Footnotes in the sand

I am somewhat ambivalent on the subject of footnotes*. I can take them or leave them. For the most part, I find footnotes intrusive as they tend to get in the way of the natural flow of whatever it is that one is reading. Not all authors take recourse to this literary device. Those that do are well-intentioned.  The apparent exercise in taking the reader off at a tangent, is to explain in considerable detail some reference that the writer is keen to elaborate upon, paint in a bit of background information, as it were. Doubtless, the aim is to be helpful, enabling the reader to obtain a better understanding of reference to context. I can fully understand the need for footnotes when one is involved in an academic exercise if you are in the realms of higher learning, say, a post-graduate or doctorate in literature.

Thus, if your university syllabus for Eng. Lit. includes Shakespeare’s arguably greatest play Hamlet**, then you cannot just pick up any old version of the play and go to work. The prescribed text book for the course will have several pages of introductory notes by some noted Oxford don, the index and reference pages alone running into nearly half the length of the book and above all, or rather, below all, the explanatory footnotes.

There is also the issue of why footnotes are printed in an almost illegibly small font size. This can be explained quite simply. Small type fonts will force the students to go close to the page, squint their eyes and concentrate hard. In other words, it is a practical aid to focus single-mindedly. Students who smuggle into their tutorials magnifying glasses to enable them to read the footnotes in comfort, are usually taken to task and severely reprimanded. Standard punishment takes the form of forcing them to stay back for detention and read the whole of Richard the Third set in 8pt Times Roman, with extensive footnotes set in 6pt of the same typeface.  That will put the lid on their winter of discontent.

The footnotes in this piece are set in an indeterminate type size to enable you to read without too much strain. I have no wish to turn off my readers, the few that there are. American author Joanna Russ, in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, had this to say on the subject. ‘I once asked a young dissertation writer whether her suddenly greyed hair was due to ill health or personal tragedy; she answered: “It was the footnotes”.’

* An additional piece of information printed at the bottom of the page, always in much smaller letters, guaranteed to give you the mother-of-all headaches. Footnotes are intended to cite references or comment on a designated part of the text above it. For example, say you want to add an interesting comment to a sentence you have written, but the comment is not directly related to the argument of your paragraph, that is an ideal excuse to bung in a footnote. Also, footnotes can give the reader the impression that the author is erudite, scholarly and not to be trifled with. So, when you come across one or more of the star marks at the end of a word, stop right there and go to the first footnote. Then wait for a word with two stars, then three… you get the picture. At student level it is safer to assume a low IQ level when it comes to figuring out footnotes. Never read a footnote in isolation – that is a cardinal rule. Incidentally, since this is a tutorial, these star marks are also known as asterisks – asterikos or ‘little star’ in ancient Greek. Not forgetting astericus in ancient Latin.

** Hamlet, one of the Bard of Avon’s greatest plays. With some terrific speeches like, ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ The play is also a ghost story featuring a chap called Banquo who has this great one-liner, ‘Good sir, why do you start and seem to fear / Things that do sound so fair?’ Hang on, hang on, that’s from Macbeth, not Hamlet. Never mind, this was to illustrate the use of the footnote. Hamlet or Macbeth, makes no difference. Tell you what though, I will certainly ‘start and seem to fear’ if Banquo’s ghost turned up uninvited at my doorstep.

Lest I give the reader an impression that footnotes are provided only for text books in schools, colleges and educational institutions, I would like to disabuse you of that impression. It is true that you are almost certainly not going to be provided such learning aids if you are leafing through P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit*** or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express****. Those worthies wrote simple joyful stories about love among the chickens or people getting stabbed on trains with daggers bearing strange Oriental designs. Footnotes are surplus to requirements in their scheme of things. Which is why I was taken aback when I picked up Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice*****, only to be assailed by a rash of footnotes.

