I wouldn’t say I was a fan of David Foster Wallace so much as I simply read Infinite Jest, a feat about which I was prone to brag. It was the worst type of bragging, too, in that I was completely passive-aggressive about it (that should probably say “am” passive-aggressive about it.) Whenever something came up that necessitated the “reveal,” so to speak, I would hold my information for a beat and really treasure letting it out of the cage—the whole time pretending that it meant nothing to me. I wanted my reaction to be like “Yeah, so what, I read it!” and in doing so, I’m sure it came across as the exact opposite. I’m sure it was, and is, annoying. I would have been better off just taking my literary d*** out, so so speak and laying it on the table, or bragging about it, Rushmore-style. I read a giant book. What did you ever do?
But yeah: I read Infinite Jest. The defining feature of Infinite Jest is that there are more than 100 pages of endnotes, which most people call footnotes. Reading IJ required two bookmarks and a constant reference-book like tossing of the middle section back and forth to see what DFW had meant by “the” in the thirty-seventh chapter. Once you got used to it, it was all very entertaining.
I mention this because I just read Chuck Klosterman’s wonderful book excerpt on football and Bill Simmons’ book excerpt on basketball, and they both use some sort of notation system (Off the printed page, they’re formatted as endnotes. I don’t know how they’ll be in the book, but is anyone going to care anyway?). Simmons has, in the past, acknowledged his use of “footnotes” as a direct homage to Wallace, whom he admired. They work in Simmons’ prose for the same reason they worked for Wallace—they appeal to the helter-skelter mind of the reader and the writer, allowing quick (or in DFW’s case, not so quick) tangeants on whatthefuckever. DFW was Twitter before Twitter.
Klosterman’s thesis is that football is a progressive game in a conservative shell. For all the talk about football as being the man’s man, grounded-in-tradition sport, everything changes all the time. The forward pass, instant replay, challenges, the spread offense, the Wildcat: anything that’s new is at first rejected upon some sort of anti-traditionalism basis, then copied ad infinitum. Isn’t the same thing Klosterman and Simmons are doing with footnotes?
The correlation might not be perfect, but here’s a snippet from Michiko Kakutani’s review of IJ in the Times (emphasis mine):
The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.
A decade and a half later, Klosterman and Simmons, two pop culture writers, have brought the form to the mainstream. For Klosterman’s part, he realizes that the faux-anti-innovation processes he’s witnessed in football are present elsewhere:
I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see.
Over time, I realized this had happened with almost every aspect of my life.
You can add one more to the list. As to the future of footnotes in pop writing, one need no look farther than Klosterman, again. If you like them, enjoy them while they last:
Twenty-five years ago, the read option didn’t exist. Coaches would have given a dozen reasons why it couldn’t be used. Ten years ago, it was a play of mild desperation, most often used by teams who couldn’t compete physically. But now almost everyone uses it. It’s the vortex of an offensive scheme that has become dominant. But ten years from now — or even less, probably — this play will have disappeared completely. In 2018, no one will run it, because every team will be running something else. It will have been replaced with new thinking.