heard the word “paratext” spoken aloud was, of all things, a speedrun. For his contribution to Summer Games Done Quick 2018, FoldableHuman (a.k.a. Dan Olson) played through the notoriously bad survival-horror game Amy. Whereas most speedrunners, based on the limited sample of such runs I’ve watched, focus their commentary on the mechanical aspects of playing the game quickly, FoldableHuman made his run a presentation on the narrative and thematic aspects of the work. Notably, during a tedious-to-play-through segment of Chapter 3, he took the time to discuss how the game’s title character, a young girl who the player-character must shepherd through a sudden zombie apocalypse, is coded as being on the autism spectrum. Amy’s autism is not explicitly mentioned in the game itself, though her in-game behavior may suggest it. Rather, one finds evidence in the game’s paratext.

Paratext—that which is around the text, above and beyond it—refers to the collection of ancillary texts which frames the main text, which attracts and transitions the audience into it. Sometimes the paratext is attached to the text itself, as in the title of a poem, or a video game’s packaging. Other times it’s disconnected, obscure, even private: an advertisement, say, or the artist’s personal correspondence. In the case of the Amy speedrun, FoldableHuman cites the existence of marketing materials and interviews with the developers as evidence that the title character should be understood as being on the autism spectrum. As such, it is fair to criticize the game for how it depicts people in that community—its paratext invites that discussion.

Since watching that speedrun, the word “paratext” has been on my tongue a great deal. There are two reasons for this, I suspect. The first is that I find “paratext” to be a fun word, a word which at the same time evokes the fantastical and the mundane. On the one hand, it calls to mind such words as “paranormal” and “parapsychology,” terms which suggests worlds and ways of knowing beyond everyday experience. After all, one must often dig beyond the naked text to find the paratext. On the other hand, paratext has a certain “parenthetical” quality to it. A phrase enclosed by parentheses is implied to be digressive, expendable, interesting as trivia but not essential to the main argument. The oddity (the paradox?) of parentheses is that, by their visual appearance, they call attention to what they’re supposed to close off. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if covers were pointless would publishers bother including them?

The second is that I want to write an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Among the devices which Blanchfield uses frequently, especially at the beginning of essays, is meditating on a word, discussing its etymology and drawing out its implications. I feel that to write a successful Blanchfield imitation, I need a suitable word, and “paratext” is the best that I’ve come up with. It’s semi-obscure, and even better, I think that acknowledging paratext would have some thematic resonance with Blanchfield’s book.

To start with the title, that omnipresent example of paratext, the book is called Proxies and subtitled Essays Near Knowing, both of which suggest something that can only be approached indirectly, or partially. “This book will be exploratory,” the title tells us, and we may see the paratext surrounding it as a guidebook, a map, for that exploration. Moving to the book as a physical object, we find a rather minimalist display: the title and the author’s name in white text, printed on a black field. No cover image, no exciting typeface—this is a book where language, and by that I mean pure language, has primacy over the visual, or the visual rendered through text. (I’ve been tempted to include some visuals in this blog post—a picture of the book, an embed of the archived Amy speedrun—but to do so, I believe, would violate the spirit of Blanchfield’s work.)

Turning Proxies over to the back cover, we find the kind of paratext I most associate with poetry collections and literary prose: the blurb. Blurbs from critics or established writers are a standard part of book marketing, but my preferred genres raise the blurb to a vacuous artform. The literary blurb attempts to canonize a given book through sheer grandiosity, as though every collection were the First Folio and every friend and former teacher tasked with writing one, Ben Jonson. My senior year of undergrad, I complained to my thesis advisor about the blurb-industrial complex, and as a result he lent me a copy of Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of quasi-sonnets, whose sole blurb is a generic commendatory letter from Paul Ryan, Desmke’s representative in Congress, on winning a poetry prize. I have to assume Ryan never read the book, though most blurbs are so generic, who’s to say that’s not the case from writers as well?

