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Selling his Story

The Peritextual Enhancement of O.J. Simpson’s Defence Fundraising Memoir

Marise Williams


To set the scene:  On June 17, 1994, 95 million television viewers watched a live broadcast of the slow-speed police pursuit of retired Pro American Football star player and film actor O.J. Simpson as he eschewed arrest for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.[1] The media spectacle culminated with Simpson’s surrender on the front lawn of his Rockingham residence. Deemed a flight risk, Simpson was remanded to police custody at the Los Angeles County Jail pending a Grand Jury trial, a preliminary hearing and a criminal trial. He remained in gaol for 474 days.

Prior to his arrest, Simpson had been successful, rich, famous, and black—a positive role model and an exemplar of a ‘color-blind’ or ‘race-neutral’ society. Simpson’s iconic status as an African-American celebrity inflamed the notoriety of the crime because both victims were white.[2] He may have been an innocent man wrongfully accused, but that was not the dominant narrative perpetuated by the mainstream media. Simpson’s arrest on a double murder charge became a national narrative in which his fall was read as a metaphor for the failure of a nation. Although the criminal trial delivered a not guilty verdict and the civil trial did find him responsible and liable for the deaths of Brown Simpson and Goldman, his innocence remains an unresolved issue in the court of public opinion. Whatever our beliefs about Simpson’s guilt, we have no definitive way of knowing. Those who do know are Simpson, Brown Simpson and Goldman—but only Simpson can tell us. This is what makes Simpson’s memoir an enticing commodity. I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions falls into the category of popular cultural artefact produced for consumption and distraction and thus carries no sense of serious literary purpose. The pleasure of this text is the sensationalised aesthetic of spectacle and speculation drawn from the true crime narrative of the Brentwood murders.

Authored in gaol and released in late January 1995 (during the first week of the prosecution’s opening statements in the criminal trial), Simpson’s memoir speaks to, and about, the official media-constructed story of his guilt which infiltrated everyday discourse.  Intercalated with Simpson’s narrative utterance are a select 108 of the 300,000 letters (fan mail and hate mail) he received from June to December 1994, whilst an inmate at the Los Angeles County Jail. In conjunction, an audiobook version of the text was produced with the more personal passages read by Simpson himself. The 300,000 letters Simpson received are used as the inspiration for his memoir and as its textual foundation.  The 108 positive and negative letters reproduced in I Want to Tell You function as personal endorsements for Simpson.

In the opening chapter of I Want to Tell You, Simpson outlines his publishing imperatives:

I have been accused of the crime of murder, a double murder. The State of California charged me on June 17, 1994, with the deaths of my former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and arrested me later that same day. Since the day of my arrest I have had to defend myself not only in court but in the eyes of the public and the news media.  In this book I am speaking publicly for the first time since my arrest, for two reasons.

First and foremost, I want to respond to the more than 300,000 people who wrote to me. I want to say thank you, I want to tell you those letters were a godsend. [ . . .] The second reason is financial. [. . .] I am using all my financial resources, and I am now in need of additional funds for my defense. I have asked the writers of the letters included here to contribute their letters, with an explanation that the income derived from this book will go to my defense fund.[3]

Conspicuous in its acknowledgement of the remunerative possibility of Simpson’s celebrity, and unashamed in its utilisation of his professional status as a pay-per-view commodity, I Want to Tell You functions as a fundraising benefit for O.J. Simpson. What is enacted, not stated, through this very public paid performance is Simpson’s personal need to authorise his own experience, to speak and be heard, to testify on his own behalf and therefore obtain an oral and aural status not available to him during the judicial process of the criminal trial.

This essay undertakes a reading of the peritextual elements of I Want to Tell You, the ornamental strategies and rhetorical tactics of its design as a commodity which is intended and produced for mass-market consumption. The peritext includes the book’s covers, the title page, book and chapter titles, the name of the author, dedications, inscriptions, epigraphs. Gérard Genette identifies the publisher’s peritext as the outermost peritext. This is the “zone,” or the aspect of a book characterised by the spatial and material features of “the cover, the title page, and their appendages,” as well as the “selection of format, of paper, of typeface, [. . .] executed by the typesetter and printer but decided on by the publisher, possibly in consultation with the author.”[4]  The publisher’s peritext constitutes part of the paratext which according to Genette

is what enables a text to become a book and to be offered as such to its readers and, more generally, to the public. More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold, or—a word Borges used a propos of a preface—a ‘vestibule’ that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back. It is an ‘undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary on either the inward side (turned toward the text) or the outward side (turned toward the world’s discourse about the text), an edge, or, as Philippe Lejeune put it, ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.’ Indeed, this fringe, always the conveyor of a commentary that is authorial or more or less legitimated by the author, constitutes a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that – whether well or poorly understood and achieved – is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it (more pertinent, of course, in the eyes of the author and his allies).[5]

