Today’s post is the final installment of a 3-part series on paratexts, or all the stuff surrounding a novel that helps prepare us for the reading experience. In case you missed them, you can also check out part 1 (on back cover copy) and part 2 (CWs, dedications, and epigraphs). This week’s post goes a little bit farther afield, both literally and metaphorically: I’ll be talking about Twitter as a place that houses paratext.
Including Twitter in a discussion of paratexts might initially sound like a stretch. The term “paratext” originated in the 1970s and as such, for obvious reasons, didn’t take social media into account. Discussions of paratext, however, have always included elements that aren’t directly attached to the book itself. In fact, Gerard Genette divided paratext into two groups: peritext (things like covers and dedications and prefaces that come attached to the book itself) and epitext (things about the book that are physically separate from it, like author interviews or publisher promo). Twitter book talk lands squarely in the epitext category, and that’s the word I’ll be using for it today.
So, what does Twitter epitext look like, and why is it worth considering as a separate phenomenon? In the broadest sense possible, Twitter epitext could really be anything anyone says about a book on Twitter- so long as another reader might encounter it, and find it influences how they approach their reading. For the sake of manageability and simplicity, I’m going to stick to the kinds of things that people put on Twitter to encourage people to buy books. A lot of what I’m going to say about Twitter epitext might also be applicable to facebook or bookstagram or review blogs, but since Twitter is the only social media platform I regularly use, I’m going to stick to that. For the first part of my post I’m going to try to suss out what makes Twitter epitext unique, both as a means of selling and preparing readers for books. And then I’ll talk a little bit about how Twitter epitext has changed the role readers play in the life of a book in the world.
RIP my TBR
Something I hear a lot from readers (and is true for me as well) is that they pick up books because of what they’ve heard about them on Twitter, perhaps more often than because of blurbs, mainstream reviews, covers, or plot summaries.
This pervasive attitude made me wonder what makes Twitter epitext unique enough that some subset of readers find it more persuasive. To try to get to the bottom of this I surveyed… a lot of Twitter content, very informally. I looked at the feeds of authors who I consider do a good job of promoting their books, and readers who are particularly eloquent in their enthusiasms; I searched key terms on Twitter from the list of people I follow (“convinced me” and “one-click” and “catnip,” among others) and compiled a corpus of tweets that helped me try to figure out some of what makes the way we talk about books on Twitter unique.
One obvious answer is the fairly unprecedented ability to curate what Twitter epitext we see in the first place: promotional Twitter epitext might be more effective for me as a reader than “random blurbs at the bookstore” because I have spent years following people who like the same books as me (and unfollowing some who don’t), allowing me to guarantee a higher recommendation success rate. I still have a sneaking suspicion, though, that if the people I follow simply reposted official blurbs for books they liked, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as when they generate the kind of Twitter-native epitexts I want to look at. So what makes these different?
To some extent, there’s simply a gap between what it’s possible to say on Twitter, and what the publishing establishment deems appropriate to put on back cover copy. An entire subset of Twitter epitext involves statements about the book that are more explicit – or more candid about the sexual content of the book – than what one usually finds on traditional paratext. Take a look at these two tweets, for example, which contain suggestions for some pretty great publisher copy, but would never realistically end up on the back of a book.
It bears mentioning that not all romance readers want books with sex on the page, and not all those who do read sex on the page find it to be their primary motivation for reading romance. However, for the large number of readers who do like such things, Twitter epitext that talks frankly and in unembarrassed detail about the sex in a book mirrors the kind of frank and unembarrassed sex positivity many readers hope for in their novels. For someone in a mood to read a book that has 9 sex scenes rather than 1, Twitter epitext can be one of the most reliable places to learn that information, which is rarely found (at least not clearly) in other places like the front or back cover.
Twitter epitext also allows for a greater degree of granularity than plot summaries. In my post on official back cover copy, I highlighted the fairly formulaic nature of plot summaries, which cover the broadest basics of who the main characters are, how they meet, and their plot obstacles to falling in love. Twitter has its own way of presenting this information – and a little further on I’m going to talk about the list format itself- but I want to dwell on the contents for a moment. In each of these lists, there’s at least one detail that’s small enough, or internet-fandom-specific enough, it would probably be eliminated from an official blurb. I’ve put those as captions underneath the images of the tweets.
I can’t speak for other readers, but for me, these small-detail elements combined with the broader information of a traditional plot summary work exceedingly well. Quirky details evoke more of a reading mood than a summary of events, and mood is more important to me as a reader. The creation of such individual moments within fiction suggests authorial attention to detail and depth of characterization. There’s also a degree of novelty to it: as someone who became a reader long before there was internet, I’m used to learning about books via summaries of plot and character. I’m suspicious that the inclusion of things that wouldn’t go in a regular blurb pings the “novelty” center in my brain, suggesting that this book might be different, and thus more worth a look.
