A Supposedly Fun Blog

June 29, 2009

Against footnotes.

Filed under: Uncategorized — annielowrey @ 10:28 pm

By Annie Lowrey

I’ll disagree with Matt here. I hate footnotes.

In non-fiction, I find them acceptable. But in fiction? They’re distracting and aesthetically grating — niggling little barnacles, pimpling the text. Further, it seems to me they’re virtually always unnecessary. If something is integral to an understanding of what’s going on, it can go in a parenthesis or just in the text itself. If it isn’t, or is just due diligence, it can go in an endnote for the reader to peruse when he feels like it.

I make some exceptions for discursive footnotes — the long one in Sabbath’s Theater for instance. But as a general rule, they’re obnoxious.

As for the book at hand: I don’t mind IJ’s endnotes, at least right now. As a gut feeling, I dislike the book’s attempts to disconcert and distract the reader, the “deliberate antagonizing” as Matt put it, though I understand that’s part of the point. (And explains why IJ contains numerous asides better-suited for the endnotes than the endnotes themselves.) But, I like to be absorbed in a book, and it’s odd to have that impulse toyed with.


  1. There are actually a lot more novels that use footnotes than you think. Glyph by Percival Everett, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Juno Diaz. One of the things that I like about them is they dislodge the reader from the level of the story and introduce the narrator as someone telling a story. They’re playfully self-referential in academic books like Glyph and IJ and honest in Heartbreaking Work and Oscar Wao. Messing with forms like notations makes the book behave differently in the reader’s hands, it dictates how it will be read. Sometimes I’ll even find myself angry at the narrator for constantly shifting levels. But I guess that’s why I study post-modern lit.

    Comment by mpharris — June 30, 2009 @ 12:16 am | Reply

  2. I concur, in regards to the Oscar Wao footnotes — everything about that book is brilliant.

    Comment by Charles — June 30, 2009 @ 1:25 pm | Reply

  3. I have often wondered why lengthy fiction does not include an index. There is nothing more annoying than coming across a character or a reference to an event that appeared 300 pages earlier, and not really remembering it. an index would help a reader follow a plot or theme.

    Comment by Gspng — June 30, 2009 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

  4. Is anyone reading this on a Kindle? It’s available. The Kindle makes reading endnotes less effort than keeping one finger in the back of a book and flipping, and it provides a de facto index via word search.

    Comment by Paul Turner — June 30, 2009 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  5. My absolutely favorite use of footnotes in a novel comes from Good Omens, a wonderfully silly beach read by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The whole point is that they make the book more ridiculous. Perfect.

    Comment by Cara Arcuni — July 1, 2009 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

  6. “But, I like to be absorbed in a book, and it’s odd to have that impulse toyed with.” That’s a fairly common practice in a lot of postmodern literature: the subverting of reader’s desires in various ways. I don’t think it’s an effort to antagonize; it’s an effort to emphasize certain things (often, the fictional, constructed nature of the work itself).

    Having two bookmarks, one in the main text and one in the endnotes, entirely solves the problem (I’ve made it up to three, once, for one of the incredibly long footnotes).

    Comment by James Martin — July 2, 2009 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

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