Wednesday 28 October 2009

Footnotes to Literary Works

Recently I had occasion to think about footnotes, and more particularly, about footnotes to literary works, when a friend showed me a copy of the poetry collection, FEG Stupid Poems for Intelligent Children (Hirsch, 2002). It has many footnotes overall, and at least one footnote at the bottom of every page. The poems are fun, and the illustrations are innovative and engaging. The footnotes contain many definitions of words, references to literary works from which certain lines are cited within the poem, and encouragements to the reader to try and get to the bottom of what the poem is about. And then there is the odd gratuitous one: “We fought tooth and nail to keep this poem in so our illustrious illustrator would have some room for his art” (p. 28). Indeed, there are no unfootnoted poems in this book. Maybe that is what bothers me about it. If I were an “intelligent child” for whom the book is ostensibly written, I wonder if I would relish or reject the footnotes greeting me on every page. Could the footnotes interrupt or derail the emotional experiences that the poems themselves might elicit? Might it be more fun to track down references oneself?

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.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed Oscar Wao quite a lot, but I confess that sometimes I came back from a footnote that spanned multiple pages to find I had to reorient myself to the narrative. It made for a choppy experience.

I can't help but contrast that with the footnotes in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy which are hilarious comments from the title character. I looked forward to those comments. So, yes, footnotes, but fictive ones.

The study you mention would be interesting, indeed.

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Carolyn. I had a similar experience reading Oscar Wao. It was somewhat annoying to be reading such long footnotes. They tended to intrude when a figure from Dominican history was named in the narrative. On the other hand, I wonder if I could have as fully appreciated the characters' motives in the absence of the commentary. I don't know Stroud's work, but will check it out.

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