The Art of Footnotes

Options Writing Footnotes

To all you book writers out there: have you given thought to how you would like your footnotes or citations to appear? For example, you can incorporate footnotes into the text like this:

Plato says that there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy (Pl. Resp. 607c). In fact, he bans the performance of tragedy in his ideal state…

Or, you can give the citation a footnote with a superscript numeral which refers to a citation at the bottom of the page:

Plato says that there is an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.¹ In fact, he bans the performance of tragedy in his ideal state…

I guess this way is less intrusive for readers?–if they don.t want to break the flow of reading the argument, they don.t have to. Even less intrusive are endnotes. They look the same as the footnote except the citation is found at the end of the work. Hence the name. You might think endnotes even less intrusive than footnotes. In a way, you.re right. To me, however, books with endnotes necessitate keeping two bookmarks: one to mark where I.m reading and one to mark the corresponding location of all the endnotes in the back. If I don.t have both bookmarks (often the case), I find it quite distressing to be awkwardly flipping around for citations at the back of the book since, say it.s note 10. Well, every chapter has a note 10 so then you have to also find out which chapter you happen to be on. Some endnote systems get around this by placing a reference at the top of the page (something like ‘Notes from pages 353-372′) but then I think, ‘Why not just use footnotes?’.

Next are considerations of the abbreviations. In the first example at the top of the page, it could have read (PlResp. X: 607c) because it.s from book ten. If you don.t like roman numerals I suppose it could look like (Pl. Resp. 10: 607c). But if your readership is inclined to say, ‘What is Resp?’, you might be inclined to use some more space so that it becomes (Plato, Republic 607c). The abbreviation is confusing: Resp. is short not for Republic but respublica.

Then there are even more considerations. Some people will do footnotes for short citations (author, work, page number) but use endnotes for longer citations (controversial stuff that needs to be addressed but is not directly part of the argument).

Brief History of Footnotes (Nietzsche contra Wilamowitz)

There is an art to footnotes. After all, how citations are done changes the appearance of the page. It is part of the aesthetics of your piece. In an academic work, no footnotes give the impression that the writing is inspired (e.g. Nietzsche). Lay readers might find this satisfactory. But academic readers will want to know who your sources or ‘authorities’ are. Lots of footnotes gives the air of authority. Especially if your secondary sources are in different languages and are from bygone eras. So if you.re writing on Sophocles’ Oedipus rex and you quote Vernant (in French) and Rohde (19th century German scholar), you can throw off the impression of having great authority. But it.s sort of showing off as well: it could look pretentious. Speaking of pretentious, you can also quote yourself (this is like rock bands who wear their own t-shirts on tour). But hey, when you can quote yourself, you know you.ve made it!

One of my favourite scholarly articles is ‘Fussnoten: Das Fundament der Wissenschaft‘ by Stephen Nimis. No, it.s not in German. Entirely in English. The title is German because it.s the story of how the Germans shaped the use of footnotes in academic writing in the late 19th century. It was a battle between Nietzsche (whom we all know) and Wilamowitz (who is a famous guy no one knows). Professor Laurel Bowman had recommended it as a good read. And boy was it ever! Part satire and part history, it is a self-reflective look at the art of writing footnotes. If you have 15 minutes, it.s an incredibly entertaining read: click on the link above. Nietzsche and Wilamowitz were the top young philologists of there generation (like star athletes today). Nietzsche disdained the use of footnotes. Wilamowitz meticulously cited everything. In fact, if someone says ‘Wilamowitz footnote’ in describing your footnotes, it.s a sign of praise even today. Well, Nietzsche considered his writing inspired. He writes things like ‘Homer and Archilochus are two sides of the same coin from which poetry sprang’. I mean, how do you footnote that?!? Wilamowitz wrote these long and scientific footnotes. They got into a big fight. They dragged the biggest names in German scholarship into the fight with them. Even the musician Wagner joined the fray. Nietzsche eventually left (or was forced out of the establishment) because of the fight. He went on to bigger things. Wilamowitz led a very successful career as a classicist. After all the name calling, they all regretted the episode: Wilamowitz had been satirized as Wila-mops (mopish) and Nietzsche.s Zukunftsphilologie (philology of the future) had become Afterphilologie (philology of the ass) and all sorts of other pleasantries.

Anyway, after reading the Stephen Nimis article and learning of the art of writing footnotes, my writing started looking like this:

Footnotes Galore!

Footnotes Galore!

