Wednesday 29 June 2011


I'm currently reading two different volumes of letters, and have recently finished another - Sylvia & David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters edited by Richard Garnett; Dearest Jean: Rose Macaulay's Letters to a Cousin edited by Martin Ferguson Smith; The Element of Lavishness: The Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Michael Steinman. Gosh, writing out titles, subtitles, authors, and editors is quite a lengthy process.

Anyway, it got me thinking about footnotes. Never let be said that I avoid the high-octane topics here at Stuck-in-a-Book. I have a love/hate relationship with footnotes and endnotes. If they're not there - as they weren't in the otherwise wonderful A Truth Universally Acknowledged collection of essays about Jane Austen - then I get frustrated. If they are there, I get easily annoyed. Something like Hermione Lee's biography Virginia Woolf went so hugely over the top with footnotes that reading it was exhausting. For scholarly works, they are essential. But often biographies or collections of letters have both scholarly potential and the possibility of being read for pleasure - so, what to do with the paraphenalia of academia?

(you might have to click on the sketch and enlarge it, to read it all!)
(and spot the deliberate mistake... oops.)

I'll write proper reviews of all those letter collections at some point, probably after I've actually read them, but I've been intrigued by the way they've approached footnotes. The Garnett/Warner letters have very few, and those only when significant reference is made to someone so vaguely that a footnote is absolutely necessary to make sense of an anecdote or opinion. The Maxwell/Warner letters had scarcely more, although they did often fill in the gap when a story was being discussed. Martin Ferguson Smith, on the other hand, has so many footnotes - and such thorough footnotes - in his collection of Rose Macaulay's letters that he actually has written more than Macaulay has in the book.

I suppose they're not actually footnotes - not sure what the correct terminology is, but his notes come after each individual letter. Macaulay will write 1.5 pages to Ferguson Smith's 2, perhaps. Which I thoguht would irritate me, but actually - and unusually for me - I love it! I am not reading them all; I just read the letters as though there were no footnotes - and if I'm interested or intrigued or confused by one of Macaulay's comments, then I'll look at the footnote.
Which is a much more liberating reading experience than feeling obliged to read each note laboriously - I think I've found the perfect reading compromise.

Perhaps notes feel more helpful here because only one half of the correspondence is present? Or perhaps Macaulay is just more off-at-tangents than Maxwell, Warner, or Garnett in her writing, and needs Ferguson Smith's guiding hand. Either way, he has done an astonishing amount of research. Every reference is tracked down; often he doesn't merely give the details of a mentioned book, but an outline of the plot - or, rather than just fill in the name of a figure alluded to, he will pop in an anecdote or two. It's a truly humbling amount of research - and I love it when Ferguson Smith's personality sneaks into the footnotes, usually in the form of an exclamation mark in brackets; which is one of my own favourite modes of punctuation(!)

Over to you. Do you like editorial notes to abound or, erm, not abound? Footnotes, endnotes, or end-of-section notes? I know it's a small thing, but I bet quite a few of you have opinions on the topic. In fact, I know Lyn does, for a start...


  1. The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman had its fair share of notes and I found them to be quite helpful. But the annotated version of Pride and Prejudice...way too distracting!

  2. I'm definitely a fan of footnotes, but I have seen them go too far. (The Barnes and Noble editions of classic books often have footnotes explaining things that seem obvious to me.)

    I know some people hate when notes are put at the back of the book as end notes, but I'm fine with that, especially if there are a lot of notes that I may not want to consult. But I do like for there to be note numbers so that I'll know there's some additional information. But if I don't know there's an end note, I'm too lazy to check when I run across something I have a question about.

  3. I love footnotes -- writing them and reading them. But like Teresa I'd rather they were numbered and put at the end, then I can choose whether to read them or not. I'm very irritated by a practice I've run across a lot recently where instead of proper notes each chapter has a sort of all purpose spiel about where all the info in the chapter came from. Useless if you were using the book for research. I think the Rose Macaulay method is great -- would it be called an endnote? In any case it worked for you and seems to have been called for here.

