Monday, August 2, 2010

Afterwords and Prefaces

Why should an afterword appear with a work such as Animals—indeed, with any work of fiction? (Or, for that matter, a preface by the author?) Surely a literary work should “speak for itself” without the author endeavoring to “control” the reader’s response.

Such has been the conventional wisdom for generations now—interestingly, the conventional wisdom as much of deconstructionist or post-modern critics of the 1990s or 2000s as of the leading critics of the 1950s and 1960s. Like the view that didactic or polemical literature cannot be good literature, it has for the most part been assumed or asserted rather than argued. And, like that view, it has flimsy foundations.

Of course no author should be allowed to “control” the response of the reader—and no author could do so. Inevitably (and appropriately), the author’s voice will be only one voice among many. But on what grounds should it be seen as inappropriate for authors to comment on their work? I can see the argument against doing so directly during the course of a novel. Aesthetically, it is certainly arguable that an author is well advised not to step outside the movement of the fictional world of the novel to comment on its progress. (There are plausible arguments in the other direction too, as any reader familiar with Henry Fielding’s novels must be aware.) But words such as “Preface” and “Afterword” signal clearly text that is outside the novel—text that shares the same covers but is no more part of the novel itself than are the blurbs often found on the opening page or the author interviews and other “reading club” material that is often found at the back. These things may all be part of the book, but they are not part of the novel.

Why would novelists want to comment directly on their work through a preface or afterword? One obvious point is that by including something of that sort adjacent to the novel one ensures that all readers will notice it and will have the opportunity to read it—as one is unable to do by commenting on one’s own work through a newspaper interview or a website or a blog. And there are surely many matters on which it is not unnatural for authors to wish to communicate to all readers. First and foremost, perhaps, is the question of how authors may see the imaginary worlds they have created as connecting to the real world. “How close to reality is all this?” may well be the first question of many readers. It was in response to such questions that Elizabeth Gaskell wrote her preface to Mary Barton: she laments that “the woes, which come with ever-returning tide-like flood to overwhelm the workmen in our manufacturing towns, pass unregarded by all but the sufferers” and speaks of how the more she discovered of this suffering, the “more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony.” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote both a preface and a final chapter—she did not call it an afterword, but it was clearly outside the novel itself—to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in order to answer “whether this narrative is a true one”—whether the narrative truthfully portrayed the actual horrors of slavery. Animals is written to address a very different issue from that of slavery, but like that work it runs along parallel lines to various works of non-fiction and of argument that have tried to present the facts and to present a variety of reasoned arguments. The parallel role of the novel in such cases is to enlist imagination alongside reason and emotion in the cause of pointing the way towards positive change. Even for those that have had access to the facts and the arguments, such a work can provoke a different and sometimes more powerful response. But there will always also be those who come to the relevant issues as presented through the imagination without prior knowledge of the facts and arguments. “What’s written here about factory farming in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—is it true?” they may well wonder. An afterword can provide only the briefest of responses to this sort of question—but it can, after such a novel ends, provide a useful beginning.

That said, I think that making clear the author’s moral intent or trying to clarify the connections between the facts of a novel and the facts of the real world are only two of an almost unlimited range of appropriate purposes to which an author’s afterword may appropriately be turned. Ursula LeGuin uses the afterword to Lavinia to speak to the aesthetic choices she made in re-fashioning classical material. Henry James in his famous prefaces also focuses largely on the aesthetic choices he has made—and no more than LeGuin or Gaskell or Stowe should he be accused of trying to “control” the responses of his readers, or of refusing to allow his novels to “speak for themselves.” He is simply exercising his right to put his own voice forward about his own work. In the visual arts nowadays it is entirely accepted—indeed, it is expected—that artists will foreground something of their interpretation of their own work when it is presented to the public. There is no good reason to feel it inappropriate for authors to be granted parallel opportunities.

[Most of the material in this posting originally appeared in advance of the publication of the Canadian edition of Animals in 2009.]


  1. Fair enough -- an element to think about, too, is one's audience's expectations and pleasure. And another: the generic play that's enabled by footnotes, prefaces, external and internal commentary. Perhaps some (if not all?) subjects now necessitate or can only be realized in a sentimental fashion without some extra-narrative material.

  2. Hi Don: I quite enjoyed "Animals" and see it as an important contribution to dystopian literature. The things that make us uncomfortable about your book are the things that we are uncomfortable about in society -- the inequities around us that are easier to avoid than to discuss. However, discussion is very important because we have all taken in dominant positions on the relative worth of people and animals. Accordingly, we need to consciously challenge these implicit hierarchies. I agree with your point that there is--it seems--an overwhelming pressure to have a happy ending. Yet, it cannot always be assumed that people would choose a happy ending if offered the choice. The first draft of my novel, The 29th Day, had dual endings for the reader to choose between tragedy or happiness (ie. a life was hanging in the reader's hands). I anticipated that everyone would want the happy ending but that didn't happen. Many found that the sad ending touched them in a way the happy ending did not. I also discovered that readers generally did not enjoy the dual endings -- they wanted to know what REALLY happened, being unwilling to accept that whichever ending they preferred was the real end. So much for reader choice!
    Evadne Macedo