Of course, the content isn’t the only (relative) source of novelty in Twitter epitext: the form is also doing a lot of work. Twitter epitext that works off pre-existing memes or other internet forms and vernacular is surprisingly effective, despite telling readers less about the plot and characters of the actual novel than a summary. Here are a few more examples.
In the cases above, the Twitter epitext borrows from fan fiction and AO3 and memes and AITA posts: all types of reading that we do for free in our leisure time. As such, I think part of this format’s effectiveness is that it subliminally suggests unconstrained and voluntary enjoyment: precisely the kind of reading mode that we might have unlearned through education and other forms of “assigned” reading. It’s a highly effective shorthand for reading as enjoyment.
I would argue that genre fiction like romance benefits particularly from this format. First, without denying the quality or importance of genre fiction, genre reading is more closely associated with leisure time and enjoyment, and is more susceptible to being sold that way. And second, because tropes are, in their way, a kind of literary meme. Both tropes and memes are a shape into which a wide variety of content is repeatedly fitted to create different effects. A good promotional meme might suggest to the reader a good handling of tropes.
Promotion and Paratext
It bears mentioning, of course, that Twitter epitext exists at the crossroads of promotion and paratext. Most literary criticism I’ve read doesn’t seem overly concerned with the distinction between the two: between paratextual functions (framing how readers see, experience, and evaluate the content of books) and promotional functions (getting potential readers to open their wallets and buy a book). In some ways, ignoring the paratextual/promotional distinction is a problem, especially because at times the two are at odds. To give just one example, “rom-coms” are very popular right now, and promotional epitext often seems to suggest something is a rom-com to boost sales, even when it isn’t. This approach seems deeply antithetical to the assumed function of paratext, which is to prepare the reader for the actual contents of what they’re about to read.
The waters of promotional and paratextual function are further muddied by the question of who is producing the content. The most well-known study of paratext (Genette’s) only considers what he calls “authorized” paratext: that is, the kind that’s created by the author or the publisher. This assumption that “authorized” paratext is the only one worth looking at seems short-slighted to me. It suggests that an author always knows the best way to get a reader into the text, or that they know the one “right” way for their books to be read. In fact, I think you could make the opposite assertion: that even though there is no control mechanism, even though there’s no central “authority”, reader-generated epitext might, at the very least, execute paratext’s preparatory function better.
But at the same time, a lot of the epitext readers create looks like promo. Add to that the fact that authors repurpose and interact with these tweets, and you have a whole confusing world of material that is both authorized and unauthorized, promotional and paratextual. I might create a tweet thread about a book I love that mimics author promo (lists tropes, tells people they’ll love it, even inserts a link where people can buy). Readers might tell me they’ve one-clicked based on my description, completing a promotional transaction. All of this still falls under the banner of “unauthorized” epitext… unless or until the author finds and retweets my trope list. This kind of interaction fascinates me because it blurs so many of the lines that our understanding of the literary marketplace is based on.
As a reader, it also makes me wonder about the motivation behind reader-created epitext, in part because it SO closely mirrors in format things that exist on the author/publisher side, with the goals of
1) preparing readers for the text, and
2) selling the texts for financial gain
Reader-generated epitexts serve the first goal as well: we tweet about books in part to prepare fellow readers for what they’re getting into. But is there an equivalent second function – something to be gained from epitextual creation? I don’t think there necessarily has to be, but many readers (myself included) often note how good it feels to make a successful book recommendation, suggesting that there is, ultimately, something in it for us.
In part, contributing epitext for a book online feels rewarding in the way a lot of creative endeavors do: it lets you do something with your feelings about a book, and to contribute to its life in the world, to feel like you’ve put a stone into the building of its existence. It’s also a community-building exercise. Being a good recommender brings more followers, more people to talk to about what you love, and lets you feel like you’ve helped bring a few hours of enjoyment into someone else’s life. It’s also, of course, not entirely altruistic and creative. It’s also an ego-boost: convincing other people to take your book recommendations is a consecration of your own literary taste, a positive reinforcement from the internet of your understanding of good books.
To bring things full circle, this might be the last reason that Twitter epitext works so well on readers: we recognize it not just as a marketing tool, or a way to prepare us for reading, but also as a part of the literary ecosystem that invites active interaction and participation. To extend the original paratext-as-thresholds metaphor, it’s a threshold that’s also a bit of a creative work space. One that, to be clear, is not without its sometimes oddly blurred boundaries – between promotion and preparation, between authors and readers. But it’s one where we can build ourselves a unique kind of readership: enjoyable, free from the pressures of “assigned” reading, and most of all, a site of active construction of the world that books live in.
That concludes my series of close readings of romance paratexts! I hope that you’ve found something to enjoy here, maybe even some new ways to think about all decisions we make and information we consume and create as a prelude to reading. I’ve certainly enjoyed thinking and writing about it. Happy reading!