“But the text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions, such as author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations.”
-Genette, Gérard, “Introduction.” In Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation.
Look at a published novel, for example, and notice all that is available to your eyes in addition to the actual body of text. A title page. A preface. A glossary of terms. A dedication page. Do these outside productions actually belong to the text? Do they just surround it? Or do they perhaps help to present it and maybe even affect it? In terms of the novel, all of these productions, known as paratexts, are what transform a plain body of text into a book of societal standards. These paratexts help to legitimize. They, in accordance with the text, present to the reader an authentic product of the author, of which the reader may trust.
According to Genette, paratexts are the thresholds of a text; the point at which a reader will choose his/her destiny, or at least whether or not to continue reading. He calls it “a zone between text and off-text,” an “undefined zone” with no boundaries, made up of discourses and signals that influence the public, for better or for worse.
For my first mini-project of this semester, my instructor asked our class to write a local news story for a place we’ve never visited while using the conventions of news writing to create a credible text. In other words, use the right paratexts. The focus of this project was not so much the content of the news story, but our ability to use the correct presentational elements to qualify our article as local news. This is where I began to see the ideas illustrated by Genette come to life in a different, more modern way.
The concept of paratexts is not limited to just novels. Take for instance a report done by Sarah Koenig about Journatic, a company producing journalism in a perhaps less-than-ethical way. This company sanctions writers to create “local news articles,” but in reality these writers are not local reporters at all. Instead, these outsourced writers may in fact be located half away across the world (this type of reporting is also known as “hyperlocal news”). Many say this way of reporting leads to loss of authenticity in the news. How can a writer accurately report on a place they have never visited? I experienced this first hand, reporting on the town of Vero Beach, FL for my project. I had my roommate Sammie, a Vero Beach local, to interview but I definitely felt as if I couldn’t possibly create a great enough report without having ever visited myself. I felt somewhat like an impostor as I wrote only a brief article about a place I couldn’t possibly know well enough to report on honorably. In any case, many details are lost and facts construed when reporters begin to rely on third-parties for information because they themselves cannot gather the facts.
Those reading the news expect stories to be authentic. Bylines, news sources, pictures, and other paratexts help in creating credibility throughout the story and trust between the reader and the writer. According to dictionary.com, the definition of threshold is “a level, point, or value above which something is true or will take place and below which it is not or will not.” In the case of article writing, I think that the paratext of most importance which displays this point of value is the author’s byline (or anything else listed as the source of an article, such as a website). Ironically, most of the time the author of an outsourced article (like many Journatic articles) will not be mentioned or the author name will actually be listed as an alias instead, hence the lack of credibility in “hyperlocal news” (whatever that term actually means).
So go ahead and judge a book by its cover! (Or by it’s title page.) And also go ahead and judge a news article by its byline. Pay attention to the carefully chosen pictures, words, and information being presented to you before you subject yourself to the writing and/or opinions of another. This is our chance as readers to make conscious decisions and have an active role in reading- an otherwise one-way form of communication- before we feel as if we have wasted our valuable time.