Personally, I’ve stopped reading the content of blurbs. I merely skip to the attribution line now, and use my knowledge of the blurb-writers’ own works as a proxy for what the text in question will be like. If Brenda Shaughnessy likes a book, my thought process goes, I might enjoy the book; if Graham Foust likes it, I should stay away. In the case of Proxies, Blanchfield received a blurb from Claudia Rankine, the poet behind Citizen: An American Lyric, which I first read for an informal book club while at Johns Hopkins; Maggie Nelson, whom I have heard of but have never read; and two others whose names were wholly foreign to me. Not the ideal line-up of writers for me to make a judgment, but Rankine’s name may have sold me on Proxies had I come to the text naively. Whereas the cover design draws my attention to the book’s language, Rankine’s endorsement primes me for a book of social engagement, one which will be sympathetic to or in the voice of marginalized groups.

Further down the back cover, one finds the name of the publisher: Nightboat Books. For a giant publishing house, the presence of the name means very little to the reader; it’s hard to say what exactly the HarperCollins brand means. For small presses, though, there’s more often a distinct house “style.” In the case of Nightboat, the name signifies a level of formal inventiveness and academic density. I’ve had a mixed history with Nightboat’s catalog. On the one hand, I greatly admired Jill Magi’s Labor, which combined poetry with prose narratives and instruction manuals to comment on the contemporary state of the academic worker. It was a book I pulled at random from the Hopkins library stacks, and I’ve considered finding it to be among my happiest accidents. On the other hand, I found Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue to be needlessly opaque, a work whose whole text reads more like paratext. I read it for the same book club for which I read Citizen, and I contributed nothing to that particular discussion. I’m certain that had I done so, it would have come out as little more than frustrated rage.

At certain moments, in hindsight, I suspect my hostile reaction to Kapil’s work was grounded less in aesthetics than in my own insecurities. I was the youngest member of our cohort at Johns Hopkins, the one person who came straight from undergrad, and I feared at the book club that I was also the person least versed in contemporary developments in poetics. While I had read some late 20th- and 21st-century poetry in writing workshops, almost all the poetry I had studied in a critical context was early modern: Chaucer, the Renaissance dramatists. Kapil’s book demanded a fundamentally different background to understand it, perhaps, and it is so much easier for readers to blame the book than themselves.

Nightboat tends to publish authors who the Johns Hopkins English Department would invite to give poetry readings. I was a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, whose taste in poetry is traditional, canonical, formalist. The English Department, on the other hand, prefers that which is contemporary, subversive, experimental. At least, so go the stereotypes. I’m told that there is a rivalry, if not outright hostility, between the two departments, although just about every interaction I had with the English department, faculty and students both, was at least cordial and oftentimes friendly. Indeed, I knew one of the English doctoral candidates from my time at Carnegie Mellon. (To a certain, the grad students in both departments had to get along, as we shared a common workspace.)

It was at one of the English Department poetry readings that I first became aware of Proxies. In effect, if not in fact, this was the primary paratext that brought me to Blanchfield’s work. It was a Friday in late October 2016, right after our readings class for the week had let out. (Indeed, my colleagues and I had to hustle downstairs and down the hall to make in on time, because our class ran long.) The room was pretty packed compared to the other readings in the series, and in my opinion the crowd’s presence was more than justified. Blanchfield’s presentation was engaging, but natural, never self-consciously performative. His choice of essay to read showcased the breadth of his powers as a writer, offering something to audience members of all aesthetic stripes. I dare say it was the best reading I saw while at Hopkins, certainly the best out of the English Department.

In one crucial sense, though, the reading was a disappointment. The event was advertised as being a poetry reading—even reading the text comes with paratext—but it seems the people in charge of booking writers for the series neglected to tell Blanchfield that. He did what writers are wont to do at such events: read from the book he was trying to promote. To the extent that was his goal, it worked. In the parlance of the book blogging world, Proxies immediately went onto my TBR afterwards. Had I been a fan of his verse, I may well have been put out by that turn of events. But then again, if what is delivered is engaging, who cares about the packaging? Paratext is merely suggestion, not a contract, right?

