Thursday, 12 July 2012

Paratextual Satire: An Introduction

It seems that the locution "paratextual satire" is not new; credit for it must go to the late Dr Janis L. Pallister. Pallister used this phrase twenty years ago in an article on François Béroalde de Verville's Le Moyen de parvenir (1616?), glossing it as "satire outside the narrative structures."

Though the phrase is not new it is in "as new condition," having been used only by Pallister and by Pallister only once. And though credit must go to the distinguished professor of romance languages for inventing and first using the term, I am not indebted to her for it. I invented the phrase (I think thought) after doing some research on satirical footnotes in Swift, Pope and Gibbon, to describe the use of satire and irony in all matters paratextual (titles, dedications, subscription lists, footnotes, indexes etc) and epitextual (advertisements, reviews, descriptions of book-buyers and readers etc).

And, while my definition is broad—quite broad, as I will explain—the "satire outside the narrative structures" that Pallister has in mind is limited to the satirical use of chapter titles. Chapter titles that "have no bearing on the content" of a text do two things: they draw the reader's attention to the chapter titles themselves and they offer another narrative voice that either disrupts the coherent narrative of the text or contributes (as in Le Moyen de parvenir) to the multiple narrative voices in the text. In either case, the multiple narrative voices encourage "an almost postmodern distrust of the power of texts coherently to convey knowledge."

Satirical chapter titles are only one way in which an author can provide multiple narrative voices; others are continuous satirical footnotes, glosses and commentary, or stand-apart dedications, prefaces and appendixes. Each of these use (and draw attention to) a recognised element the text as a printed artifact, to disrupt the coherent narrative of the text and to provide another narrative voice. The butt of this sort of paratextual satire was often the emerging norms of scholarly discourse, particularly the norms of (printed) scholarly apparatus.

But is also possible to satirise—draw attention to, ridicule and derive humour from—paratextual elements that do not, strictly speaking, involve providing another narrative voice. The satirical subscription list in the erotic somatopia A Voyage To Lethe (1742) is made up of names such as “Mr. Smallcock,” “Mr Badcock,” “Mr. Nocock,” etc. Likewise, William King’s "A Short Account of Dr. Bentley by way of Index” (1698) does not disrupt the coherent narrative of the text or encourage a postmodern distrust of texts: it contributes to the satire by using paratextual elements and depends for its effect on a reader's awareness of the text as a printed artifact.

It is also possible to satirise—draw attention to, ridicule and derive humour from—epitextual elements. That is, elements outside the bound volume, which includes satirical or ironic advertisements, real or faux reviews or endorsements, correspondence with, or diaries of, the author etc. Personally, I am inclined to include satire based on all aspects on Robert Darnton's communications circuit (which covers the whole life cycle of a book from writer to reader).

Adopting such a broad definition of para- and epitextual satire allows us to include satires that influence a reader's reading of an author or group of authors (authors as Popean "dunces"), a genre (gynecology as erotica), or texts in a particular format (chapbooks as children's literature). It might also include satires on bookseller, publishers, auctioneers, collectors and collections.

Addison's depiction of the library of Leonora in The Spectator (no.37; 12 April 1711), for example, is a misogynistic satire on women readers and book buyers that draws attention to the ignoble fate of individual books ("Locke of Human Understanding: With a Paper of Patches in it") and the ignoble fate in general of books that "have a Tendency to enlighten the Understanding and rectify the Passions" ("Sherlock upon Death" is followed by "The fifteen Comforts of Matrimony"; "The New Atalantis, with a Key to it" sits between "Advice to a Daughter" and "Mr. Steel's Christian Heroe").

The apogee of this type of ignoble-fate, paratextual satire is, perhaps, a pamphlet published in 1753 by J. Lewis: Bum-Fodder for the Ladies. A Poem, (Upon Soft Paper). In this case the paper that the text is printed on is, itself, a satirical reflection on the fate of occasional verse and/or the value of occasional verse.

If, as the author says, the fate of such verse is to be used as toilet-paper, it may as well accept this reality, and offer verse worthy of its fate, printed on soft paper.** The poet has the last laugh: concluding smugly with a reminder to the reader that they have paid a high price for this bumfodder:

  I do not promise much, perhaps you'll say;
  But I'll fulfil, and that's the surest way.
  What can be expected, when I fairly tell ye
  That nought but Bumfodder for Sixpence I sell ye?

**It is not really surprising, but it is noteworthy, that only two copies of this poem survive.

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