I recently read a book by a very popular writer who had been recommended to me numerous times. While his style and imagination were great, he had a very annoying habit of footnoting pieces with completely unrelated micro-stories.
The thing that I found particularly strange was sometimes the author would add these little side comments bracketed within the text (with which I had no problem) but as soon as it was a footnote it bugged me*. Eventually I stopped reading them altogether, which I hated doing because I was sure the author had put a lot of thought into those footnotes, but they were ruining my enjoyment of the story.
The thing about footnotes is they very literally pull you out of the story, which I’ve always been taught is a big no-no. You might put your finger on the random footnote symbol which is placed somewhere in the body of the paragraph so that you can then go down and read the footnote. Or you might just abandon the main text, go down and read the footnote and then come back and end up scanning over several sentences you have already read to get to the point where you left off. Why would you do that to your reader?
In a non-fiction book I’m completely forgiving, not only do I tend to read these more slowly anyway, so don’t mind a bit of finger placing on the text or re-scanning, but usually the footnote just gives you more detail about a study or something so you can elect to not worry about reading (or wait until you get to the bottom of the page). You are never sure in fiction if it is safe to ignore the footnote, maybe that’s where I find out that Darth is Luke’s father?
I think footnotes can have a place in fiction, but only when used sparingly. If you are footnoting every second or third page then I really think you need to consider if you are really telling the story you want to tell**?
But I’m intrigued, am I alone in my dislike of the footnote in fiction, or do some people like this distraction?
* Have you lost your place in the text now if you came down to read this? I bet you did!
** Or following the character you want to follow. See, this would have read so much more clearly if I had just put this after the sentence I footnoted instead of putting it down here.