Carmen Maria Machado’s book, In The Dream House opens with the following quote:
I never read prologues. I find them tedious. If what the author has to say is so important, why relegate it to the paratext? What are they trying to hide?
Reading this quote, I immediately warmed up to Machado: I, too, skip prologues if I can help it, and I was glad to find a like-minded author in the book I had just picked up.
Then, I turned the page, just to find out Machado had had the audacity to start her book claiming not to read prologues but included one in her book anyway.
I haven’t read it.
In fact, I’ve read In The Dream House twice and I skipped the prologue each time, driven by pettiness stemmed from a feeling of having been tricked by Machado, refusing to play her little prologue game (I love her, and In The Dream House, very much, though).
Of course, despite what I just said, it is important for me to start this essay by considering the differences between prologues, forewords, and prefaces, since they are all placed at the beginning of books, but they are not the same thing.
According to Masterclass, a preface is mostly used in academic texts, an essay by the author where they explain the whats and whys of having written the text ahead; prologues are mostly used in fiction, offering the reader extra information which might help them understand the book better; and forewords are an introductory part of a book written by someone else than the author.
For someone who likes reading so much, I do have a tendency to not like reading a lot of things: really long books, long descriptions, prologues, forewords, etc. In my view, if it’s not an integral part of the story, I have no business caring about it.
Of the three definitions above, though, prologues are indeed the only introductory text that I would usually consider reading in a book. Forewords and prefaces I always skipped without a second thought.
This year, however, I was about to change that. I was really determined to pick up a book and read it front to back, prologues and forewords included. And yet, it took me reading exactly two forewords to immediately regret my decision. As I picked one, and then the other, I found myself being spoiled for the books I was about to read. On both occasions.
I understand that forewords, by convention, are a comment at the beginning of a book by someone other than the author. But it confounds me why they would be placed at the very front when, as far as I can tell, there is no rule that they must stick to not letting the reader know more than they might want to know before starting a brand-new story.
The forewords I have read were extensive, and they considered key parts in the book which I absolutely did not want to find out before diving into it myself.
Now, I don’t necessarily not read a book because I’ve seen spoilers, but I do prefer going into them knowing as little as possible. Having someone describing detailed scenes of a book I am about to read for the very first time within the book itself is truly not it.
I can accept a slightly spoilery foreword being added to a classic; beloved works of literature are usually talked about enough that even new readers will have at least an idea of the story and its major plot points, so a new edition might be more directed to people rereading it, than to brand-new readers. And yet, while I can see some point in doing it in cases like these, it still confounds me the decision of making it a foreword when spoilers abound, rather than simply delegating it to an afterword.
It would perhaps be wise for publishers to consider a more opportune place in the book for such reflections, depending on how much the person invited to write them has managed to talk about the book in abstract terms, or straight into spoiler mode.
Allowing these explorations to be laid upon an afterword — which the reader will only encounter after turning the last page of the main story — would make perfectly fine the mention of possible major points in the book, a deep exploration of the story, showing the reader perhaps a new point of view into the work they have just consumed.
In the end, I don’t think I am asking for much: if a comment in a book contains spoilers, please do not allow them to fall into the foreword, unless it comes with a warning. Unaware readers such as myself will fall into the trap of trusting it is safe to start at the beginning — ready to, at last, embrace the foreword they’ve been avoiding, just to be put off by it forever.
Looking for more? Check out this article about the problem with prologues, or read an opposite opinion from someone who loves prologues.