Living Footnotes: Paratexts Without a Text?

Curator's Note

In The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Junot Díaz introduced 33 autographic footnotes, examples of what Genette terms epitexts—diversions from the main text within and around the text.

Díaz engages in a very different paratextual practice when he invents “footnotes to a footnote,” turning the literary trope of annotation into a “living,” mutating entity. Using the popular website Rap Genius, he expands one footnote, adding pictures and new aesthetic discourse. Now epitexts become peritexts, completely outside the novel. In these autographic paratexts or second-degree footnotes, Díaz begins an enhanced multi-media version of his novel. But do these paratexts occlude the text, making it almost absent?

The motion involved in centripetal and centrifugal paratextuality in digital mediums contrasts the static placement of paratexts in print. Outward and inward pathways of semiotic engagement lead readers to the exterior and interior of the digital text. Díaz’s second-degree footnotes exist outside the text proper and it is not available for readers to engage with through centripetal actions on the site. Further, Díaz sometimes invites readers to do expanded centrifugal work rather than reading the full novel.

Here he uploads a picture of a goat, anchoring it with the caption: “Couldn’t help but put up one of José Figueroa-Agosto’s goats. You know, just for the lolz.“ He draws most U.S. readers to a centrifugal pathway of further web research. Some might recognize the allusion to the nickname of Dominican dictator Trujillo, but few will understand the reference to Figueroa-Agosto, a Dominican drug lord arrested with complicit government officials. In 2010 a judge released the military officials whose supporters claimed they were “chivos expiatorios,” [sacrificial lambs], or goats in the Spanish expression. Diaz’s “living” footnote sends readers on a centrifugal pathway in order to understand it. Does it, however, eclipse the original novel?

Is this intervention on Rap Genius simply an advertising paratext to sell copies of the book? I would argue no, even though links to a review and to purchase it appear. Only one respondent expresses a desire to read the novel. In Díaz’s second-degree paratexts, the original becomes a distant intertext that viewers may not know. They offer a metonymical taste of the larger novel, which, given the decline in long-form reading in today’s digital garden of delights, may not be read at all. Unlike enhanced novels on tablets, there is no text to return to after following Díaz’s centrifugal paths. We might argue that these “living” extensions are effectively paratexts without a text, or at least a largely eclipsed text.

Cabrera, Cristian Natanael, “Juez ordena libertad 7 oficiales vinculaban con caso Figueroa,” Hoy digital, Aug. 16, 2010. Web. Accessed Feb. 12, 2013. Díaz, Junot. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead, 2007. Print

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. Print.

“Junot Díaz--The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Excerpt),” Rap Genius. Web. Accessed Feb. 12, 2013

McCracken, Ellen. “Expanding Genette’s Epitext/Peritext Model for Transitional Electronic Literature: Centrifugal and Centripetal Vectors on Kindles.” Narrative, 21:1 (January 2013), 105-124. Print.


Hi Ellen, Thanks for this great post! I get the impression that Díaz is working with not one, but two, primary texts with Oscar Wao. As he explains it: "The footnotes are there for a number of reasons; primarily, to create a double narrative. The footnotes, which are in the lower frequencies, challenge the main text, which is the higher narrative. The footnotes are like the voice of the jester, contesting the proclamations of the king." Given this, would you agree that the annotations on Rap Genius--while they certainly lead the reader on a centrifugal pathway away from the primary text--seem to function in a more traditional paratextual capacity than the actual footnotes that comprise the book's alternate narrative?

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