Fonts and fiction

(First published in the Victorian Writer magazine, October 2019)

The Remington Quiet-Riter.

The first type I cared about was produced by my parents’ Remington Quiet-Riter, a 1950s machine on which I smashed out my earliest stories as a child. The not-really-very-Quiet-Riter, laughably described as ‘portable’ although it weighed roughly the same as the family car, was a staple of office typing pools in the mid-20th century and the weapon of choice for thousands of novelists, poets and journalists. It produced sturdy rows of letters resembling little mechanical insects. The Quiet-Riter had its quirks: there was no zero or numeral 1, you had to use a capital O or I for those, and the exclamation mark had to be assembled from a fullstop and apostrophe. The capitals were scarcely taller than the lower case letters, a quality that typographers refer to as ‘large x-height’. Certain letters had huge serifs: the lower case i and l looked as if they were standing on a diving board, while other letters which you might expect to have serifs had none. The ribbon provided two colour options: black and red. I used red to emphasise key words like WAR or MUST, but I suppose in offices it came in handy for OVERDUE and PRIVATE, or possibly (in the world of John Le Carre) TOP SECRET. You had to hit the keyboard with force to imprint the type on the paper: I developed a four-fingered stabbing technique which I still use today. If I made a mistake there was no way to fix it in that pre-Tippex era, so the choice was to type another letter even more forcefully over the top (my method, aged ten) or to start all over again. 

At the time I paid no attention to the actual shape of the letters – my focus was the story on the page, and I accepted the quirks of my Quiet-Riter as a fact of life. I realised that my typed and stapled books with their hand-drawn covers and Sellotape spines were not exactly like the books I read (and Douglas Adams probably didn’t have to ask his mum to write the foreword) but I considered them pretty professional. I imagine that publishers’ slush piles used to be heaped floor-to-ceiling with manuscripts not unlike the ones I was producing. It may have been basic by today’s standards, but the Quiet-Riter’s typeface was the font that made me feel like a writer.

Later, with rows of orange and green Penguins on my shelf, I unconsciously absorbed design principles while I devoured the words. Those pages, with their centrally placed headers, justified text, and pleasingly spaced lines, were set in classic fonts like Granjon, Bembo and Garamond, variants of type in use since the Renaissance. I paid no attention to that: I simply accepted that this was what literature looked like. I didn’t notice the subtle touches that typesetters use: the ligatures of letter combinations like ‘fl’ and ‘ff’, and the careful kerning to avoid unsightly gaps between letters; though I may have noticed typographical oddities like the use of ‘&c’ instead of ‘etc’ in 19th-century novels. The fact that I missed all this proves that the type was doing its job. Beatrice Warde wrote that type should be like a ‘crystal goblet’ – it’s the wine that matters, not the vessel that’s holding it. But without the expertise of those unknown typesetters, my reading experience would have been more arduous, less pleasant.

With the advent of word processing, thanks to Steve Jobs, who famously studied calligraphy before turning to world domination, every part-time typist gained access to thousands of fonts. However, being able to choose from a plethora of options from Aldus to Zapf doesn’t mean that users understand the principles of good typography. As Robert Bringhurst puts it in The Elements of Typographic Style, “Like oratory, music, dance, calligraphy – like anything that lends its grace to language – typography is an art that can be deliberately misused.” We’ve all seen texts with a smorgasbord of ill-chosen fonts vomited onto the page. All the same, people who have spent time in the company of books have an instinctive sense of what a well laid out page looks like, even if we can’t explain why.

I learned more about these matters when I became friends with typographer Stephen Banham. As a young man Stephen was hunched over a desk in Berlin, cutting letterforms from magazines and kerning late into the night. By the time we met he had his own typography studio, Letterbox, and was described as a “typographic evangelist” by the design magazine Eye. Over the course of many conversations he taught me a little about the ways that fonts intersect with politics and economics; the cultural stories embodied in letterforms; the sheer obsessive detail involved in constructing a typeface. Thanks to Stephen, I paid more attention to the fonts around me. Why does Mistral look right for a rustic French bakery; Didot for an upmarket magazine? Why does airport signage use Helvetica? Why must your resume be in Times New Roman, not Comic Sans? Did Gotham help Obama win the presidency? I began doing my own reading, and ventured into the seductive world of swashes, serifs and glyphs. 

The iconic poster of Obama uses the Gotham font.

