Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On citing fortune cookies

Here's an update on the fortune cookie question, since apparently in addition to devoting myself to the three pillars of research, teaching, and service, I'm also to be the Dear Abby of MLA citation practices. Or maybe the April Winchell of MLA citation practices.

Arrick Underhill writes in to ask:
so, if I want to quote a fortune cookie and put it in my Works Cited, only later discovering that according to Google the quote originated with George Bernard Shaw rather than Ancient Chinese Wisdom, is it acceptable for me to continue with my plan to cite the fortune cookie? Or am I duty-bound by the standards of academic conduct to remedy the plagiarism of others, which seems to be the result of a time warp in which George Bernard Shaw actually made contact with Ancient Chinese Civilization and passed down his quote, in English, which reached me here in the 21st century. Or it might have been the 20th. I can't remember.


To be honest, the only reason I can imagine for citing a fortune cookie in the first place is to perform some kind of pomo hipster DFW-wannabe crap. In that case, the point is not actually to cite anything, but to parody the practice of citation by way of a crispy take-out treat. In that case, one should take to heart the MLA Handbook's directive to use your wits and adapt the style as necessary to the situation, e.g.:
"Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English Language: I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba." Fortune cookie. Berkeley, CA: Shen Hua, n.d. Eaten 6 October 2010.
Indent appropriately and alphabetize under Y, secure in the knowledge that Susanna Clarke entirely pwned you as early as 2004.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, let's get serious. It's scholarship time, friends. Citation is about directing readers to your sources, and the truth is that readers are unlikely to reproduce your fortune cookie experience. Forget the cookie and cite Shaw. There should be a parenthetical citation within the main text looking like this:
(Shaw 11)
and a works cited entry looking like this:
Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. Print.
Does it sound like I'm squishing fun? Far from it. Scholarship affords something far more fun than the pale pleasures of parody: endnotes. (MLA style calls for endnotes, not footnotes!) This situation is ripe for a lengthy digression on how you arrived at the quotation, the appropriateness of a fake Chinese saying appearing in a fake Chinese dessert, and the Western desire to produce identity through a projection onto a mythic Orient. Ideally the endnote will cite Said and Auerbach, and finish with a lengthy discussion of monstrosity, and The Wonders of the East, and the checkered history of Cotton Vitellius A.xv.

Technically speaking, MLA style frowns on lengthy notes. But scholars love them for the freedom and joy in research that they express. This is what you get when you try to cite a fortune cookie.

[RF's Twitter response.]


Rosemary Feal said...

You aren't going to like the answer, but I did consult one of our experts. He said: "I'd put fortune cookies in the category of real-world objects that the writer encounters (even though the cookies include a text). Such objects aren't works and don't lend themselves to the logic of the works-cited list. The suitable approach is to describe them in plain language in the main text or an endnote, saying whatever the reader needs to know." I still like your fun with "eaten on...." Rosemary Feal, Executive Director, MLA

Natalia said...

While it's a bit of a shame that MLA doesn't have an official fortune cookie style, I'm feeling kind of vindicated regarding my endnote response.

Gladys said...

i kinda love this post. thanks for the laugh, n.

Natalia said...

Heh. Thanks, Gladys.

Julian said...

Of course i found this post by gooogling "Cite a fortune cookie", after having a joke w a colleague that someone would have tried to do it..
I got a fortune cookie last year that said "all change is not growth; as all movement is not forward" - particularly relevant since my PhD is about change in gardens..
Little did I know at that time that so much change was coming: my girlfriend left me, my mother died, my favourite prof left..
Now that fortune cookie message is my gonna be my PhD frontispiece.. and now i know how to cite it! Thanks!