The place where the concept of “paratext,” as I’ve been discussing it, feels most relevant to Proxies is also the place where I’m least certain the term applies: the introduction laying out the project. The conceit, or less charitably the gimmick, of Blanchfield’s book is that all the information presented in each essay is based solely on his memory. He makes no use of search engines to find facts; he doesn’t return to books to verify how he paraphrases their points. (To paraphrase, that is, to speak around what has been said.) Instead, he includes a lengthy section at the back of the book called “Correction,” where he corrects whatever mistakes he subsequently finds in the essays, for instance, how he attributes Plato’s mistrust of poets to Aristotle.

Is that introduction paratext? I’m not certain. An introduction does constitute part of a book’s front matter, alongside (para-) such elements as dedications, epigraphs, and the table of contents: all clear instances of paratext. But that page-and-a-half of preamble is so integral to understanding the essays as a collection that deeming it above, beyond or around the main text doesn’t capture its significance. Or is the correction section the truly integral part of the text, and the introduction merely the explanatory link between the essays and the corrections? I’m alas a poet, and one not especially fluent in literary theory. I’m not qualified to discuss these topics. I have just used the format of Blanchfield’s essays to give myself permission to do so.

In fairness, I’d argue that’s also what Blanchfield’s essays do for the author himself. From their titles, their paratext, one might assume his essays are technical and detached. They have names like “On Propositionizing,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Leave.” And, true, many start out that way. But those high-minded concepts are really entry points, permission, to discuss more intimate matters. “On Frottage,” the piece he read at Johns Hopkins, begins with an exploration of queer sexual terminology before transitioning to his life as a gay man in 1990s New York, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “On Peripersonal Space,” my pick for the collection’s best essay, uses the title concept as a metaphor for Blanchfield’s formerly tight, now strained relationship with his mother.

I’ve done nothing quite so bold or naked here, though I believe thinking through this piece has allowed me to reflect on my time at Johns Hopkins. I find myself at a transitional point in my professional life, and I’m still unsure of how to process everything that has happened in the past few years. (Certainly “On Dossiers” has scared me off of pursuing academia, at least in the near term.) Perhaps I have latched onto paratext over text because it represents the point before commitment, the last experience before actual experience. It is the perfect element for someone who is only “near knowing” at time of composition.

Correction.

In FoldableHuman’s Amy commentary, he does not use the exact word “paratext,” but rather its adjectival form: “There is no direct reference to autism in the game, but there are paratextual references to it. It was used in interviews, in promotional materials for the game. The developers did highlight this aspect of it.”

In addition to the title, subtitle, and author’s name, the front cover of Proxies also includes, in small print and curly brackets, the phrase “a reckoning.” Neither the other paratextual elements nor Nightboat’s website indicate that this phrase is an additional subtitle. Rather, it appears to serve a similar function as the phrase “Poems” or “A Novel”—identifying the genre of a work while suggesting it possesses an aura of literary quality, the sort of paratext that brings not the reader, but a particular kind of reader, to the text.

According to Goodreads, I first placed Proxies on my to-read shelf on October 7, 2016, which would hardly qualify as “late” in the month.

Recommended Author: Álvaro Enrigue

Álvaro Enrigue first came to my attention while I was assembling materials for my sports literature course. I was looking for a strong piece of fiction to round out the week on tennis, and came across Pooja Makhijani’s list of recommended tennis books at Electric Literature. Both the brief plot description and the strikingly simple cover of Enrique’s novel Sudden Death (trans. Natasha Wimmers, Riverhead, 2016) immediately caught my eye, and as luck would have it the JHU library had a copy in its collection. I checked it out, and was soon transfixed.

Sudden DeathSudden Death is, by design, a difficult novel. The central action of Sudden Death is a fictional tennis match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio. Although, when I say “tennis,” I don’t mean the modern form of the game, the sort we associate with Roger Federer and Serena Williams, but rather the much older game of real tennis, which only passingly resembles the current version of the sport. A major challenge of the novel is figuring out the rules of real tennis; for example, serves had to bound off the roof of the spectator’s gallery to be valid. This fact makes the match itself difficult to follow, but also gives the proceedings the manic energy of a duel—which, we learn as the novel progresses, is exactly what this tennis match is.

