It was a superscripted number. An endnote reference. Seeing it, I paused. Should I flip back to the endnotes to learn more? The note would presumably document some fact in that sentence: what had that potentially controversial fact been? Should I reread the sentence to look for it? Why hadn't it seemed controversial to me? All of these questions flitted through my mind, and in the end I answered none of them. I just closed the book and set it back on the shelf.
Not everyone will have those reactions. Some people can delightfully ignore each little endnote-number. Others probably emit a sound a glee and run immediately to the back of the book to find the real dirt. But I believe that a large portion of the reading public has (perhaps subconsciously) at least some of the same types of reactions that I do. Uncertainty: What does the author want me to do?
When we pick up a book, we're looking for both entertainment and expertise. We want an author with a confident voice to take us on a tour of ideas, characters, and/or events. We want to know that these things are true, but we would prefer to not have to validate such truths ourselves, taking detours from the tour to study how it was put together. We would prefer to trust.
The endnote is the foundation backing up that trust. If our trust starts wavering, we can turn to the endnotes to buttress it. But we'd rather not.
Several years ago, when Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down came out, I read the first couple of chapters and became thoroughly hooked. This story was more exciting than most thrillers I'd read. It was only after a couple of chapters that I thought, "Wait a minute, this is supposed to be completely true -- so how'd he find that out?" I flipped to the back of the book and discovered his unmarked endnotes. From the endnote, it was easy to go back to the page number and text reference to find the potentially controversial fact -- and then the note explained how he'd acquired it. My point is that Bowden and his publishers knew that flow works best in one direction. There was no need to highlight that fact with an endnote-number in the text. Thanks to Bowden's narrative gifts, most readers would never even know it was controversial.
By contrast, an author who annotates every sentence doth protest too much. "Look, I'm legit! See, I found this fact here! And this one over here! Watch me synthesize!" Synthesis is a worthy skill, especially valuable in academic settings. But most nonfiction readers cruising through a book are looking for ideas, characters, and events -- not evidence of synthesizing skill.
From my very first conception of The Cowboy Girl, I wanted unmarked endnotes, in the style of Bowden and numerous other acclaimed authors (including Erik Larson, Donald Worster, and J. Anthony Lukas). That decision caught a lot of flak. Academic reviewers vetting my book proposal opposed it. My production manager, warning that I would bear the time-consuming burden of manually inserting the page numbers in the notes, opposed it. At least one reviewer has opposed it as well.
I'm a stubborn chap, so to each such objection I have offered arguments like this. But if anyone would like to continue the discussion I'm happy to throw open these comment threads. What do you think: Do unmarked endnotes work?
I'm always interested in feedback, via info at johnclaytonbooks dot com
An early review of The Cowboy Girl pointed out Caroline Lockhart's lack of public recognition in a curious but insightful way: she has no wikipedia entry. Likewise, she'd probably never served as the inspiration for a Halloween costume... until this year.
(Update: Becky provides a better picture mimicking the book's cover.)
Way to go, Becky Hill! I'm always interested in feedback, via info at johnclaytonbooks dot com