August 12, 2013 | by Ann Beattie
Like every other person in school, I hated footnotes. That was what you’d be quizzed on and lose out, having watched the soaring bird while forgetting the gnat. They were a trap. Boring. Even the texts were boring (I thought then, along with my teachers being bizarre). I’m not kidding about this: to avoid classroom giggling (or worse), my high school English teacher referred to Melville’s book as “Moby Richard.”
Of course, now I’m a convert. Recently, there’s been a trend for writers to footnote fiction (Nicholson Baker; Tim O’Brien)–it’s the idea of footnotes as a continuation of the text, or, sometimes, perhaps a preemptive strike, using the gnat-gems to discourage academic pedants.
I’ve just finished reading (belatedly—it was published in 2007) a book I love, The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman, that wouldn’t be the same book without the footnotes, though they are not Lerman’s, but made by his former assistant, Stephen Pascal (apparently, with help from Lerman’s nearest and dearest, Richard Hunter and Gray Foy), when Pascal put the book together posthumously. In a certain world (primarily New York), at a certain time (from the forties on through 1993), there was hardly anyone Leo didn’t know, or know of, and that is in large part why he had the career he did, at Vogue, Mademoiselle, etc., which were not then the magazines they’ve become. Here, I must digress and say that along with a new enthusiasm for footnotes, I also love the use of brackets. Consider this, from Lerman’s book (brackets added by Pascal), about a once much-discussed writer who resists paraphrase but whose reputation always existed in anecdote, so what the hell: “[Writer Harold] Brodkey came to Diana Trilling bringing [his] forty-page manuscript written in ‘defense’ of her, against critics of her Mrs. Harris. He insisted she read this; she retaliated with the first chapter of her memoir. Harold then told Diana that she had no taste, she lived with ‘mail-order’ furniture, and a collection of ‘cheap’ third-rate drawings and Japanese woodcuts typical of academe house furnishings. He ended, as he left, saying out of nowhere, ‘Give my love to Leo Lerman!’” Read More »