But the duel between Quevedo and Caravaggio is really a mechanism for framing various digressions into history and politics, from the execution of Anne Boleyn to Spanish colonial administration in the Americas. It’s a novel that deliberately blurs the boundary between fact and fiction: presenting actual contemporary documents alongside fabricated ones, slowly stretching historical anecdotes before one starts questioning their veracity. For instance, it is true that Jean Rombaud was the executioner summoned from France to behead Anne Boleyn, but it is not true that he had tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.

I will admit that, while I admire Sudden Death greatly, it’s a difficult novel to love. The research (and the “research”) can overwhelm the book at points, and the narration tends to distance the reader from the characters. It’s the sort of novel that will inspire you to write a thesis, but it’s not as likely to give you an emotionally transcendent experience. Fortunately, for those wanting a smidgen of sentiment with their stories, a new essay by Enrique will have you covered.

Recently published on ESPN’s website, Enrique’s latest piece explores his ever-changing relationship with baseball, from his childhood in Mexico, when he roots for the Cafeteros de Córdoba but can never see them play at their home park, to his adulthood in the United States, where he takes his son to as many Baltimore Orioles games as possible. While Enrique’s love of baseball never leaves him, what the game means to him evolves as he goes through life. It’s a wonderfully thoughtful exploration of sports fandom.

Though certainly not to the extent as in Sudden Death, history and politics play a role in his newest essay as well. His family’s support of the Cafeteros mark them as provincials in the more cosmopolitan Mexico City, and economic crises compel him to leave Mexico, and Mexican baseball, behind. But in this piece, personal reflections reign supreme, even when they take on some philosophical significance. Consider this passage on the sports fan’s greatest virtue, loyalty:

I think it’s impossible to change teams once one has made a decision: You can admire some generation of players or develop a deep respect or even some care for a franchise, but your team is your team because it becomes fixed in your brain at an age when small things are huge. Once, talking about soccer, the late Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia—an unbiased, philosophical, and quiet man—told me in an unexpected rapture of passion: “Only perverts change teams.”

Or take the essay’s conclusion, after Enrique and his son go to their last O’s game before the latter goes off to college:

Childhood is a planet with a population of one person, but on a very few lucky days, our memories and those of our children cross paths, like in an eclipse. That day I came out of Camden Yards understanding something that took me years to grasp: that loyalty to a team can be a two-direction road. We inherit objects of devotion from our parents, but sons and daughters leave a legacy for us too. The Coffee Drinkers stand untouched in the crystal box of my memory, but the Baltimore Orioles are my team. They are the unexpected bequest of my son.

Erudite and perceptive, bold and direct, Enrigue is a writer I’m glad to have found, and I eagerly await more of his work. I hope this short piece will encourage you to check him out, too.

If, after looking up Enrigue, you want more reading recommendations, I recently discussed Stephen King’s 1990 essay “Head Down,” which, coincidentally, is also about children and baseball.

A Journey Through Tudor England: A Brief Review

A Journey Through Tudor EnglandWritten by Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb and published by Pegasus in 2013, A Journey Through Tudor England positions itself as part general-audience history, part travel guide. Covering fifty sites of interest from West Sussex to West Yorkshire, Lipscomb uses each site as jumping-off point to discuss various people and events of the Tudor era.

A Journey Through Tudor England is a book with multiple audiences in mind. In the introduction, Lipscomb says her book “is designed to be a companion both to the visitor to these fifty sites, and to the historical visitor to the Tudor period” (p. 3). The back cover, meanwhile, declares this a work for “the armchair traveler or for those looking to take a trip back to the colorful time of Henry VIII and Thomas More.” Based on these descriptions, I can see three intended readerships:

  1. People with a general interest in Tudor history
  2. People planning a visit to various Tudor sites
  3. People who would like to visit those sites but are unable to do so

Each group will want different things from the text. The history buffs will want to hear about the significance of each site, the stories of the people who were there, etc. The vacation planners will want to know what to look for when they make their trip. And the “armchair travelers” will want some sense of what experiencing these sites is like. (These groups are not mutually exclusive, of course; people hoping to see historical sites presumably have some interest in history.)

