and but so...
November 7, 2011 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Why was David Foster Wallace so footnote-happy?

As I slowly make my way through The Pale King, I've been reminded of the one aspect of his writing that drives me crazy/hurts my eyes - those gigantic footnote tangents. In some cases it makes sense, one or two sentences going off-topic or providing a bit of background info. But there's also quite a few that can go on for a page or two, offering so much info that it seems it would have more sense to include it in the actual text. Some of these are even mini-stories or scenes that feel directly relevant to the plot.

Obviously we can't go ask him now, but I'm wondering if anyone knows of instances where he was interviewed or quoted about his motives behind his footnote use. I seem to remember after finishing Infinite Jest, I read some theories people had the footnotes were used in order to keep the structure or page-count on a tight leash. Not sure if this was ever verified though. Thoughts?
posted by mannequito to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a clip of him talking about them on Charlie Rose.
posted by argonauta at 5:21 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Don't know if this helps, but it's what came to my mind:
Will the e-book kill the footnote? which does mention DFW, along with a bunch of other footnoters, and why some like them and some don't, but doesn't talk about DFW's footnote motivations in particular that I recall.
posted by smcameron at 5:23 PM on November 7, 2011

I've always understood footnotes in this kind of use to be a postmodernist trope. It's an allusion to the novel type as much as a utility of the novel itself. Here's one take.
posted by litnerd at 5:26 PM on November 7, 2011

It sounds like it's a way to make the story non-linear.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:32 PM on November 7, 2011

Were I a writer, I'd be a massive footnoter. I'm not that great at organizing my thoughts in a linear fashion--I keep wanting to wander down side streets on my way.
posted by mollymayhem at 5:40 PM on November 7, 2011

I always thought it was because he was a recursive and exacting, somewhat obsessive thinker and so while he was aware of the way his narrative worked and crafted it precisely, there was still so much unsaid, or paths not taken and so he did that sort of thing with the footnotes. I took a class with him, so this is just my wild ass guess based on having him as a teacher, not that we talked about this specifically. I'm a painfully linear person so this was always a bummer to me since I love his writing but often couldn't wade in without getting the fidgets.
posted by jessamyn at 5:43 PM on November 7, 2011 [13 favorites]

I know this isn't quite an answer to your question, but I wonder whether it might be an idea to read the work first, ignoring the footnotes, and then read it again with the footnotes. I too find footnotes very distracting during my first pass through a work (as Noël Coward famously complained, "having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love"!). It's especially bad when - like you with your novel - you're reading a work with a plot to be interrupted rather than just a scholarly argument. But personally, once I have the gist of the plot/argument down, I find that I appreciate the extra information rather than getting annoyed at the constant interruption. So if this question is indicating that you're actually considering ways to make the footnotes less irritating during reading (rather than simply an academic consideration of the footnote in Wallace), reading once, sans footnotes, and then reading again and taking all of it in might be an idea...
posted by UniversityNomad at 6:10 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

(I may have been a bit fast and loose with the Coward quotation; it may not be word for word.)
posted by UniversityNomad at 6:12 PM on November 7, 2011

That clip with Charlie Rose was just the kind of thing I was looking for. And I haven't read The Depressed Person but the analysis of the footnotes as a kind of literal representation of the character's mania is fascinating.

UniversityNomad, trust me I've been tempted to just read straight through and look at the footnotes after the fact. The problem is that while some of them can be easily skipped, others are too important to the actual plot to avoid without confusion. (also love the paraphrased quote!)

As always, more thoughts and links are welcome. Thanks guys/gals.
posted by mannequito at 6:36 PM on November 7, 2011

A friend of mine wrote a dissertation partly on Infinite Jest, and in brief, his argument was that the interruptions of the main narrative by the footnotes are meant to represent something about the experience of being an addict, where your normal processes are constantly being interrupted by these other intrusive thoughts (about your item of addiction). I'm oversimplifying, but the main point is they did have a purpose.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:52 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

but I wonder whether it might be an idea to read the work first, ignoring the footnotes, and then read it again with the footnotes

I would say that for his non-fiction this may work, but for his fiction, particularlyInfinite Jest you need to read them as you go in the story. What makes them so frustrating in IJ is that they are at the end of the book instead of the bottom of the page. There are some very revealing footnotes in IJ, particularly conversations between Orin and Hal, that I found essential to understanding, as best I could, what was going on.
posted by holdkris99 at 7:49 PM on November 7, 2011

