Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Footnote on Footnotes

Over on Becoming a Fiction Writer, blog author Amanda proposes setting up a "Society for the Abolition of Footnotes in Novels". Since one of the examples she quotes is Jack Vance's Marune, it's no surprise to find that I disagree. Unlike the regrettable rantings of Das Übernerd, however, Amanda's arguments are expressed with intelligence and moderation, and while I won't be joining the Society, I can see why many readers find them irritating.

I thought it might be interesting, nonetheless, to look at some of Vance's footnotes and playthings to see just what they're adding. Amanda's central thesis is this: if the information is important to the story, make it part of the story. If it’s not, leave it out.

The footnote in question is too long to quote in full here (in itself a support to Amanda's argument). Vance has set out in the main text the various phases of daylight caused by the multiple-star system around which Marune orbits. He then gives us a 400-word footnote on the ramifications of this which, as Amanda says, you need to read if you are to understand the phases. The latter part of the footnote reads:

The Rhunes, as proud and competent as the Majars are demoralized, are also strongly affected by the changing modes. Circumstances proper during one mode may be considered absurd or in poor taste during another. Persons advance their erudition and hone their special skills during aud, isp and umber. Formal ceremonies tend to take place during isp and also the remarkable ‘Ceremony of Odors’. It may be noted that music is considered hyper-emotional and inducive to vulgar conduct; it is never heard in the Rhune Realms. Aud is the appropriate time to go forth to battle, to conduct litigation, fight a duel, collect rent. Green rowan is a time for poetry and sentimental musing; red rowan allows the Rhune slightly to relax his etiquette. A man may condescend to take a glass of wine in company with other men, all using etiquette screens; women similarly may sip cordials or brandy. Chill isp inspires the Rhune with a thrilling ascetic exultation, which completely supersedes lesser emotions of love, hate, jealousy, greed. Conversation occurs in a hushed archaic dialect; brave ventures are planned; gallant resolves sworn; schemes of glory proposed and ratified, and many of these projects become fact and go into the Book of Deeds.

This conveys a lot of information, most of it relevant to the story, some of it merely a gracenote. I don't think it kills the story if you don't read it, but it adds an extra gloss to some of the subsequent action. As a reader, I'd rather have this information retailed in Vance's omniscient crisp prose than see it shoehorned in via factitious conversation (where it could only slow down the plot). Marune is a short novel (around 85,000 words) and Vance could easily have "showed" this information rather than "told" us. It's a deliberate artistic choice and for me, at least, it's one that works.

Vance also often deploys footnotes to sardonic effect. Here's a nice one from The Palace of Love.

On one hand was the display wall characteristic of middle-class European homes; here hung a panel intricately inlaid with wood, bone and shell: Lenka workmanship from Nowhere, one of the Concourse planets; a set of perfume points from Pamfile; a rectangle of polished and perforated obsidian: one of the so-called supplication slabs* of Lupus 23II.
*The non-human natives of Peninsula 4A, Lupus 23II, devote the greater part of their lives to the working of these slabs, which apparently have a religious significance. Twice each year, at the solstices, two hundred and twenty-four microscopically exact slabs are placed aboard a ceremonial barge, which is then allowed to drift out upon the ocean. The Lupus Salvage Company maintains a ship just over the horizon from Peninsula 4A. As soon as the raft has drifted from sight of land, it is recovered, the slabs are removed, exported and sold as objets d’art.

This is characteristic Vance, at once precise, economical, and barbed. You don't need it to advance the story at all; it's an imaginative riff thrown out solely for the reader's amusement. Free-wheeling delight or self-indulgent indiscipline? Tastes will vary.

Vance also employs a similar technique in chapter introductions. Every chapter in the five-volume Demon Princes series has information conveyed through oblique articles, interviews or other pseudo-factual devices. It's an aspect of the books which fans tend to love, but it's not without risk. Would you start an adventure novel with this?

From Popular Handbook to the Planets, 330th edition, 1525:

SARKOVY: Single planet of Phi Ophiuchi.
Planetary constants:
Diameter—9,600 miles
Sidereal day—37.2 hours

Sarkovy is moist and cloudy; with an axis normal to the orbital plane it knows no
seasons. The surface lacks physiographical contrast; the characteristic features of the landscape are the steppes: Hopman Steppe, Gorobundur Steppe, the Great Black Steppe, and others…From the abundant flora the notorious Sarkoy venefices leach and distill the poisons for which they are famous.

