Prologues and Prefaces – Let’s Consider Paratexts

Gerard Genette 

Building a novel, a writer would begin building scenes that interconnect. You create characters and conflict and your drive these elements to something that is powerful and meaningful. So, it feels strange to suggest that writers want to say something or create something outside of the narrative, before we even start reading the novel.

Prologues seem to off set the beginning of a narrative. How many prologues have really been first chapters and things that need to be woven into the narrative? In the book Paratext: Thresholds of interpretation by Gerard Genette, he explains, “The term prologue, which in ancient drama designates everything that, in the play itself, precedes the entrance of the chorus, must not mislead us: its function is not to make a presentation, but still less to comment, but to provide an exposition in the dramatic sense of the work, the most often in the form of a character’s monologue.” He explains the history and purpose of the prologue in terms of the shape and style of the “paratext” elements. And the fact that he discusses this so much as a paratext (text outside the principle text) suggests that he sees these prologues and prefaces as something hard to handle. 

The most important point that he makes is once we make an impression upon a reader, or we create a signpost, we are imposing upon the reader to see the story one way. An example is an introduction from Borges, which “is offered somewhat as the key to a riddle… it is Borges revealing, in the prologue of Artifices, that “‘Funes, the Memorious’ … is a long metaphor for insomnia.” Impossible after that to read the story without having the authorial interpretation hang over your reading, compelling you to take a position, positive or negative, in relation to it.” (224) Are we positioning the reader? Are we blatantly telling the reader that this will be purpose and point without allowing the reader to form their own interpretation of the text? This is an unfair position to put a reader into before reading a book.

Explaining or bringing out the meaning or vision of the story in a kind of preface or prologue has other issues. When I am sitting in a reading the writer (before reading) has this long preamble about the story, I feel like I am hearing about something of a patch or a fix that isn’t clear in the writing. I don’t mind if they pick a chapter in the middle and have to explain what happened before. But to have a writer create a caveat to the story: warning, you will need to have some stipulations and conditions placed on you so this will go better for you. That doesn’t work in a reading and I think the preface or the prologue can fall into caveats. “The main disadvantage of a preface is that it constitutes an unbalanced and even shaky situation of communication: its author is offering the reader an advance commentary on a text the reader has not yet become familiar with.”(237). Sometimes, new writers are simply telling us that the novel will be about this theme or about this idea. This undermines the purpose of the novel, to building something that reader must connect from beginning to end. 

It feels like some of the modern versions of prologues and prefaces are based in a sense that readers can’t possibly understand this amazing world that I’ve thought up, so I need to tell you some interesting things. Again, lazy writing. If a novel is an immersion into something new — why are you telling me something that you can’t show me in the novel. Many people will say, because it came in the novel before. If your novel speaks to previous novels — do the work and weave that information into the stories. 

Part of the fascination with prologues and prefaces might come around the idea of film making, and visual storytelling. How many times have we started a show or film and they show something — a scene, a weapon, the wreckage and then run the titles, only to go back in time and tell us how we got there. Common film technique and speaks to the way stories are told. But it is still an element of the story. When prologues and prefaces get confusing, it is because they are outside the narrative or forcing ideas on us before we even get into the story. Assuming a reader is paying for your book, has the ability to read critically, and wants to immerse into a novel — then why force them to see it your way before the story starts?

In some cases, (nonfiction, short story collections, anthologies, and translations), there may be a specific need to an introduction, prologue, or preface in terms of the design and collection of what is in the book. Some writers create a preface as a response to printing or publishing the book after a long period of time. Or perhaps it is a slightly different version and some discussion around that is important. I will leave introductions out of this conversation because most of the introductions to books I’ve read a written by scholars as reference to the book. I typically leave the introduction until I finish the book and then go back and read the scholarly context of the introduction. There are exceptions and if you read (please do) the experimental novel House Of Leaves and don’t read the introduction you will never figure out what is happening. Some of the content might be historical context, translation notes, or other para-text information. I am referring to focused story elements sitting outside the novel. 

Agents and publishers who looks at thousands of proposals and samples don’t tend to like this preamble. And many readers would say, just make this the first chapter. Are these elements inside or outside the narrative? Are they unnecessary fixes or tools that just make writing easier? What if we all wrote prologues and then when we finished the book, took them out, like a metronome for a musician. We don’t hear the tick-tock of time keeping because it is inherent in the music, but it might have been there to help start the shape and vision of the music.

Lastly, I am not a hater of these elements, but I feel like they should be discussed in terms of outside or inside the narrative and how we should be trusting readers, trusting good storytelling, and trusting people to understand the dynamic vision you have. Question those things we set up to get started and maybe we can just turn them off like metronome now that we clearly know and hear the music.

Genette, Gerard, and Jane E. Lewin. “Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation (literature, culture, theory).” Cambridge: Univ. Pr (1997).

Note: This is a fascinating book about things that surround the main body of the books. I have referred to this book a lot. 

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