This, then, is a study of surfaces and exteriors, looking at, rather than into, the public “pre-face” of Simpson’s memoir, that is, the dustjacket and cover of his book. What is uncovered by such a reading is the seductive display of the text as a material object that promotes itself as such to “its readers and, more generally, to the public.”[6] Simpson’s memoir solicits attention with its promise of an intimate encounter. The authorial desire to confess intimated by the title I Want to Tell You bears a particular allure and fascination that compels us to bear witness to Simpson’s narrative.  However, it is the external surfaces, the special features of Simpson’s memoir, such as the shape and size of the book, the design of the dust jacket and cover, the stock of the paper, that make I Want to Tell You a fascinating (and telling) popular cultural curiosity. There is something resonant and poignant in the attempt to frame Simpson’s text as more than a generic, impersonal commodity, as invaluable, personal memorabilia, as a souvenir or keepsake, as textual ornament infused with affect, sensation, wonder and curiosity.

The objectification of the text

Simpson’s text has resonance of the kind described by Stephen Greenblatt as “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand.”[7] This phatic potential is emotionally and commercially exploited by Simpson. His defence fundraising memoir is an occasional text. Its purpose is urgent, imperative, of the moment and suggests a short shelf-life. The peritextual display of I Want to Tell You exhibits the text’s resonant force for the reader to experience, contemplate and interrogate not as voyeur but as an interested and curious consumer. Simpson’s exposed and precarious existential position as alleged perpetrator of double murder makes his literary practice a risky business, a hazardous proposition. His uncensored narrative willingness, unprotected textual openness and emotional fragility only heightens his vulnerability, laying him open to attack. Simpson dreads censure and yet he risks it. Thomas Greene who has written on what he calls the “vulnerable text” suggests that the symbolic wounding to which literature is prone may confer upon it power and fecundity.[8] Simpson’s wounding—symbolic and actual—is his source of narrative power. Exultation and arrest are dependent on the conditions of the moment in which it was written, on Simpson’s fragile and vulnerable emotional state. As Greenblatt notes, “precariousness is a rich source of resonance.” Simpson’s text also has the power to elicit wonder because, writes Greenblatt, it has “the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.”9 I Want to Tell You is a curio, a surprising and fascinating object.

As a three-dimensional textual object, Simpson’s memoir extends itself to the reader and the wider public in a self-conscious, commodious gesture.10 The paratextual display that occurs prior to, and outside the textual space of I Want to Tell You seems to infuse the book – even though it is an inanimate object—with a kind of agency, an agency born of desire—the desire of the commodity to be consumed (an effect of its self-marketing ability) and the desire of the reader to consume (a will to know and to possess). The desire mobilised by the paratextual is built into Simpson’s authorial intent: his own desire to raise funds for his legal defence. It is a desire that is acted out in the commercial process of commodification, exhibition and consumption. This primarily visual spirit of engagement and exchange is mobilised by scopophilic desire, a need to look and a pleasure in looking at the spectacle of the Simpson case. The peritextual elements aim to do more than secure our interest or attention as potential consumers. They aim to generate a lust as well as a curiosity that is simultaneously erotic, emotional and intellectual.11

In order to satisfy these urges, the packaging of Simpson’s text proffers a reified self-presentation of Simpson himself, the promise of a personal and private encounter. The audio book version of I Want to Tell You offers an additional unique opportunity to hear Simpson’s voice as he speaks out from gaol. Simpson’s reading is recorded in the visiting area of the Los Angeles County Jail, and the background clatter of movement and “the muffled speech of other prisoners and their visitors” captured in the audio book recording creates the sensation of a gaol visit with inmate 4013970.12

