Thursday, May 04, 2006

I've Got Your Quote Right Here

Sandwiched between title and text, an epigraph provides a clue to the theme of a story, chapter, or novel; that is, the unifying idea or collision of ideas that binds the whole thing together. Choosing the right epigraph is a tricky business whose success relies as much on serendipity as it does on native cunning. It’s not just a question of finding an apposite and pithy quote. If you adorn your beloved work of art with an epigraph that reeks of pretension, wilful obscurity or banality, you’ve handicapped it before it’s out of the gate. Avoiding the Bible, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets is a good start (yes, that means you, Robert Heinlein), but the whole business is so fraught with peril that it’s surprising that any writers ever bother. We’re just natural risk-takers, I guess. Or rotten show-offs.

For there are surprisingly few authors who haven’t succumbed to temptation. A quick, dirty, and completely non-scientific trawl through my library revealed that only J.G. Ballard and Pat Cadigan seem to be wholly innocent. It also showed me just how many SF and fantasy authors get around the problem of finding exactly the right bon mot by the simple method of making one up instead. Tim Powers used a quote the fictional poet William Ashbless to provide both an epigraph and title for On Stranger Tides; Greg Egan has used poetry attributed to fictional characters as epigraphs to Permutation City and Distress. Other writers cunningly use fictional quotes as both epigraphs and infodumps; Isaac Asimov quoted extensively from the 116th Edition of Encyclopaedia Galactica in his Foundation novels; in Dune, Frank Herbert borrowed from, amongst others, The Manual of Maud’Dib, A Child’s History of Maud’Dib, and Maud’Dib’s Favorite Recipes for Dip (I may have made one of these up). Stephen Baxter’s use of epigraphs from the works of Hama Druz in Exultant continue this fine and thrifty tradition.

As for me, I have not one but two epigraphs for Cowboy Angels:

‘We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say: "Damn, we’re Americans."’
Lieutenant-General Jay Garner

‘We blew it.’
Wyatt, Easy Rider


Anonymous Al Reynolds said...

My experience, Paul, is that I find exactly the right bon-mot exactly one week after the book's gone into print...

What do you think about rock quotes, then? There's a fine line between saying "look, I've found this great quote that exactly encapsulates the big theme of my book" and "look at how cool my record collection is!"

May 05, 2006 3:36 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

One week after hardback publication? You can always use it in the paperback.

The trouble with quotes from rock/pop/whatever is that getting rights to quote even one line can be tedious and expensive. You're dead right about that fine line; I'm guilty of stayong way on the wrong side by coopting far too many titles for short stories. Must stop it.

May 05, 2006 7:06 pm  

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