A preface, formally considered, is a preliminary part of a book or long essay, and in this physical sense it shares, with introductions, forewords, dedications, and prolegomena, an initiatory and, in some cases, participatory relation to the text it precedes, commending either the work, the reader who takes it up, or the author who wrote it. Although Greek and Roman rhetoricians identified the recurrent topoi of classical prefaces or exordia (i.e. the conventional forms of modesty designed to create the transparent public persona of the writer), the modern preface, reflecting changing conceptions of the author as a representable, private, individuated self, is nongeneric, and so resists precise description.
A preface may confine itself to the factual circumstances surrounding a work, its development, and publication (like Dickens’ prefaces to “the Original Edition, 1837” and “the Cheap Edition, 1847” of The Pickwick Papers) or range in memoir fashion over the history of its reception (like his preface to “the Charles Dickens Edition, 1867” of that work). Henry James used the 18 prefaces written for the New York Edition of his works to say about his own and others’ writing “what he hoped all his life the critics would say for him” (Leon Edel, Henry James: The Master, 1901–16, 1972), while George Bernard Shaw’s prefaces are a reader’s supplement to the ideas (perhaps not fully realized) in the staged productions of his plays. Paradoxically, the most famous prefaces are those that transcend the usual secondary status of the preface and become independent critical essays—Conrad’s preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), for instance, or
Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798). John Dryden, who wrote dedications, prologues, a celebrated essay, and a discourse, as well as prefaces, and whose use of the latter term is more precise than most, nevertheless remarks in his “Preface to The Fables” (1700) that “the nature of a preface is rambling, never wholly out of the way, nor in it.”
In general, prefaces state what (for one reason or another) cannot be stated in the works they accompany—the author’s motivation, assumptions, and self-imposed regulations, the credentials of authorship or authority. The preface is the place where the private author may introduce himself to the public to gain its attention and acceptance. In early periods, when writers depended upon the patronage of an aristocratic minority, this function was accomplished in dedications, but as the reading public became more anonymous, writers had to establish a less specific relationship with their more general audience. The preface allowed the author to engage his or her readers on some common ground, to assume for the moment the mask of a reader in a mutual project of understanding or, more formally (as Dryden does in the preface to The Fables), in a judicial appeal to a jury.
Prefaces of works of nonfiction are more narrowly focused on the work than on the author. Here the preface becomes a metadiscourse rather than a familiar essay. The author appears to step outside his work in order to prepare the reader for what is to follow. Such prefaces pretend to begin at the beginning, to say in advance what has not yet been said, and perhaps even to answer as yet unspoken objections to what is still to come. But in fact, a preface is retrospective, not anticipatory; it is written after the work it precedes and in some manner introduces. Equivocally anterior and exterior to the works that prompt them, prefaces thus tend to cancel themselves out. “Preceding what ought to be able to present itself on its own,” Jacques Derrida observes, “the preface falls like an empty husk, a piece of formal refuse…” Paradoxically, Derrida’s deconstruction of the preface appears itself in a preface to his La Dissémination (1972; Dissemination), where it conceals its prefatory nature behind a series of alternative labels—“Hors Livre,” “Outwork,” “Hors d’oeuvre,” “Extratext,” “Foreplay,” etc.
The suspicion of bad faith and superfluousness that hovers about prefaces is not new.
Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, observed that “Introductions are popular with those whose case is weak …it pays them to dwell on anything rather than the actual facts of it.” Since the 18th century, at least within the world of belles-lettres, the preface has become a form of apology and an object of parody. Laurence Sterne may serve as the modern exemplar.
Near the middle of Tristram Shandy (1759–67), the putative author pauses to remark:
“All my heroes are off my hands; ‘tis the first time I have had a moment to spare,—and I’ll make use of it, and write my preface… No, i’ll not say a word about it [the book],— here it is,—in publishing it,—I have appealed to the world,—and to the world I leave it;—it must speak for itself.” Tristram only resumes his story after a further ten pages, however.
Auerbach, Erich, “Germinie Lacerteux,” in his Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1953 (original German edition, 1946)
Blodgett, E.D., A.G.Purdy, and S.Totosy de Zapetnek, editors, Prefaces and Literary Manifestoes, Edmonton: University of Alberta, 1990
Curtius, Ernst Robert, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990: especially Chapter 5 (original German edition, 1948)
Derrida, Jacques, “Outwork, Prefacing,” in his Dissemination, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981 (original French edition, 1972)
Dunn, Kevin, Pretexts of Authority: The Rhetoric of Authorship in tbe Renaissance Preface, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994
Edelstein, Marilyn Joan, At the Threshold of the Text: The Rhetoric of Prefaces to Novels
(dissertation), Buffalo: State University of New York, 1984
Georgulis, Christine, “This is a true story”: Fiction Disguised as Fact in the Prefaces of Late Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French and English Prose Works
(dissertation), New York: City University of New York, 1988
Janson, Tore, Latin Prose Prefaces: Studies in Literary Conventions, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1964
Jullien, Dominique, “La Préface comme auto-contemplation,” Poétique 21, no. 84 (1990):499–508
Navarette, Ignacio, “The Preface as a Platform for Theories of Translation,” Publishing History 16 (1984):21–32.
Shale, Michele Magnin, Metamorphosis of the Preface: A Diachronic Study of Prefaces of French Novels (dissertation), San Diego: University of California, 1986
Tatlock, Lynne, “The Process of Recognition in Satire and Realism: The Prefaces of Seventeenth-Century Novels as a Guide to AuthorIntention,” Colloquia Germanica 18, no. 3 (1985):238–47
West, Catherine Jones, La Mise en jeu de I’autorité dans la préface du roman (dissertation), Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1989
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