Post-Postmodernist Fiction and the Rise of Digital Epitexts | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Post-Postmodernist Fiction and the Rise of Digital Epitexts

Post-Postmodernist Fiction and the Rise of Digital Epitexts
by Virginia Pignagnoli

Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH, 2023
Theory and Interpretation of Narrative series
158 pp., illus., 3 b/w. Trade, $79.95; paper, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-8142-1542-5; ISBN: 978-0-8142-8288-5.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
July 2023

In literary criticism, the notion of paratext refers to all kind of verbal or visual information that surrounds the actual work (the “text”) and that helps describe and identify as well as explain and interpret it. As initially theorized by Gérard Genette, the paratext consists of two main groups: first the pertitext, that is the set of paratextual elements that spatially accompany the work, such as for instance a title or a blurb; second the epitext, which accompany the text in other ways, at a distance (in space, not necessarily in time), such as an author’s elevator pitch on a website or an interview with the publisher. Since Genette’s Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997, French original 1987), the study of the paratext has become a typical feature of nearly any literary analysis, but as so many other aspects and dimensions of literary and rhetorical analysis, the digital turn has made it in need of a solid update.

Pignagnoli’s study of the digital epitext fills in such a crucial gap, and it does so in a sound and useful way. What makes the book so interesting is the attempt to offer a broader understanding of the forms and functions of new types of epitext in the digital context (the author does focus less on the peritext than on the epitext, which is a wise choice, not only because here the changes are more far-reaching, but also because traditional criticism has tended to stress the sole peritext). Yet even more important is Pignagnoli’s effort to use the study of the digital epitext to reconsider the larger literary and cultural context of writing today, which goes beyond the progressive shift from analog to digital. The appearance of new forms of epitext matches indeed what the author defines as the new dominant of contemporary, post-postmodernist fiction, namely questions of sincerity, authenticity, relatability, interaction, and other forms of co-construction of meaning and making between author and reader. This new dominant is very different from that of the previous modernist and post-modernist eras. According to Brian McHale’s influential study Postmodernist Fiction (1987), the dominant of the former was epistemological (what do we know about the world and how can we describe it?), while the dominant of the latter was ontological (what does the notion of world actually mean?). In post-postmodernist fiction, the key issue is the dialogue between author and reader as well as the question to what extent the author manages or not to establish a direct and above all honest dialogue with the reader. Post-postmodernism is thus about sincerity and empathy, and this change is both triggered and enhanced by the affordances of the new media, which allow both authors and readers to communicate in more immediate and spontaneous ways. More “direct” ways, since Pignagnoli does not claim that this type of relationships is absolutely new. Likewise, the author always makes a distinction between what she calls “communicative” and “epistemic” epitexts. In the first case, the digital epitext is part of the act of narrative communication itself (in other words: the author uses it to complement or strengthen the properly textual strategies of the narrative). In the second case, it is part of the background information that is elaborated around the work (in other words: the digital epitext may add information to the author and the work, but this information does not immediately interfere with the story as it unfolds in the text). It should be stressed however that Pignagnoli makes a supple use of the various taxonomies that she deploys–a clear heritage of her structuralist training–thus, making room for overlap and blurring of boundaries, for instance by her taking into account the importance of the moment of reading an epitext: before, during, or after the reading of the actual narrative.

The general structure of the book’s argumentation has four levels or dimensions. First, the conceptual and textual level, which concerns the update of Genette’s paratextual framework, and the demonstration of its use-value for the post-postmodernist interpretation of specific works. Second, the historical level, which has to do with the reinterpretation of the concept of post-postmodernism itself. Third, the technological and mediological level, which refers to the author’s endeavor to rethink the digital shift as a remediating environment that is both shaping and shaped by cultural constraints, in this case the post-postmodernist dominant of sincerity and earnestness, directly opposed to postmodernist irony. Fourth, the transversal thread or level of rhetorical analysis of narrative, which is perhaps the most important of these four levels. Pignagnoli follows indeed the rhetorical approach of storytelling as prominently defended and illustrated by James Phelan, for whom the narrative is not an object but an act, more precisely an act by which somebody tries to inform–and thus to convince– somebody else by telling a story in a particular way.

All these insights are applied to four case studies (four contemporary novels; Moonglow by Michael Chabon, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Answers by Catherine Lacey and The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer), followed by a fifth one (Dave Eggers’s The Circle, an example showing the logical decision of an author rejecting the digital epitext to accompany, market, promote, sell, etc., an anti-technological dystopia), which complements and nuances the general analysis of the digital epitext. Pignagnoli is a good reader, a good writer, a good teacher, and she is smart enough not to overestimate the importance of her subject. After all, much of the digital epitextual conversation between author and reader is not always highly sustainable (to put it more bluntly: it simply vanishes or becomes unretrievable after a more or less short time-span, and while it is online the sheer quantity of messages may make it totally uncontrollable for ordinary readers) and its effects, although often highly relevant, are less easy to master and streamline than what it is possible to do within the text itself, and we know how difficult it can be even in the “narrow” context of the mere narrative. However, Pignagnoli is surely right in claiming that the digital epitext is here to stay and that it is no longer possible to make a rhetorical analysis of a narrative text without including it. One might even say that in the post-postmodernist age, the link between text and epitext is much stronger than in the modernist and post-modernist predigital periods.

There may be a last question that the author never raises herself, for this is clearly not the topic of her study but which readers of fiction will inevitably ask: What is the properly literary value of these epitexts? Some readers may even start asking questions on the literary value of the texts themselves when they seem to be in such a crucial need of digital epitexts? For Pignagnoli and perhaps more generally for critics of post-postmodernist fiction, these questions may not be the right ones, given the fact that they are at odds with what has become the new dominant (earnestness, sincerity, empathy, etc.). Post-postmodernism is clearly about other values than those of the intrinsic literary quality of a work (and perhaps similar remarks could be made on other types of art as well). Yet not all readers automatically share this framing. Nobody is obliged to stick to the new dominant, even when reading a definitely post-postmodernist work. And the input of the digital epitext does not automatically “save” a work that in some regards is very conventional, almost pre-modernist, as some nasty readers may think of the novels under scrutiny. In what I hope will never be called post-post-postmodernist fiction, questions like these may however return with a vengeance.