As an attainable and touchable ‘literary’ representation of Simpson, his memoir demonstrates an engaging visual rhetorical display which places it within a broader cultural context. Simpson’s memoir sells itself with the captivating promise of the fetish, the magical power invested in commodities and their capacity to not only gratify but satiate the desire mobilised in the inquisitive, cruising customer.  The text offers physical, mental and emotional stimulation, the experience of an affecting visual and auditory contact that fulfills the obligations or requirements of the “aesthetic contract (‘to teach, to move, to delight’).” 13 Julian Murphet argues that

whatever the literary work manages to teach us about our contradictory space will delight and move us at least as much as conventional affective devices, for in a context such as ours the cognitive itself has become a source of unexpected pleasure. That context is, of course, one in which aesthetic pleasure (especially formal visual and auditory stimulation) is no longer confined to the isolated work of art, but has spilled out over and saturated social space itself.14

The fleeting, lightweight “aesthetic pleasure” of I Want to Tell You is incorporated into its commercial intent as a commodity produced for consumption and generated by the “saturated” social and discursive space in which Simpson’s text operates.

The packaging of I Want to Tell You as a product, in book and audio book form, reveals strategic ornamentation. The graphic display of the dust jacket, the publisher’s peritext, is dramatic and eye-catching. The direct simplicity of the front cover denotes verbally and connotes graphically that is it a space of factual disclosure. The uppercase formatting of the title “I WANT TO TELL YOU” resembles a sensational newspaper headline. Featured at the top of the front cover and embossed in black on a white gloss stock, the titular apparatus is styled for cognitive and tactile impact. The subtitle, “My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions,” anchors the title through its placement at the bottom of the front cover. The format of the subtitle—italicised title case lettering in a smaller font size, black ink, not embossed, on a white gloss stock background—signifies its subordinate function. Yet, its inclusion on the dust jacket denotes a titular importance as explanatory device, indicating the contents and the genre.15 The subtitle also supports the authorial connection to the title, clarifying what is proffered by the titular “I.”

Placed between the title and the subtitle on a wide black gloss band is the authorial by-line: “by O.J. Simpson.”  Embossed in large gold lettering, the ornamental denotation of the authorial identity “O.J. Simpson” catches the light and shines. The “by” is italicised and reverse-printed in white on the black overprinted band. Simpson’s name is treated for maximum merchandising effect, standing out literally, for it is Simpson’s name that sells the book. Simpson’s name attracts attention, secures interest, makes the sale. His authorial claim identifies and dramatises the titular “I.” The prestigious presentational hue of Simpson’s name enhances his image with its connotations or overtones. The colour gold is associated with winning, wealth, honour, success. To print “O.J. Simpson” in either black or white would have been a risky manoeuvre with racial connotations. Instead, the wide black band overprinted with Simpson’s name resembles a black armband worn as a sign of mourning.  This textual adornment symbolically and melodramatically signifies a multilateral mourning—personal and societal, his and ours—for the loss of his freedom, the loss of his ex-wife, the loss of innocence, the loss of the dream of a ‘color-blind’ or ‘race-neutral’ society.16

The back cover of the dust jacket plays intriguingly with the charisma of Simpson and the image of the criminal trial. The full-page colour photograph of Simpson in the courtroom, “conferring with his attorneys,” captures a private moment taking place within the frame of an overt publicity and an overt public gaze.17 Cochran and Shapiro huddle close to Simpson. The two men appear to be listening carefully to Simpson’s words. Cochran touches his cheek, Shapiro touches his necktie, both in thought. Simpson sits upright, hands by his sides, lips parted. The eyes of the three men do not meet and their faces are expressionless, inscrutable. Cochran, Shapiro and Simpson seem unaware of the camera, yet their lack of facial expression belies their knowledge of an excessive scrutiny and surveillance. This ‘candid’ shot has a promotional function, suggesting to the perusing consumer that the textual encounter will deliver the access and insight promised by the financial and textual exchange, that it will bring them closer to Simpson, that it will let them inside his mind..

The external cover heralds a public announcement, a call to attention and a responsive cry that anticipates an oratorical spoken pronouncement. The inside folds of the dust jacket are strategically important in promotional terms. They reverberate with the auditory claims of the publisher advertising Simpson’s narrative as compelling, revealing, unique. The brief superlative biographies of Simpson and Schiller (Simpson’s amanuensis and editor) spruik the credentials of their fame and legitimacy.  Invoked in this section is the linguistic style of the media exposé.  This paratextual point reproduces an entertainment media domain in which the ordinary and everyday are promoted as extraordinary and fascinating, where the privacy of the confessional obtains public and commercial currency through intonation. As a paratextual device, a vestibular space or threshold, the dust jacket is an unlocked gateway, metaphorically opening to Simpson. As the will to know and have becomes an urgent necessity, an audience of consumers is corralled, transfixed by Simpson and his text. Here on view for our predilection in the publisher’s peritext Simpson stands silent but not absent. Specularised and spectacularised textually, Simpson is elevated and auctioned.

