The book and the Footnote!
In last Sunday’s New York Times Book review essay section, Alexandra Horowitz lamented the impending disappearance of the essay footnote due to e-books, ibooks, other various electronic book-scrolling texts where there seems to be only room for the page not the footnote. Footnotes, if they survive at all, “are shunted off to the end of the text, relegated to being mere endnotes,” she writes. As endnotes, who takes the time to flip back and forth or “click” back and forth if you are electronically reading?
I kept thinking about this in regards to fiction: specifically Latina/Latino and Chicana/Chicano fiction. Electronic essay readers might (emphasis on “might”) be more likely to take the time to stop and click for endnotes, but fiction readers might not want to lose the momentum as they journey through a narrative. Is this rush in e-novel/e-short story reading a condition of our contemporary moment in history? Must we electronically click “next page” without much time given to contemplation that a lengthy novel with footnotes can provide? I suppose, like Horowitz, I fear the death of creative meandering in literary texts. And yet, there are a number of contemporary writers who are not giving up the footnote just yet.
Barry Lopez’s short story “Rubén Mendoza Vega, Suzuki Professor of Early Caribbean History, University of Florida at Gainesville, Offers a History of the United States Based on Personal Experience” is only one paragraph long (and note the length of the title!). However, Lopez’s short story paragraph has fifteen footnotes (longer than the story) plus a bibliography.
When Sandra Cisneros’ epic novel, Caramelo, was published in 2002, Canadian reviewer Allan Cogan wrote: “What on earth is one to make of this big sprawling exuberant novel? . . . Cisneros just has so much to say that she even has footnotes at the end of some of the 87 chapters so she can squeeze in some more information that may or may not be pertinent to the narrative. Thus, in one footnote, we read about President Woodrow Wilson in 1914 ordering the U.S. marines to invade the port city of Tampico. In another we read a short dissertation on Mexican telenovelas.” What’s to complain about? I see the inheritance of traditional American literature mixed with Chicanismo in such footnotes.
And true that there are some readers who are averse to the footnote because it looks messy on the page or they just want a simple and uncomplicated narrative. Horowitz quotes the English playwright, Noel Coward (1899-1973): “[H]aving to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.” If indeed our reading world becomes completely e-texts and the footnote is de-noted, then yes, it will be like having to go downstairs. But for footnotes in general (on the same page) it doesn’t have to be like leaving the room. Creative play with pausing and discovering multiple facets of text only heightens the experience. (Pobrecito Noel Coward.)
When looking at Diaz, Cisneros, Borges, Lopez and other writers who use the footnote (I didn’t even mention Manuel Puig) Latina/Latino and Chicana/Chicano writers are creating a visual map of diaspora. It is exactly in those footnotes that readers become privy to the details of wrenching loss, of forced assimilation, of immigration, of what history books omit regarding Mexican and Latin American influences on North American culture, geographic spaces, ethnic identity, language, sexuality, and law. The footnote can do this with humor and with subtle bittersweet beauty.
I am encouraging all Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino novelists, short story writers, non-fiction writers to take up the footnote and all readers to linger and enjoy them.
An aside (kind of like a footnote): For all my protesting, I must admit I do own an Amazon Kindle e-book, but I have yet to read a novel on it. I use it mainly for reference texts—dictionaries, encyclopedia-type texts. Hopefully the actual “hold-it-in-your-hand” text will never go away and I will be able to continue happily perusing footnotes between printed leafy sheets. We’ll see. But in the meantime, I need to write this ode in praise of the footnote! Thank you Alexandra Horowitz for getting me started.