Look at that–the footnotes take up half the page! I.m particularly fond of footnote 23 which took a very long time to put together. Weeks of work and close reading. I almost went blind.  By the way, for those of you interested in fate, free will, and the problem of divine foreknowledge (how much is it decent for God to know in advance and can he change the outcome?), here.s a link to the entire article.

Choosing the Right Style of Citation

Why do I bring up the question of footnotes? I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. It.s occurred to me now that the book works. I mean, that it.s possible. Better than possible. It represents a new contribution. This project of writing a philosophy of tragedy or a theory of tragedy has occupied me the better part of 20 years. There were false starts that took up years of effort that led nowhere: a theory based on the consolation of tragedy (it is not to you alone that this grief comes…). Then another on the different worldview of Aeschylus (go in alone), Sophocles (trust the gods), and Euripides (you get by with a little help from your friends).

When first starting work on Paying Melpomene’s Price (the working title back then was actually Wildness Waiting in Tragedy) I hadn.t kept track of citations at all. If it got published (a big If), it would appear without footnotes. But that.s not very helpful to readers. My thinking now is that that is sort of an unhappy way to write. A writer should be thankful to readers. And being thankful means making the writing easy and pleasant for readers to follow.  A book can be profound yet still a delight to read. Think of Austin.s How To Do Things With Words. It.s heavy duty theory but a delight with its examples of ‘The cat is on the mat’ (descriptive utterance) and ‘You.re fired!’ (performative utterance).

One thing self-publishing books have been recommending is to look at similar types of books to see what they do. You want your book to look like its peers. I decided to do a small sample. It seems books written in the last 20 years liked to use endnotes. Footnotes in the text would refer to the endnotes in the back of the book which were grouped according to chapter. Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence (2003), Nicole Louraux’ The Mourning Voice (2002), Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (2002), Rush Rehm’s Radical Theatre (2003), and James Porter’s Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future (2000) use this arrangement. Some older titles use this arrangement, such as Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy Myth & Mystery (1962) which is a collection of previously published essays.

Some (but not all) books which are collections of essays like to use footnotes in the text and print the notes at the end of each chapter. Examples include Richard Palmer.s Tragedy and Tragic Theory (1992) and Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics ed. Amelie Rorty (1992).

There is a distinct predilection for mid-century titles to print the footnotes at the bottom of the page. No flipping pages necessary! Titles of this ilk include George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy (1961), Oscar Mandel’s A Definition of Tragedy (1961), Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy (1969), and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (1953).

Classic texts, or primary sources such as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (which started out as a secondary source but is now considered an original creative work in its own right) are mixed. The 1993 Whiteside Penguin translation has collects the notes in the end. A 1968 Hollingdale Penguin Translation of Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ by Nietzsche prints the footnotes at the bottom of the page. In addition, footnotes proceed by special characters such as §, ±, or *, instead of numbers. Fun reading. There are some ‘popular’ (but very informative) books such as Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters that have no footnotes at all.

What to Do?

Which style is best? I guess it depends what you.re trying to do. If I were doing a purely academic work, I.d have to go with the modern style of placing everything into endnotes. But Paying Melpomene’s Price isn.t just an academic title anymore. I.m too far away from the academy. It.s something else, a labour of love. A book inside of me that had to be written for its own sake. My favourite books to read conform to the mid-century footnote format: footnotes printed on the bottom of the page. I think that.s what I.m going to do. And the other thing: no more long elaborate footnotes! The sort of thing I.m arguing (tragedy as a high stakes game of death) shouldn.t really super involved notes. Either the reader grasps the idea intuitively (in which case not too many citations are necessary) or they.re not going to like it (too broad, too general, not a new contribution) and not amount of footnoting is going to convince them.

Footnotes on the bottom of each page seem to keep things more honest too: it.s visible, not swept under the carpet to the back of the book. They.re part of the aesthetic of the printed page. I think my style of writing changes according to the style of footnote (or endnote) used. With MLA style citing, I.d have less quotes. The brackets just look ugly. With endnotes, I.d treat them like a dumping place for stray thoughts–who know if anyone will actually flip to the back to read them? Footnotes on page bottoms have all the advantages. You.re giving people credit for ideas. You know readers will see them. Readers will feel they.re flipping pages faster (since pages are shorter by the space the footnote uses). Readers won.t have to swear and curse when they lose their spot looking up citations. It.s a win-win.

Thanks for working that through with me, assiduous readers! Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I.m Doing Melpomene’s Work, a little here and a little there until the work is done.

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