The same questions arise in the context of footnotes to fiction. Would the author’s ongoing intrusion into the reader’s experience of the main text annoy? But it seems that it isn’t always just the voice of the author that intrudes. I recently discovered on the web an impressively extensive list of novels that include one or more footnotes. From the brief annotations to entries on the list, it is clear that writers of fiction often make quite creative use of footnotes, through which characters sometimes speak to each other, or in asides to the reader, or in which the narrator situates the main narrative in context. Indeed, the Pulitzer committee seems not to have been bothered by the 33 numbered, and on occasion quite lengthy, footnotes to Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So it seems that reading enjoyment may not necessarily be impeded by the presence of footnotes.
It would be interesting to find out to what extent readers think footnotes enhance or diminish their experience of literary works. It would also be interesting to discover whether their belief concerning the degree to which footnotes help or hinder their reading corresponds or does not correspond to their actual experience of reading the work. A fruitful study might use Larsen and Seilman’s (1988) “self-probed retrospection” method of putting “e”s (for emotions) and “m”s (for memories) in the margins while reading. One group would read the novel with the footnotes and another group would read it without them. The number and intensities of emotions experienced in the two conditions could be revealing. Further, before participants have begun reading the novel, they could be asked (among other questions, of course, so as not to tip them off concerning the study’s goal) if they usually read the footnotes to whatever they are reading and whether they think it enhances or diminishes their enjoyment of the narrative. Now, I haven’t looked into whether someone has already done such a study. If not, it seems to me a worthwhile one to do.
Díaz, Junot. (2007). The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books.
Hirsch, R. (2002). FEG Stupid poems for intelligent children. New York: Little, Brown, & Company.
Larsen, S. F., & Seilman, U. (1988). Personal remindings while reading literature. Text, 8, 411-429.