  4. End notes are wonderful - you can read a book without even realising they are there! Form your own opinion and only then look for enlightenment. OV found the end notes straight away in a book I read quite recently - I hadn't even seen them. I guess that explains it then - avid end note readers are the same people as those who look at the last page of a 'whodunnit' before they start reading the story.
    Mmm. And maybe avid foot note people are those who read EVERY label in a museum, art gallery or stately home (that'll be OV then - I'll have whizzed through and be sitting down over a cup of tea!)
    There's something to be said for forming your own opinions and immersing yourself in an experience. Turn to the experts by all means, but not to the exclusion of thinking for yourself!

  5. Hi Si
    It can be frustrating if you find a piece of information in, say, a biography that seems to challenge conventional beliefs or appears incredible(e.g. "Napolean's favourite cereal was cocopops", "Contrary to previous views it is now accepted that Genghis Khan was monogamous")and there is no explanation. At other times writers feel obliged to make sure their erudition is demonstrated at the foot of every page. A superscript number (which run consecutively throughout the book and not just by chapters)for those bits you want elaborated or justified. However some people, for unaccountable reasons, leave some of their best information hidden in end notes.
    Montgolfier rather than Montpelier?

    I discover that in another location within the Rectory before 8.00 a.m. OVW is also commenting.

  6. I cannot seem to post my comment!

    I've tried twice and it appears OK, but If I go back to SIAB "home" then it vanishes.

  7. OK that one seems to have made it.

    For scholarly works, they are essential.

    Not in my area of research they aren't! Interesting how different science/engineering and "the arts" are in their approach to providing references. When I'm reading a novel I certainly do not want footnotes but I'm happy with numbered endnotes (so I'm in Harriet's camp here).

    Do tell us, thesis or collapse? Hope it was the former ;-)

  8. Thank you Simon, yes, I do have an opinion (which you already know)! I love footnotes, especially for letters & diaries. Penelope Fitzgerald's Letters were almost spoilt for me by the footnotes, such as they were. Often I was desperate to know who someone was or what incident was referred to but no enlightenment was forthcoming. Then, some topics were footnoted to death. No rhyme or reason, drove me mad. My favourite example of well-done footnotes is Margaret Smith's 3 vol edition of Charlotte Bronte's Letters. Virginia Woolf's Letters & Diaries were also beautifully edited. I also agree with OV, some of the most interesting information in a biography or history book can be in the footnotes. I read them obssessively. even if I know the reference or allusion, I can't stop myself checking just in case I'm wrong or maybe to congratulate myself on being right - I'm not sure! I don't care where they are, bottom of the page or at the back, just as long as they're there & worth reading.

  9. Dark Puss - oddly, Blogger decided that two of your comments were spam!! I think because you quote from my post, and that's one of the techniques spamming comments use. I'll delete them now, since they're the same as the one you put. I am a little horrified that any scholarly book would avoid notes - surely they can't just state facts without giving precedents, like who wrote the paper on it, etc.?

  10. I love footnotes but if they aren't controlled (i.e. too much) then I'll get too distracted from the actual text and it becomes annoying. But I prefer footnotes to endnotes. Going all the way to the end takes too much time!

  11. I tend to love footnotes, although I'm awful at flipping to the back for endnotes. I'm almost through Pevear & Volokhonsky's Brothers Karamazov, and I've checked one endnote out of the many, many pages. One of the problems there is that each chapter starts numbering the notes at '1,' so it's quite difficult to find it. Anyway, in nonfiction I'm more likely to check the endnotes, as long as they're numbered well! Also, I love it when footnotes are integrated in novels, like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. So fun!

  12. I have a love-hate relationship with foot/endnotes. As a copy-editor/typesetter I loathe them, authors are frequently inconsistent (including using two different systems simultaneously, apparently without noticing) so I just adore the author I'm working with currently who doesn't have any - but in my reader guise I like as much information as possible, please!

