My Epigraph

Discussion recently turned to epigraphs on an editors’ board I’m on (Editors Association of Earth — if you’re an editor and you’re on Facebook, check it out).

Academic publishers, it seems, are OK with epigraphs for books, and chapters of multi-author books, but they frown on epigraphs used for sections or even chapters of single-author books.

Self-publishers in some genres — how-to was mentioned — are apparently prone to excess in the epigraph department. They’re also prone to misquoting and sloppy sourcing. Given the number of erroneous and sloppily sourced quotations floating around the internet, this is not surprising.

Epigraphs may not be covered under “fair use,” the conventions that guide when it’s OK to use quotes and excerpts from a copyrighted work without the copyright holder’s permission. This was a surprise to some of us, including me. The argument is that epigraphs are not essential to a work the way, say, quotations from a book are essential to a review of that book.

Aside:Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

I’ve used epigraphs in some of my essays, one-act plays, and even poems over the years, without ever asking permission and without ever being threatened with a lawsuit. My works generally circulate in areas that aren’t bristling with lawyers, and the works I’ve quoted from are usually written and published by people whose approach to fair use is probably similar to mine.

The epigraph for my novel, The Mud of the Placewas different. I knew I had to get permission. Not for legal reasons, though novels do tend to travel further than essays, poems, and one-act plays, and I didn’t want the source of my epigraph to find out accidentally that I’d used her words. The big reason was that her words had inspired me to write the novel — which meant overcoming my fear of attempting anything longer than 40 pages.

The story: I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Much of what’s written about Martha’s Vineyard in books and the national press is incomplete, distorted, and even flat-out wrong. In August 1993, President Bill Clinton came here for a three-week vacation. I got to watch the national press corps and others swarming all over the island and getting it wrong wrong wrong. It was infuriating.

Paley TNY clip sm

From the May 16, 1994, New Yorker

The following May, a little squib leapt out at me from the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker. What caught my eye was the painting of poet-writer-activist Grace Paley at the top. What changed my life were her words: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

It came in response to an interviewer’s question: Would she comment on the situation in South Africa? (Nelson Mandela had been released from prison only four years earlier.)

If only the journalists and novelists and travel writers who wrote about Martha’s Vineyard were that wise! For a while I kept fuming at them because they weren’t. Then it dawned on me: I’m a writer, and my feet are  in the mud of this place. If not me, who?

Paley’s words kept me going while I slogged through the mud, not of Martha’s Vineyard but of doubting the importance of what I was doing and my ability to pull it off. They gave the manuscript its working title and eventually its actual title and, of course, its epigraph.

The Mud of the Place finally made it into print in December 2008. Grace Paley had died of cancer on August 22, 2007. I regret to this day that I didn’t try to contact her during the years I was working on it, but, well, I just wasn’t that confident that I’d ever finish it or that it would ever see the light of day.

Once we entered the tunnel to publication, with definite light at the end of it, I knew I needed someone‘s OK. My epigraph didn’t come from one of Paley’s books. It was an off-the-cuff comment, and maybe something she would have revised if she’d had the chance? Not to mention, it had given my novel its title. Plus — well, Grace Paley’s words and example had inspired so many people over the years. I was one of them, and I wanted to acknowledge the debt. I located and contacted Nora Paley, Grace’s daughter and literary executor. I enclosed the clipping and told the story. I was thrilled when she said yes, go ahead.

So when anyone argues that epigraphs aren’t essential to a work, I shake my head and think, But sometimes they are.


8 thoughts on “My Epigraph

  1. What a great story. I’m so glad you got permission to use the quote. I love the quote and love the title of your book.

    I’m interested in the topic, as well, as I’m sitting on a historical novel set in the late 17th century that has won some literary awards but never got sold to a publisher. What is holding me back is that I have these wonderful quotes at the beginning of every chapter taken from historical accounts from that period, but haven’t had the time or even the knowledge to get permission to use them. The words are ancient, but the editions they appeared in are, I assume, copyrighted. Several people have advised that I publish the novel without the quotes, but they add so much (in my opinion) that I don’t want to do that.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmm, that’s a challenge. Has an agent or a publisher told you that the epigraphs might be a problem? The period documents are certainly in the public domain, but if they’ve been translated into English, the translations might not be. In that case, retranslating them might be an option. Does the fact that these quotes have appeared in a contemporary, copyrighted work affect the status of the original? I seriously don’t think so. The authors of works that are quoted in other works don’t lose rights to their originals.

      If the quotes you want to use originally appeared in academic papers or university-press books, my guess is that if you asked for permission, you’d probably get it, and quite possibly without charge (though scholarly journals and university presses are not exactly flush with money). If they appeared in high-profile books with litigious authors and/or publishers, then exercise caution.

      There’s also the issue of verifying any quotes that you’ve obtained from secondary and tertiary sources. This may have been done by the author or press that used them in the first place, but then again, maybe not.


  2. Susanna, thanks for that. The discussion here and on Facebook has been very helpful to me, and motivating to try some of the possibilities suggested. I appreciate it. As I mentioned on FB, I think the Hopi sources might be harder to get permissions for than the Spanish ones.

    I never had a publisher or agent tell me that the quotations would be a problem, but I never sold the novel, either. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • In a discussion of epigraphs in an editors’ group on Facebook, several of us said it had never occurred to us that epigraphs weren’t covered under Fair Use — and all of us have been around publishing for quite a while. I’m not at all convinced that they aren’t, but I haven’t gone looking for instances where an author or a publisher has been sued or threatened with a suit for using an epigraph without permission.


  3. Wonderful discussion–and gratifying that Grace Paley’s daughter was able to do the generous thing. Also wonderful for me to hear about “your feet in the mud’ of a place.

    Liked by 1 person

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