*** At this point, I would normally have dwelt at length on when the Master of comic writing wrote Jeeves and the FS, 1954 if you’re too lazy to look it up, a brief outline of the plot which usually involves the hero, Bertie Wooster, getting embroiled in all kinds of scrapes and Jeeves invariably extricating him out of trouble. The novel will also feature a gaggle of aunts, butlers, scheming secretarial Baxters and possibly a gardener or two. Throw in a fat pig, if you wish. Items of jewellery or a silver cow creamer could get purloined, but somehow the complicated plot will unravel, the brooding newt-fancier will get the mooning girl, while Bertie will escape walking down the aisle by the skin of his teeth. Jeeves delivers yet again. Cynics of Wodehouse’s oeuvre will moan that all his novels have the same plot. To such ignoramuses my unfailing response is, ‘A pox on you, and may you be plagued extensively by unreadable footnotes like this one with every book you pick up to read.’

**** Murder on the Orient Express features the mystery of a murder on, you guessed it, the Orient Express, a luxury train that runs from Istanbul to London. Except that the train is halted mid-way by a snowstorm, during which a dead body is discovered on board. What good is a Christie novel without a corpse or three? Enter a funny looking Belgian with a funny accent and a funnier moustache, the remarkable Hercule Poirot (the H is silent), the detective supreme. The passengers on the train have strange names like Bouc, Foscarelli, Dragomiroff, Hildegarde Schmidt, Arbuthnot, Andrenvi, Hardman, Stavros Constantine and some less exotic names like Debenham, Hubbard and Ratchett. Comic relief is provided by Poirot trying to pronounce these names as he conducts extensive interviews to figure out ‘who killed Ratchett?’ Oops, I have already given part of the game away by naming the victim. Damned if I am going to reveal the murderer. I’ll leave it to Poirot, if you can get past the Belgian accent.

***** Pride and Prejudice is the archetypal novel of manners, written in 1813. Few authors did it better than Jane Austen. I saw the film before I read the book. In a nutshell, the story is a straight-up romance between the protagonist, the demure but proud Elizabeth Bennet and the even prouder and aloof Fitzwilliam Darcy, known only as Mr. Darcy. The version I read was introduced and notated throughout the book by some literary don, who went to town with a rash of needless, explanatory footnotes. After a point I was not sure if I was to follow the endless trail of footnotes or the main storyline. After finishing the book, I had to go back and watch the film on cable to figure out what’s what. Keira Knightley is sumptuous as Jane Bennet, but Colin Firth’s Darcy gets my vote in the earlier television mini-series.

I am presently reading a voluminous book, by a very contemporary author, who has often been described as the enfant terrible of modern English literature viz. Martin Amis******. He deserves a six-star footnote. Weighing in at around 525 pages, the book rightfully belongs to the heavyweight, wrist-endangering category in more ways than one. It is titled Inside Story – A Novel. I can understand why it is called the ‘Inside Story,’ as pretty much all of it is autobiographical. As to why it is also dubbed ‘A Novel’ I am at a loss to fathom. Nothing fictional about it. That said, the man writes like a dream and the book is a compulsive read, like most of his works.

****** Son of celebrated British author of yesteryear, Kingsley Amis (Lucky Jim), Martin Amis wears his famous surname lightly. This is a rare case of a son outdoing his father in terms of achieving fame and notoriety. However, the reason for talking about Martin Amis and his new book is to highlight his inordinate obsession with footnotes in this volume. Every other page has detailed notations, often exceeding in length the actual text on the page. The book, already forbiddingly lengthy, gives you a sense of running the marathon as you flip with great relief from one page to the other. As I turned over the final page, excluding the Index pages, I felt a monumental sense of achievement. I have read longer books without experiencing that steep, oxygen-sapping mountainous climb. Make no mistake, Amis Jr. wields a mellifluous and eloquent pen. I would devour the telephone directory if he wrote it. It’s the hellish footnotes that get my goat.

Postscript (not to be confused with a footnote): Whoever said ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ nailed it. Footnotes, hellish to ingest, are ultimately good for you, rather like Epsom salts.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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