    I'm interested that OV says he likes the endnotes to be numbered consecutively throughout. I've just worked on a book where that was the case, and the commissioning editor and I agreed that we would have preferred them to start over with each chapter, which I think of as being easier for the reader. Was I wrong?

  13. I'm in the endnote camp myself. I like them to be available, but as Teresa said, the B&N editions with all of their ridiculous footnotes have to be the most irritating/distracting books out there. I typically put my bookmark in the section where the endnotes are located so that if I want to read them, it is a quick-flip as opposed to a "hunt" that would interrupt the flow of reading longer.

  14. Hi Simon, sorry about the spam generation! I'll remember to start off with a rambling sentence before I quote!

    I am a little horrified that any scholarly book would avoid notes - surely they can't just state facts without giving precedents

    Perhaps I was too condensed in my comment. Typical books in science may well have an enormous number of "facts" stated without explicit reference (if they are, for example part of our "standard model(s)" of the physical world). Almost no book or paper would qive you an original reference for Schrodinger's equation in quantum mechanics, or Newton's third law or Snell's Law in optics. What I really meant was that when we do make clear to the reader where the information is originally provided (and we rarely go back down the chain very far to the real originator paper) we would very rarely (if ever) do that via foot notes. We would typically use the "Vancouver" system or something very similar [1].

    Hope that clarifies things!

    [1] Puss D, Journal of Illegible English, 2010; 120:12-16

  15. There are those who believe that Dark Puss is really a pseudonym for OV when he writes to encourage Thesis production. Two Peters working together - but I don't play the flute (though do know of Schrodinger, Newton and Snell)


  16. Generally, I prefer footnotes for academic writing. For collections of letters, journals and auto/biographies, endnotes work much better as they don't disrupt the flow of reading.

    The difference between humanities and sciences foot/endnote styles is interesting. I have just been working on a paper for book that will be published by a science-focused publisher and the referencing style was SO different (read: bizarre!) to the what is usual for law papers. For a start, endnotes rather than footnotes are used, and secondly, the content of the endnotes is limited to just the reference - no extra commentary/explanations/exclusions allowed. Apparently, if anything needs to be said, it should be absorbed into the body of the text...Needless to say, I'm finding this rather difficult!

  17. Hm, all interesting comments. I've been known to skip footnotes/endnotes, but I don't think I can recall ever being frustrated by them. I guess I don't have much trouble overlooking them when they're unwanted. And I have often found them helpful. But I do share Eva's frustration with flipping front-to-back, especially with the numbering situation she mentions. I've been known to use two bookmarks simultaneously, and that just feels like so much work! Why has it been made so hard on me? On the other hand, I guess the back-of-the-book format works well if your audience may have diverse feelings about reading your endnotes. Maybe there's no right answer? Other than to write a book with a homogenous (relating to footnotes) audience? Hm...

  18. Please let me reassure readers that Dark Puss is indeed the one and only (well I'd better not say had I?).

    Anyway OV and Dark Puss (and his close relative Morgana's Cat) are really all controlled by Dr Grordbort. DP is, as you will no doubt appreciate, in thrall to his Lady Morgana. It is rumoured that you can find his simulacrum there!

  19. I prefer endnotes to footnotes, particularly for novels - except Terry Pratchett's, since his are usually hilarious. Someone gave me an annotated Pride and Prejudice, and like Darlene I found it much too distracting. For endnotes, some books now have a page heading, "Notes to pages 1-23," and that's very helpful. I've seen works of "popular" history that don't have any footnotes at all, even the "all purpose spiel" harriet mentioned.

  20. I love and need and feast on footnotes, but I didn't like MFS's intrusive personality in Dearest Jean. His research is staggering, but it's over the top, and in mnay cases simply not necessary. I could also bang on about his unbalance, and subjectivity, but that's now what you're posting about!


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