6.01.2006

Foot notes fa la la la flat

My dear Miss Snark,

How do you feel about footnotes in fiction works (outside fantasy linguistics)? Say a few characters were talking, and mention something in passing which most readers are probably unfamiliar with, but with which all the characters are; would a footnote be preferable to an "as you know, Bob"? Or should we just make like Dan Brown and add in an arrogant, patronizing narration?



Before I read Jonathan Stroud I would have poo-pooed the idea of footnotes with a great deal of snarkiness. After reading him, I'm not quite so sure. Done well, ok. Done badly, ew ew ew.

The trouble with footnotes is that they break up the narrative drive with a sledgehammer. Even Stroud's have that effect but his are hilariously funny, develop the character, give some of the backstory...and did I mention funny?

As You Know Bob is to be avoided at all costs. I'll keep the footnotes if I can Kill Bob.

Patronizing narration? ew ew ew. But Dan Brown sold sixty gazillion copies so yanno...have at it.

29 comments:

Jane said...

For some really well done footnotes, look at Tomcat in Love by Tim O'Brien

S. W. Vaughn said...

Terry Pratchett also incorporates hilarious footnotes in his Discworld novels. I think comedic value is the only reason for footnoting. (Is that a real word?)

Bookview said...

Terry Pratchett uses footnotes in his hillarious Discworld novels for comic effect. And Susanna Clarke used footnotes in creating something very like a Victorian book of history in her novel "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." I think in both cases the footnotes were used to add a special effect. Footnotes that just add information would for me be a distraction, a case of the author pulling me out of the story to frantically whisper something vital in my ear before I go too far into the narrative. Whereas with Pratchett and Clarke, the footnotes are part of the story.

December Quinn said...

Gaiman and Pratchett do great footnotes, too.

E. M. #667 said...

Pratchett does some good footnotes. But the greatest footnote EVAH is in Bored of the Rings, in the Prologue no less:
"*Either Arglebargle IV or someone else."

Well, OK, it's better in context. Also if you are a total LotR geek and recognize the original footnote that it parodies!

Elektra said...

Oh, goodness, December Quinn--just finished Stardust, and I couldn't stand it. Are his other ones better?

Jen said...

One SF author I read a while back -- Catherine Asaro -- didn't do footnotes, but she did include a very understandable (to me, anyway) explanation about quantum physics in the back of one of her books.

Inkwolf said...

Another book with good footnotes--Michael Crichton's Congo. They were full of his most fascinating research information on gorillas and Africa. I'd say that the footnotes in that book were probably more worth reading than the actual novel.

Jasper Fforde's 'Thursday Next' series has an unusual use for footnotes, as I remember. Characters in the Bookworld use foot-note-o-phones to communicate, and the footnotes contain their phone conversations...

Mark said...

Mine has them referencing the real scientific sourcing used in the novel so readers will be led willingly, I hope, to more relevant information.

Jeb said...

I sold 3 people on Jonathan Stroud in the past week by quoting just ONE of his hilarious footnotes.

OTOH, I long since quit reading the Jane Austen mysteries because the footnotes were generally redundant and broke up the already rather slow pace of the narration to an unacceptable degree.

Footnotes that are needed to understand the setting or the plot make me crazy. Show me the vital info in context, or don't tell me about it.

Jeb

S. W. Vaughn said...

Oh my -- many Pratchett fans here. *whoop!* None of you can read my fourth book... I stole a sentence from him.

[Borrowed a sentence, I mean. Borrowed. That's the word I was searching for.]

ouhdqrv said...

As you know Bob, footnotes serve a purpose in acdemic works when there is a need to display how very much more you know than can possibly be included in the text.
But gee.
If I'm just reading some book, it's another question.
If you can't fit it in, maybe you don't need it.
Ironic or parody notes are a different thing.
(Arglebargle IV indeed.)

Rick said...

Oh how I love Miss Snark for pimping Stroud. I loved those books and his usage of the footnotes so much that I very briefly tried using them.
Then I beat myself in the head with the footnotes until I told myself to never try that again.

Chrysoula said...

Another vote for Pratchett's use of footnotes and Susanna Clarke's use of footnotes.

Both of them use them to provide interesting setting information that adds a huge amount of depth to the story (especially in 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell').

My husband mentions 'House of Leaves' which apparently goes crazy with the extra notation.

Anonymous said...

I believe S. W. Vaughn meant to say "internalized"...

December Quinn said...

I haven't read Stardust yet, Elektra, so I don't know if it's not as good as his usual stuff or not...All I can suggest is give American Gods a try and see what you think, or Good Omens, which he cowrote with Pratchett is a lot of fun.

I really like Gaiman, but admit he's not quite as great in novel form as in comic form.

heidi said...

So I'm thinking of C.C. Finlay's short story "Footnotes" published in F&SF a few years ago.

It was nothing but footnotes.

jeanjeanie said...

I've read most of Gaiman's work, and Stardust is easily his weakest novel, but it's actually a novelization of a graphic novel and IMO works better in its original form. It's definitely not the best introduction to his work. I'm particularly fond of Good Omens and Neverwhere, but his latest, Anansi Boys, is just plain brilliant.

Watercolorz said...

The first time I came across footnotes was Paul Zindel’s I NEVER LOVED YOUR MIND.

I do agree that they have to be done exceptionally well and the breaks have to become part of the narrative for them not to become awkward and distracting. ~W

Dwight The Troubled Teen said...

That's why God made Google.

Christine said...

If I remember correctly (it's been a while since I read any of his books) Douglas Adams also uses footnotes quite successfully for comic effect.

Anonymous said...

How can no one have mentioned the inimitable David Foster Wallace, KING of footnotes? Many of them just as engrossing and hysterical as the text itself...

Bev Vincent said...

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves has a complete subplot contained in the inventively designed footnotes. Maybe subplot is too weak a term--it's more of a co-plot.

SherryDecker said...

Footnotes are so pretentious. And yes, they do break the mood and remind me I'm reading. They are a stylistic gimick that I do not care for.

Manic Mom said...

Karyn of Save Karyn does this footnote thing in her fictional novel 20 Times A Lady.

Just Me said...

The first time I came across footnotes in fiction was in Watership Down. They work well there - giving you little snippets of information about the rabbits' language and so on, to help you make sense of what's going on.

But Adams is very careful with them: he never puts them in at a point where the action's building and a break would be frustrating. If you need to know Info Snippet A by Crucial Turning Point X, he always makes sure to work in Snippet A at a non-crucial moment well before Point X, so that by the time X comes along, you're already taking A for granted and it doesn't break the action for you.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Mark Dunn wrote a novel, Ibid*, entirely in footnotes -- the conceit was that the main manuscript (of a long biography of a three-legged businessman) had been accidentally destroyed, but the notes had serendipitiously survived.

It's not quite as good as his Ella Minnow Pea (in which letters of the alphabet gradually fall out of the story), but it's quite entertaining and doesn't contain a word that isn't a footnote.

ebwaimcp said...

And of course there's Pale Fire, if you want to watch a master riif on footnotes...

Laura(southernxyl) said...

I agree with Dwight the troubled teen. If I want further information about some non-fictional aspect of a fictional book, I'd rather take the initiative and look it up myself. It's irritating to have things carefully explained to me, that I already know. Plus it subordinates the plot so that it's too much like reading a textbook.

Endnotes are appreciated, though, if the author just wants to go into some aspect that interests her without messing up the flow of the story.