I'm re-reading Infinite Jest right now and have been focusing particularly on the footnotes and my thoughts are that the copious notes serve the follow purposes:
- They are yet another embodiment of obsession / addiction and the inherent repetition and cycles that follow. Most of the notes are unnecessarily detailed and focused, resembling the obsessive focus shared by all of the characters. On another level, the reader actually becomes drawn into the obsessions physically and mentally. They are confronted with the constant cycle of flipping pages, often for a small unrewarding note (is it really necessary for all the chemical details of every drug ingested?) but each time, automatically, flipping pages, repeating the cycle. For many it becomes mentally and physically exhausting, especially to maintain context for the multiple page notes. For me the most telling footnotes lending credence to this theory are D. Gately's recordings with various inhabitents of Ennet house.
- They allow for illumination of the vast connective web that unites almost every described character in the book while allowing the rhythm of narrative passages to remain relatively intact.
- The footnotes are a result of DFW's own obsessive, detail oriented brain re: Jessamyn's comment above.

I can't speak for The Pale King, but my approach to getting the most out of the footnotes is to read a natural chunk of text (usually about 5 or so footnotes) and then go back and read the footnotes. Occasionally I need to refer back to the passage for context, but I find that this helps me avoid the tiring aspects of flipping back and forth.
posted by cyphill at 9:23 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had to do a creative writing assignment in high school in the style of DFW. If you're a bit geeky and prone to digressions on esoteric topics,[1] you soon find that it's a rather fun way to write indeed.[2] Couple that with DFW's harsh, insightful yet disturbingly distant style of commentary, and the footnotes soon become the only way to attempt to preserve your own sanity as you write on.

1. Indeed, this was the sort of high school class in which one student* had to be banned from the drawing of graphs, as he would otherwise draw numerous squiggly lines on the board in such a way that communicated his less than insightful commentary in such a way that only those who already understood him perfectly could comprehend.

2. In fact, your faithful commenter is very much inclined to continue communicating in this fashion to the maximum extent possible, lest the point be lost on our less observant readers. Alas, I have a flight to board.**

* Who is now a Rhodes Scholar, whereas the instructor remains a high school history teacher with a PhD from Berkeley: one of the best teachers I've ever had, but he never quite let us forget that he had a PhD from Berkeley and was teaching high school history.

** Well, as soon as they finish loading cargo,*** which will probably happen as soon as the ramp worker assigned to the forward bulk cargo door of this Boeing 747-400 aircraft stops dancing and/or completes his kickboxing practice.

*** The weight of which, combined with unseasonal headwinds,**** is causing our flight to divert to Taipei for a fuel stop, which seems like something that shouldn't have to happen in 2011.

**** Not really. This happens on a semi-regular basis this time of year.
posted by zachlipton at 11:36 PM on November 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

his argument was that the interruptions of the main narrative by the footnotes are meant to represent something about the experience of being an addict, where your normal processes are constantly being interrupted by these other intrusive thoughts (about your item of addiction)

I expressed this backwards, I think. It's been a while.
I think the idea was that the main text is so absorbing it's like the experience of being an addict (or like the entertainment that's so engrossing it kills you) -- you don't want to be interrupted, you want to keep reading along, and when a footnote occurs you experience the exasperation and frustration of an addict being torn from the thing s/he really wants (the main narrative/drug), to follow up on some inconsequential other thing (the footnote/anything in life but the drug).
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:11 AM on November 8, 2011

I always thought it was satire - I thought he was sending up writers of the past who overused footnotes.
posted by cartoonella at 8:29 AM on November 8, 2011

This may reveal something about my own personality, but I absolutely never saw the footnotes as an expression of an obsessive nature. They make DFW's books feel comfortably complete to me; it always just seemed like he was capturing his thoughts as completely as he wished, while remaining aware of the value of cadence in the main narrative.
posted by xax at 9:01 AM on November 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

DFW claimed it was to break the flow of the story. So in a postmodern literary way, it's breaking the illusory reality of the narrative and reminding you that you're reading a work of fiction. The first case of footnotes as literary device I can think of is Nabokov's Pale Fire. It does seem to be a postmodern trope and could be seen as just a stylistic choice common to that type of novel.
posted by deathpanels at 11:21 AM on November 10, 2011

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