Paratexts and/as posters

A recent call for papers for the Early Modern Paratexts conference at the University of Bristol has set me thinking about the way paratexts work in my own research area.  Gerard Genette, whose 1987 work offers a seminal theoretical engagement with paratexts, defines it in usefully broad terms as

more than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or – a word Borges used apropos of a preface – a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back (1-2)

Considering that ‘the paratext, then, is empirically made up of a heterogeneous group of practices and discourse of all kinds…’ (2), we can think of all spaces in a printed book that mediate between the reader and the textual content proper as paratextual.

Yet, recent work in early modern studies has suggested that Genette’s linguistic approach limits our understanding of the way these thresholds function, and especially their contemporary significances for an early modern reader.  In the recent collection Renaissance Paratexts, the editors Helen Smith and Louise Wilson remind us that a material approach to bibliography can also shed light on what paratexts do and how they do it; combining approaches, Smith and Wilson acknowledge that the ‘physical and temporal separation’ often present in early modern prefaces and other material ‘allows many early modern paratexts to be highly self-reflexive, commenting on the quality of printing contained in the book they accompany, or on the processes and accidents of production’ (3).

Considering this physical aspect to paratextual material, it is unsurprising that the tension between the paratext-heavy books of the period and the lighter, more ephemeral forms of popular print exists, at least on some level, in the physical domain.  If we consider broadside printing and single-sheet satires as ‘straws’ – light, disposable things – as John Selden does (Table Talk 105), then paratexts provide a useful contrast with the stony presence of the printed book.  Richard Brathwaite’s The English Gentleman (1630) offers us an example; in his preface, he critiques the public advertisement, a broadside poster offering teaching services:

…not like your begging pedanticall Artist, who by a mercenary Bill pasted on some frequented gate, gives notice to the itching Passenger, that if any one be minded to learne the rare and mysterious Art of Brachygraphie, Stenographie, Logarisme, or any Art (indeed) whatsoever, (though he be a mere stranger to any) upon resort to such a Sign in such a Lane, he shall find a most illiterate Anacharsis, ready to bray his brains in a Morter to give him content. (The English Gentleman ¶2r-v).

During recent research in the Lemon collection at the Society of Antiquaries’ Library, London, I was introduced to a wealth of fascinating broadsheets, including one exactly like Brathwaite’s ‘mercenary Bill’.  It advertises ‘the professors of…Artes &c. Readie to do their diligent endeuours for a reasonable consideration’ (Humfrey Baker; Lemon 102; STC 1209.3), and is characterised by its lack of paratextual material – as a single sheet, there is no ‘vestibule’ to offer entry into the text, no borders or elaborate printer’s devices – it is just a sheet of text.  It is against this absence of prefatory material that Brathwaite sets his work, using the lengthy and various paratexts to The English Gentleman as a form of authority that grants not only literacy but protection against the ‘itching Passenger‘ – the uncomfortably anonymous stranger.

Scholars have recognised that preliminary materials, such as prefaces or title pages, act, amongst other things, as forms of advertising; they are partly designed to convince the perusing customer at the bookstall.  Robert Burton’s analogy in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) captures the visual marketing force of such paratexts:

…it is a kind of policy in these days to prefix a phantastical title to a book which is to be sold; for, as larks come down to a day-net, many vain readers will tarry and stand gazing like silly passengers at an antic picture in a painter’s shop, that will not look at a judicious piece’ (Anatomy of Melancholy,  20).

Yet, the emphasis on advertisement ironically aligns the preface or title page with exactly those mercenary bills that Brathwaite characterises as lacking paratexts and thereby wanting their attendant authority.  Paul J. Voss has noted that the ‘promotional use of the title page’ or other prefatory material associates the book format with bill posters, as ‘additional copies were often printed and nailed to posts around London and outside the bookseller’s shop, creating an immediate advertising network’ (737).  Although Brathwaite uses his address ‘To the Reader’ to introduce ‘a Gentleman, who professeth the true and new Art of Gentilizing’ (¶2r) – in contradistinction to the begging pedanticall Artist’ of the broadside – the fly-postering aspect of the paratextual address transforms that act of ‘Gentilizing’ into its own form of begging pedantry.  Paratexts, we could say, are not spatially confined to the ‘thresholds’ of the physical book.  They can be seen ‘advertising’ authors around London in the same way as broadsheet advertisements.