The detachable, protective, promotional dust jacket of I Want to Tell You disguises the fabric-bound hardcover book beneath.18  A surprising and significant shift from a public to a private surface is enacted by the removal of this dust jacket. The initials “O.J.” etched in gold lettering on the hidden cover underneath continue the graphic theme of the official front cover, though this personal inscription seems more appropriate for a private journal. The gold mark is a sign of authorship and ownership.  Its placement signals an opening to the intimate, internalised space of confidential thought and feeling. Although we are welcome to intrude—Simpson invites us to do so—this veneer elicits the feeling that we are about to enter a privileged realm, provoking and tantalising our voyeuristic desire. For Genette, a dust jacket is a wrapper or wrapping, a paratextual support that resembles clothing.19 The dust jacket encloses what lies within and the experience of entering the book becomes a delightful process of un-wrapping (undressing) the favour it purportedly contains. The reader’s physical introduction to the text is preparation for and initiation into the process of disclosure that will follow.

The inclusion of Simpson’s photographic mementos accompanied by his own recollections reinforces the sense of a private record of a life, thereby giving the book a sentimental keepsake quality. It does not have the aura of a mass-market release. The A5 publishing dimensions of the notebook-size hardcover, and the quality and weight of the page stock distinguish the special value and status of Simpson’s memoir as something other than a mass-market paperback. The publishing strategy, however, positioned the book as a mass-market text and the ready-made marketing campaign guaranteed that I Want to Tell You would be a bestseller. The initial print run for the book was 500,000 copies and the publishers “reserved press time for reprinting within a week if the demand was there.”[9] In an interview with Publishers’ Weekly, Simpson’s amanuensis Schiller said Simpson had

demanded that the tape be made available at the unusually low price of $[US]9.95 (sic), ‘because he felt that there were lots of disenfranchised people out there who could not afford the book’ [. . . and] added, ‘We also reduced the size of the tape’s packaging to fit in paperback racks so that people can buy it at check-out counters at places like Wal-Mart and drugstores.’[10]

The book’s material packaging is a marketing device that figures Simpson’s defence fundraising memoir as a souvenir, a coveted cultural artefact. As an item of memorabilia, the text touts its trade as collectable merchandise and advertises its status as a rare and precious private memento made accessible to the public.

The packaging of the audio book mimics that of the printed book. The audiocassette is mounted inside a cardboard box of a standard paperback size. The front flap opens like a book to reveal the promotional blurb and to credit the actors whose voices appear on the tape. The same photograph that appears on the back of the dust jacket appears on the back cover of the audio book presentation box. The layout for the front covers of the presentation box and the audiocassette case are the same as the book with some additional information at the top and the bottom of the page. The audio book has a special feature, “O.J. SPEAKS OUT FROM JAIL,” which is advertised in uppercase gold lettering on a black band across the top of the front cover. A red oval sticker on the clear plastic wrapper encasing the audio book reiterates the unique proposition of this version of Simpson’s memoir: “HEAR O.J.’s PERSONAL SPOKEN MESSAGE!” Simpson’s voice recorded in the visiting area of the Los Angeles County Jail makes the audio book an item of memorabilia distinct from the printed book.

The promise of a close proximity to the incarcerated Simpson, the unique consumer benefit offered by the audio book, is not necessarily a strong selling point. What may have been for some an exciting close encounter was for this listener too close for comfort. For months I could not listen to his voice. The audio book remained sealed in its protective clear plastic packaging. When I finally listened to the audiocassette Simpson did not sound like the charming and terrifying force I had imagined.  He seemed like a humbled man reading carefully from a script. I did not have the same emotional aversion to I Want to Tell You in printed form. The copy of the book I ordered in Australia from the United States arrived shrink-wrapped in clear plastic, adding another step to the unwrapping process. The tactile involvement was charged with an enticing and urgent arousal as I sifted through the physical layers of packaging that separated me from Simpson and what he wanted to tell me.

