Epigraphs

Melissa Mesku

“You do not need to use an epigraph.” –Roxane Gay

The epigraph: that little sentence or quote that precedes a story, chapter, or essay. Roxane Gay can’t stand them. Over the last decade, she’s made her case. In PANK in 2009: “[T]here is never a good reason for an epigraph in the creative form... I’m even starting to resent epigraphs in essays and short stories.” In a book review in 2011: “I never find the relevance of an epigraph no matter how hard I try.” In Buzzfeed in 2014: “I don’t want my reading of a story to be framed by the writer in such an overt way.” Just last month she tweeted, “I don’t believe in epigraphs. I won’t read them in your book.” It being Twitter, and it being Roxane Gay, over the last few weeks epigraphs got their day in the sun (or the shade, as it were). 

First, the shade. The biggest complaint about epigraphs was that they’re unnecessary. Alexander Chee responded that they’re often something the writer needed, but almost never something the reader needs. In his own process, he cuts them out before publication. Otherwise, it “would be like including a recording of me striking a tuning fork.” 

Of course, necessity is in the eye of the beholder. It’s just that, unfortunately, the first beholder is the writer. “I went through so much time, stress, and money to get the rights to use a 19-word Faulkner sentence that it would suck not to have others read it,” one author opined. Another was not so lucky, and tweeted back: “Dear Roxane, I had a shit day that included losing the epigraph in my forthcoming novel. This tweet is like manna from heaven.”

Many were not so willing to let go. We are well aware of the writerly injunction to kill your darlings, and one thing this revealed is that epigraphs are a darling shared by many. “Look, I wrote an entire book just to have someplace to put its epigraph, that’s how I feel about epigraphs,” Benjamin Dreyer tweeted. “My writing is just epigraphs, strung together from page to page,” added Benjamin Harnett. “My epigraphs have epigraphs,” tweeted Ben Robertson. It appears they are not a darling many are ready to kill. “You will pry my epigraphs from my cold, dead hands,” Martine Fournier Watson replied. 

To me, spending that much effort to keep an epigraph in my cold, dead hands seems wholly unnecessary. I mean, we’re writers, right? Do we really need to try that hard to obtain some words? But a comment by Pamela Thurschwell put it well. “I think of epigraphs as little fan letters. You as a writer are admitting you cannot improve in any way on what Joni Mitchell or Walter Benjamin or whomever already said.” 

As a reader of nonfiction, I appreciate a good epigraph, particularly if it’s a quote. In the days when a book was the only way to discover its author’s influences, epigraphs were like clues leading you to the source. Derrick Jensen, who has written at least twenty books with as many chapters in each, begins each chapter with a quote. They’re wide ranging (“The whole white race is a monster who is always hungry and what he eats is land” –Shawnee leader Cheeseekau; “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” –Stephen Biko), yet they reveal the interplay and historicity of ideas far apart in space and time. They’ve also taught me more than any book I’ve read. In a word, it’s context that a good epigraph provides. 

Insofar as fiction can be a world unto itself, context is perhaps less important. The desire, then, to include an epigraph in a short story or novel begs the question: Why? This is likely where Gay’s ire comes from. She wrote in 2011, “Sometimes I read epigraphs and think, ‘Well, now you’re just showing off how well read you are.’” Including something unnecessary risks making the work feel overblown. Maureen Langloss cited Middlemarch as an example, tweeting: “At the start of every chapter in an 800 page book is too much.” In persuing my fiction bookshelf for examples, I could almost guess which ones have epigraphs. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children? Check. Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens? Check.

Essayist Elena Passarello noted, “it seems most of the opinion-havers in this Twitter-kiki about epigraphs are only considering fiction. Epigraphs can do major rhetorical work in essays.” This echoes the going consensus that epigraphs in nonfiction are fine, even beneficial, but in fiction they’re a risk. For those who really don’t want to kill their darlings, but don’t want to seem overblown, what to do?

 It may help to remember not all epigraphs need be darling quotes from another text. Teju Cole’s Open City has a simple, unattributed line at the beginning of each section (Part 2: “I have searched myself”). Perhaps the best example of this is the HBO show The Wire. Every episode begins with a quote from one of the characters, re-contextualizing what is often street wisdom into a poignant, even literary, takeaway. “World going one way, people another,” is one. It has a general ring of truth to it, but stings when you hear it later, in context, after a conversation about global warming:

“It’s a cold world, Bodie.”

“I thought you said it was getting warmer.”

“The world going one way, people another.”

It’s still context, but in reverse.

If Roxane Gay reads this, I want to apologize for quoting her in my epigraph. I couldn’t resist. After all I said about killing your darlings, I didn’t say anything about killing mine. But if you grant me the inconsistency, I’ll forgive yours. Because I know you dislike epigraphs. And I know you like The Wire. Tell us: Do you fast forward?

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