“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1927
“Recognize that the worth of human life varies.”–Peter Singer, 2000
A writer has several ways to enhance the reader’s experience. The quotations above serve as epigraphs for Books One and Two of my new novel, Gods and Lesser Men. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an epigraph is “a short quotation introducing a book or chapter . . . that indicates the leading idea or sentiment” of the work.
In her New Republic review of Rosemary Ahern’s The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin,Rachel Buurma discusses the history and purpose of the epigraph. Most often, the quotation attempts to link a new book to the great literature of the past, but one type she mentions is “the less-than-literary epigraph . . . the most dramatic demonstration of what all epigraphs are designed to do–make us notice that the creation of literature is a shared act between author and reader. When we read a decidedly unliterary phrase as the first words of a literary work, we are forced to notice the flickering moment when we pass from the world to the book–when words become literature.”
Whether or not my work is literature is for someone else to decide, but that’s the objective each time I sit down at the keyboard. When the words that are the epigraphs in Gods and Lesser Men were written, they typified a surprisingly hardy view of generations of elites, i.e., that some human lives are more valuable than others. That attitude persists today. The epigraphs (hopefully) alert the reader that the author intends to examine the issue.
Titles can likewise foreshadow themes. For example, The Kingfishers addresses our refusal to come to grips with the nuclear waste that fouls our world. The kingfisher is one of the few birds that fouls its own nest. The black owls that perch on St. Mary’s steeple in The Black Owls are allusive portents of the disaster the hero is trying to avoid. A Hollow Cup is an unfulfilled quest.
I like to use covers to link to the novels’ settings. The cover for The Black Owls is an aerial view of Radcliffe Square at the University Of Oxford. The graveyard on the front of The Kingfishers figures prominently in the story. A Hollow Cup has a watercolor of the Post Office building in Chapel Hill, NC, where much of the action takes place. The cover for Gods and Lesser Men is the exception–the “tree” is a symbol of the eugenics movement in the ’20s and ’30s.
“Writing” is not limited to the story. A writer can provide a reader with all sorts of things to attract his attention.