The population is largely nomadic, though certain tribes, generically known as Night Hobs, live among the forests. (For detailed information regarding the rather appalling customs of the Sarkoy, consult the Encyclopedia of Sociology and The Sexual Habits of the Sarkoy, by B.A. Egar.)

The Sarkoy pantheon is ruled by Godogma, who carries a flower and a flail and walks on wheels. Everywhere along the Sarkoy steppes may be found tall poles with wheels on high, in praise of Godogma, the striding wheeling God of Fate.

* * *

News feature in Rigellian Journal, Avente, Alphanor:

Paing, Godoland, Sarkovy: July 12:

As if Claris Adam were to be destroyed for beguiling William Wales:
As if the Abbatram of Pamfile were to be liquefied for smelling too strongly:
As if Deacon Fitzbah of Shaker City were to be immolated for an excess of zeal:
Today from Sarkovy comes news that Master Venefice Kakarsis Asm must cooperate with the guild’ for selling poison.

Circumstances of course are not all that simple. Asm’s customer, no ordinary murderer, was Viole Falushe, one of the ‘Demon Princes’. The essence of the crime was neither ‘trafficking with a notorious criminal’ nor ‘betrayal of guild secrets’, but rather ‘selling fixed-price poisons at a discount.’
Kakarsis Asm must die.
How? How else?

This is our indirect introduction to Sarkovy and its "venefices" (a real word, incidentally), the master poisoners who dominate the first part of the novel. There are other ways of doing this, but would they really be this much fun? One of the ways Vance gets away with this is his immaculate control of voice: he can readily replicate the dry language of a guidebook or the racier tone of a magazine (and indeed the dozens of other mechanisms he deploys across the course of the series, for instance "Reminiscences of a Peripatetic Purchase Agent", by Sudo Nonimus, as published in Thrust, a trade journal of the metallurgical industry). There is a humour here so dry that many readers will miss, or dismiss, it. For those of the same cast of mind, though, it's one of the joys and unending rewards of reading Jack Vance.


David Isaak said...

Insisting on the exclusion of footnotes is like insisting that all novels ought to use only a single font, or that characters in a movie should never address the camera. Having five or six fonts can make you more aware you are reading a book; having the character address the camera makes you aware you are watching a movie.

But so what? If these are risks the artist elects to take, so be it. Nabokov's "Pale Fire" couldn't work without the footnotes, and in Wallace's "Infinite Jest" th footnotes are the best part.

All in all, it's a bit like insisting novels oughtn't digress. Well, it's a risk--but what is "Tristram Shandy" other than a series of digressions?

Tim Stretton said...

The Church of the Novel is a pretty broad one. With a sufficiently charismatic priest you can get away with just about anything. If you outlined the structure and method of "The Sound and the Fury" to someone who'd never read it, they'd think you were mad. Particularly when you told them it worked...

Anonymous said...

Okay, maybe total exclusion of footnotes is taking things too far ... but I can only accept them when there's a really, truly good reason (and Tim's convinced me that for scifi there sometimes is).

It reminds me of a sometimes-rule of not writing dialogue in heavy dialect, because readers mightn't understand. Plenty of people break these rules, but I've given up reading Irvine Welsh because the dialect just slows the reading down for me too (frustratingly) much. I guess novelists can do whatever they want, but should be aware they might alienate some readers in the process. My 2 cents!

Tim Stretton said...

Hi Amanda,

I certainly agree with you on dialect--a very high risk strategy because there is a real danger that the reader simply won't understand what you're saying. I can just about put up with in short bursts, but if all the dialogue is like that it rapidly becomes wearing.

It's also risky because the register is such a narrow one - if you're only fractionally off, it's embarrassing. And there's also the danger that it comes across as patronising if you're writing a dialect which is not your own.

All in all, best avoided unless you're very good and very confident (and the two don't always go together!)

Alis said...

Interesting. I've currently got three or four footnotes in the work in progress but they're all translations of Welsh phrases where these weren't easy to weave into the text. I'm still uncomfortable with them, though and they may go (along with the phrases) in the next edit.

Tim Stretton said...

Tricky one, Alis!

If the location, the 'Welshness', is important to the story I can see why you'd want them because they add to that atmosphere.

Kate Mosse uses the trick of translating them in the dialogue, so a character will say "Bien. Good." I'm not convinced that works either but it's at least serviceable.

I seem to watch a lot of American films which have huge chunks of subtitled Spanish dialogue. In a sense what you're doing with the footnotes is perhaps a novelistic equivalent...