I listened to a presentation on a famous novelist the other day. It was noted that this writer was a master researcher, having read a lot for each book he wrote. I don’t doubt it. This novelist didn’t hold a doctorate, however, which makes even his historical novels suspect in the eyes of the academy. I often think of the humble footnote. You can’t read everything on a topic, not if it’s broad enough on which to write a book. As soon as you send the proofs back to the publisher you’ll inevitably discover a source you’d overlooked. And critics will delight in pointing this out to you. I sincerely hope that my next book project will be devoid of footnotes. There are personal as well as professional reasons for this. One is that I like to believe what I have to say is important.
You see, the footnote is a way of backing up an assertion. I remember many years ago reading a piece by a journalist who was scandalized that professors are so pressed for time that they rely on reviews rather than reading the actual book. That journalist may not have been aware of just how much is published. As an author you have to learn to say “Enough!” The work is done and I’m not going back to it. Footnotes will give you respectability. Show that others agree with you—indeed, said it even before you did. One of my great struggles with academia, besides the obvious, is that I’m more inclined toward creativity than your garden variety professor. I like assert things because I know them to be true. And those people I’m footnoting, they’re doing some of that themselves.
Academic respectability really comes into its own after death. Even so, looking back at some of the “giants” in the field you can see that their ideas haven’t aged well. They were important at the time, but now we look and see their western bias, how they didn’t take diversity, equity, and inclusion into consideration. They simply accepted the dead white man’s version of the way things were. They live on in footnotes. You have to earn the privilege to be original. Otherwise you’re just some patent clerk or editor and why should we take your word for it? One of my zibaldones has written inside the cover Nullius in Verba—take nobody’s word for it. I believe that, and yet I find myself having to put my source in a footnote.