Three readerships can be difficult to balance, and some of Lipscomb’s descriptions do a better job of it than others. On the positive side, the beginning of her section on Broad Street in Oxford is exemplary:

In the centre of Broad Street in Oxford, outside Balliol College, an unceremonious small cross of cobblestones set in the middle of the tarmac road marks the site of the 1555 and 1556 burnings of the ‘Oxford martyrs’: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, formerly the bishops of Worcester and London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This inconspicuous reminder, together with the doors of Balliol College that were scorched by the fire and that now hang between the front and garden quadrangles, testify to the ugly side of the revival of Roman Catholicism in England when Mary I came to the throne. (p. 113)

This brief passage serves the needs of all three intended readerships. It establishes the historical significance of the site, which the rest of the section elaborates on: the executions of three prominent Protestant clergymen. It also draws attention to the particular items of interest: the cobblestone cross and the flame-licked doors. A visitor to Broad Street, after reading this paragraph, would know what to look for and why it matters.

As for the armchair traveler, Lipscomb manages to give the reader the sense of experiencing the site. Her prose emphasizes movement through the location. It begins with a general location, situating the reader in space: on Broad Street, outside Balliol College. The author then directs the reader’s gaze further into the site, down to the cobblestone cross. This is the exact manner in which one would experience such a simple memorial, coming across it while walking by. Then, once the mind has taken in the cross (and absorbed its import), it moves up and away from the street, to the scorched doors. It’s not quite a virtual tour, but it’s still an effective description.

What I most admire in the above passage is its efficiency. Lipscomb hits all her marks (history, handbook, and description) in just over 100 words, and both sentences serve multiple purposes. Even the listing of the martyrs, which is purely historical information, finishes the sentence introducing the cobblestone cross. The whole paragraph is a whirlwind to read, with all three elements swirling at once. Other than a brief mention of the Victorian-era monument to the martyrs nearby, the rest of the section is entirely devoted to history. But that first paragraph is so dense, every kind of reader can leave satisfied.

Alas, not every section is so successful. More typical is the section on the City of London’s Guildhall, which begins thusly:

Guildhall, which is situated at the centre of the City’s square mile on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, is one of London’s great survivors. It was the only secular building to escape the Great Fire of London in 1666 and it survived the Blitz in 1940, though in both instances it lost its roof and windows. In the fifteenth century, it was the second largest edifice in London, after the Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the formidable Great Hall and undercroft date from that period. It is now on its fifth roof designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to recreate what the medieval roof may have looked like, but everything beneath window-height is to the design of the original master mason, John Croxton, who built the Great Hall between 1411 and 1430. It is Gothic perpendicular in style, and an impressive 151 feet long, 48 feet wide and 89 feet high. The five-foot-thick walls may partially explain its durability. (p. 39)

This opening paragraph is longer than the one introducing Oxford’s Broad Street, yet it doesn’t accomplish as much. The history of the building comes through, albeit in a somewhat scattered fashioned, and the text does mention the highlights of the building. But as for giving the reader a sense of experiencing the building, it falls short. For one thing, the spatial movement implied here is odd, going from exterior (“lost its roof and windows”) to interior (“Great Hall and undercroft”), then back to exterior (the restored roof) and then back to interior (the Great Hall, again). For another, the details are either too general (“Gothic perpendicular” describes rather many buildings) or just not evocative (the Great Hall’s dimensions, which are difficult to scale in the mind).

Further, this first paragraph doesn’t even mention the main piece of history Lipscomb wishes to discuss: the life of Lady Jane Grey. Guildhall has clear significance in her life, as it was the site of her trial (as well as, by coincidence, Thomas Cranmer’s trial). But whereas Broad Street was central to the Oxford martyr’s story, with Lipscomb devoting many paragraphs to the events at that site, Guildhall feels tangential to Lady Jane’s ordeal. It reads as though the author just needed to discuss Lady Jane somewhere in book, rather than needing to tell the reader about Guildhall.

So where does all this leave a potential reader? Well, it goes back to the three intended audiences. A Journey Through Tudor England does an adequate job addressing the needs of the history buff and the vacation planner, but I think drops the ball as far as the armchair traveler is concerned. So ask yourself: “Which audience am I a part of?”

N.B. This book was originally published in the UK under the title A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England.