With the publication of I Want to Tell You Simpson sells and tells his story for a pay-per-view price. The external covers of the text are the consumer’s first encounter with Simpson, providing an introduction to a narrative in which a famous man accused of a violent double homicide protests his innocence and attempts to repair his damaged public image. For social, financial and personal reasons, the visual display articulated by the publisher’s peritext of Simpson’s memoir is more than ornamental. Both its intention and its design are to enhance Simpson’s public image. The peritextual enhancement of Simpson’s defence fundraising memoir, working in tandem with the style of Simpson’s narrative performance, has a commercially deployed and morally vindicating rhetorical function.

Notes

[1] Between 9:00 p.m. and midnight on June 12, 1994, Brown Simpson and Goldman were violently attacked and killed on the pathway outside the front door of Brown Simpson’s condominium at 875 South Bundy Drive, Brentwood, in West Los Angeles, California. The murders were committed while Brown Simpson and Simpson’s children, Sydney, aged eight, and Justin, aged five, slept upstairs. Brown Simpson received four fatal knife wounds, including one that had nicked her spinal column, nearly decapitating her. Goldman received numerous non-fatal cuts and four fatal injuries: a severed left jugular vein, a perforated thorax and right lung, a “deep stab wound to the femoral artery in his upper left leg,” and his abdominal aorta was cut. In addition, Goldman’s body showed evidence of stabbing and slashing wounds inflicted postmortem.  Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, as told to Dan E. Moldea, Evidence Dismissed: The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O.J. Simpson (New York: Pocket, 1997), 111; 109; 111; 111.

[2] Two black men (Simpson and A.C.Cowlings) in a Ford Bronco with one gun (a pistol) required the tactical response of “two dozen squad cars.” Los Angeles Times Staff, In Pursuit of Justice: The People vs. Orenthal James Simpson (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times, 1995), 23. Simpson surrendered under the surveillance of “twenty-three SWAT officers and four sergeants,” a “vehicle assault team,” four snipers, a “two-man negotiating team [. . .] and ‘one full element’ of well-trained Metro officers,” police helicopters and media helicopters. Lange and Vannatter, 166 – 167. Simpson was not an anonymous fugitive black man. His death was not an option.  After the Rodney King beating was captured on video on March 5, 1991, the reputation of the LAPD could not withstand another racial indictment and accusations of overzealous policing, misjudgement or use of excessive force. The 1992 state trial (which was followed by a later federal trial) and subsequent acquittal of the Los Angeles Police Officers involved in the King case sparked the LA riots.

[3] O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions (Boston: Little, 1995), 3-11.

[4] Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 16. Trans. of Seuils (1987).

[5] Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, trans. Jane E. Lewin, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1-2. Trans. of Seuils (1987). Genette separates the paratext into peritext and epitext. The epitext includes publicity and marketing materials such as reviews. Genette, 4-5.

[6] Genette, 1.

[7] Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics And Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, (Washington: Smithsonian, 1991), 42.

[8] Greenblatt cites Thomas Greene, The Vulnerable Text: Essays on Renaissance Literature, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 100.

[9] Greenblatt, 42.

[10] Not all people who see the cover of Simpson’s book in bookstores, supermarkets or in the media will read it. And it follows that not everyone who bought Simpson’s book would have read it.

[11] In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde notes: “The desire to consume is a kind of lust.” Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (London: Vintage, 1999), 10.

[12] Lawrence Schiller, “Foreword,” I Want to Tell You: My Response to Your Letters, Your Messages, Your Questions, O.J. Simpson, (Boston: Little, 1995), xiii-xiv.

[13] Julian Murphet, Literature and Race in Los Angeles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 26.

[14] Murphet, 26.

[15] Gérard Genette observes that titles have three elements: title, subtitle and genre indication. Genette, 56-58.

[16] This band, which also appears on the back cover of the dust jacket but is mostly hidden by a large photograph of Simpson and his attorneys, resembles the band Genette identifies in Paratexts: “The technical term is ‘bande de lancement’ [launching band] or ‘bande de nouveauté’ [new-publication band]”. Genette, 27.

[17] Simpson, dust jacket back cover.

[18] Genette notes the function of the front cover of the dust jacket of a book as “poster and possibly as protection.”

[19] 19 Gennette, 27.

[20] 20 Gregory Jaynes, “To Bankroll his Defense, the Accused Expands the Lucrative O.J. Industry with a Self-Justifying Book,” Time Online Edition 6 Feb. 1995. (accessed 13 Jan. 2004). Available from <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/archives/advanced/>.

[21] Maureen O’Brien, “O.J. with a Twist,” Publishers’ Weekly (16 Jan. 1995): 311.