Who Needs an Epigraph at the Front of their Novel?

Never use epigraphs, they kill the mastery of the work.”-Orphan Pamuk

Is Pamuk right? Are epigraphs necessary before a great work of art? Do I need to hear a completely different artist sound the most prominent note of a masterpiece before the featured artist plays?

Did Melville have to share with us every book’s entry about whales before setting us out on the Pequod? Did George Eliot have to give us 86 quotations from others, and was this “cheating” the beginning of her chapters?

Some epigraphs are well placed, not only making a statement about the work we are about to read, but about all works it has followed. Consider this, at the front of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline:

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. — G.K. Chesterson

On the one hand, we are adorning our works by crediting those who inspired us, gesturing to those who have said it better. On the other hand, we are pilfering from those who say it better, emblazoning our own lives with the decontextualized tidbits of others. We are nodding to the monuments on which we stand. Do they nod back?

We like to feel as if we are as profound as our predecessors, repackaging the social capital of our own attempt at imitative lives and imitative works and stamping it with the words of another. It can become an epigram that thus becomes an epigraph, a pithy piece of language that lends itself to jingling us along through the gates of our own work, situated in the country of our mentors. Sometimes it just asks as a cute little bow, a motto we scarcely cling to, a brand we claim to wear. Sometimes it’s nothing more than the likes of a luckily stumbled-upon “senior quote.”

Some books may be less worth reading than the epigraphs sitting atop.

We plagiarize and obfuscate our affecations. Maybe we have no right to judge how others use their favorite quotes. Unless the author has anything to say about it.

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