It is this irony that Ben Jonson wishes to avoid when he implores his bookseller not to place his ‘title-leafe on posts, or walls, / Or in cleft-sticks, aduanced to make calls / For termers, or some clarke-like seruing-man, / Who scarce can spell th’hard names…’ (‘To his Bookseller’ Workes Ttt1v).  Considering Jonson’s Workes are an attempt to give credibility to the playtext – audaciously printing drama in the Folio form usually reserved for less ‘popular’, traditionally ‘higher’ forms of literature – he hopes to distance both his poetry and his play-texts from the ‘advertising bills’ that covered early modern London. As Tiffany Stern has conjectured, many of these would indeed be playbills.

‘To his Bookseller’ appears in the series of epigrams that introduce the poetry of the Workes, following the plays, and these epigrams can be seen to act as paratexts themselves, despite forming the ‘body’ of the work.  Several of Jonson’s epigrams fulfil Smith’s and Wilson’s description of the paratext as ‘highly self-reflexive, commenting on the quality of printing contained in the book they accompany, or on the processes and accidents of production’ (3), and in their intermediary function – negotiating the space between play and poem – the epigrams seem well suited to act as ‘vestibules’ (or rather, in this instance, corridors). Yet, it is that same self-reflexiveness that reminds the reader that paratexts do not always provide authority.  On the contrary, they threaten to place the printed book into the same bibliographical territory as the broadsheet advertisement – the walls or posts of a city.

Heidi Brayman Hackel has recognised that the early modern preface seeks to establish the notion that access to the words ‘was granted and could somehow be controlled’ (86); such anxiety over control is evidenced by Brathwaite’s self-authorising prefaces.  Yet, the thin line between paratext and post, preface and poster, suggests that the textual authority of preliminary material is illusory.  Indeed, playbills would be one of the few texts ubiquitously available for the illiterate early modern to access – visually – perhaps explaining Jonson’s concern with protecting his Workes from the street or Brathwaite’s suspicion of the illiterate Anacharsis.  In this light, it is certainly clear that paratexts blur physical and linguistic functions: Brian W. Schneider terms them ‘framing texts’, and indeed they can be seen to provide metaphorical walls to support the main content (echoing Genette’s spatial analogies), but those walls become physically real when we are reminded of that ‘title-leafe on posts, or walls, / Or in cleft-sticks, aduanced to make calls / For termers, or some clarke-like seruing-man…’ (Jonson, ‘To his Bookseller’ Workes Ttt1v).


Works Cited:

Baker, Humfrey.  Such as are desirous, eyther themselues to learne…c.1590.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  14 January 2013.
Brathwaite, Richard.  The English Gentleman.  London: 1630.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  14 January 2013.
Brayman Hackel, Heidi.  Reading Material in Early Modern England.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Burton, Robert.  The Anatomy of Melancholy. 1621.  Ed Holbrook Jackson.  London: JM Dent, 1970.
Genette, Gerard.  Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.  Trans. Jane E. Lewin.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.
Jonson, Ben.  The workes of Beniamin Ionson.  London: 1616.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  9 January 2013.
Smith, Helen and Louise Wilson ‘Introduction’.  Renaissance Paratexts.  Ed Helen Smith and Louise Wilson.  Cambridge: CUP, 2011.
Selden, John.  The Table Talk of John Selden.  Ed. Samuel Harvey Reynolds.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1892.
Stern, Tiffany.  ‘On each Wall and / Corner Poast’; Playbills, Title-Pages, and Advertising in Early Modern London’.  English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 36, I.  57-89.
Voss, Paul J.  ‘Books for Sale: Advertising and Patronage in Late Elizabethan England’.  Sixteenth Century Journal. Vol. 29, No. 3, (Autumn 1998).  733-756.


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