The International Herald Tribune recently picked up a NYT article about bibliographies in novels. According to the article, this non-fiction tradition appearing in fictional works is causing quite the uproar. It has been seen by some as a vanity tactic on the part of the authors. To my mind, the article did not present a strong enough case in favor of the bibliographies. The only proponents seemed to be “readers” – who, as we all know, don’t know anything (she said, sarcastically).
I read this article in the middle of a bibliography-producing week of my own, writing nice long papers for seminars and amassing four times as many citations as I actually needed all in the name of academic pursuits. And, if I’m honest with myself, I really enjoyed it – the treasure hunt for the perfect sources. Actually I’ve always thought that bibliographies should be arranged in the order that the articles were found (or read, maybe) so that a reader can see the writer’s train of thought as the paper progressed, which could, in a way, provide a treasure map of the writer’s treasure hunt.
And this is what I think authors are providing when they append a bibliography to their fiction. The bibliography is a breadcrumb trail, a way of putting their work in context. Imagine not knowing anything about western civilization and trying to read Eliot’s The Waste Land, for example. To really “get it” one has to have a sort of bibliography in one’s head of all the works that Eliot is referencing. What’s wrong with providing this information up front? I wish more fiction came with a list of works consulted. God, if only Tom Stoppard’s plays came with such a list!
For American readers, at any rate, a typical public education is horribly lacking in exposure to the foundational classics that would prepare them for reading anything from T.S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg. It’s this new generation of undereducated readers (with a desire to be educated) who will benefit most from having the breadcrumb trail of a bibliography with their fiction. I don’t think this is anything to hold against these readers (I am, after all, one of them).
If anything, I see this as the beginning of hypertext fiction in print. Our new brand of literacy includes links. We don’t simply read anymore; we read and want to find out more. And we want to find it quickly and directly. Perhaps Nabokov was ahead of his time when he wrote the crux of Pale Fire in the endnotes. Can’t you see Pale Fire as a web site? The simple 999-line poem serving as a hyperlink-heavy flash page into a web of ramblings, ravings, and rejection? Jane Murray wrote about “multiform stories” and “hypertext fiction” in 1998, noting that this style of writing anticipated the hyperlinking technologies. Authors like Nabokov, Italo Calvino and James Joyce were the webmasters before the webmasters.
Novels with bibliographies are just the beginning.