I learned that the world of type harbours obsessives and eccentrics like Cobden-Sanderson, publisher of the Doves Press, who was so determined that his business partner should not inherit his precious type that he tossed it into the River Thames, from which the exquisite letterforms are still being fished out a century later. There are tragedies, like that of the Italian poet Carlo Guidi who dropped dead when he noticed a typographical error in a book he was about to present to the Pope. Type has its heroes too, among them Jan Tschichold, a refugee from Nazism, who designed in the late 1940s the Penguin books I loved so much. There is no shortage of excellent non-fiction about type, but it struck me that this intriguing world, with its rich culture and language, has a lot to offer a novelist. I decided to combine fonts and fiction.

When I told people I was writing a novel about typography, a surprising number confessed an emotional attachment to fonts. A lawyer, passionate about human rights, told me with equal fervour that she can only write her PhD thesis using the great Renaissance font Garamond. Nick Earls declared that he prefers his books set in Bembo. A friend whose dad was an advertising man feels a tug on her heart when she sees the label of ‘Peck’s Tasty Spread’ with the lettering (in Bookman Swash) he designed using Letraset. For me, the sight of Johnston Sans evokes memories of my time commuting on the Underground, and I can hear ‘London Calling’ in the background. (In contrast, Melbourne suburban stations lost some of their character when the signage changed from Goudy to the ubiquitous Helvetica*). Consider your own favourite fonts: what stories intertwine with those letterforms? 

When the time came for Death of a Typographer to go into print, it was obvious that the book needed to look typographically impressive, so asking Stephen to design the cover and select the type was a no-brainer. He picked out 26 fonts for the chapter headings, each representing a nuance of character and plot, from something called Bo Diddlioni Stencil to Graveblade, while his designs for the cover and internal pages evoked the classic 1960s Penguins that we both admire. The text was expertly typeset by Anastasia Buryak and Wayne Saunders in Mercury Text, a new take on a classic serif. Most pleasingly, the cover draws a line directly from my younger to my older self. I hear the Quiet-Riter’s clatter across the years when I look upon the author’s name, set in Typewriter. 

* There is hope, though: Stephen recently alerted me that a new font has been spotted on the Hurstbridge line.

The multigeneric novel

So, what kind of novel is it?

That’s a question that throws me. Yes, my books might look and sound like crime novels. But I’ve never felt completely at home in the genre, and with Death of a Typographer, even less so – notwithstanding the blood-stained punctuation mark on the cover.

There are good reasons why genre fiction is popular. It meets a basic human need for story in a way that is sometimes disdained by more ‘literary’ works. It offers the comfort of familiarity in a world that seems to be spiralling out of control. It provides resolution and ties up loose ends in a way that life doesn’t. I’m not going to get into the debate about whether literary novels are better than genre novels: broadly I agree with the idea that you can find good writing, as well as pretty lame stuff, in both camps. What I want to discuss is my dream of having my cake and eating it: the multigeneric novel. 

One problem with multigeneric novels is that publishers don’t know how to market them.  If a novel is rural crime, medical romance or gun toting western, then it’s clear who the audience is and where it will be found in the bookshop. When a book crosses those lines, things become messier. Since decisions about publication are largely made by sales and marketing teams, that creates a problem for the author who naturally wants their work published. The question, frustratingly, is not ‘Is this any good?’ but ‘How will we sell this?’

The success of some multigeneric novels demonstrates that there is an audience for them. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas contains six very loosely connected narratives which employ tropes and techniques associated with historical novels, social comedy, political thrillers, sci-fi, epistolary novels and dystopian fiction. In his later novel The Bone Clocks he ventured into fantasy, as a gang of time-travelling, shapeshifting, ultraviolent demons tracked each other through the pages in a way you wouldn’t expect from a writer shortlisted for the Booker Prize. As a reader, I’m prepared to join Mitchell on this journey because he is a fine writer and storyteller, even when he ventures into genres I wouldn’t normally read. I’m not saying that multigeneric novels are necessarily better:  but they offer a different kind of reading experience. It’s like listening to an album by a band intent on musical experimentation – The Beatles’ White Album, say, rather than The Strokes Is This It. 

Jennifer Egan’s wonderful novel A Visit from the Goon Squad consists of a sequence of loosely related stories that jump between comedy, tragedy and satire, including a lengthy chapter in the form of a Powerpoint presentation, probably the first such chapter in the history of literature (also the first Powerpoint in history to bring tears to the reader’s eyes rather than putting them to sleep). When you reach the end of the chapter you are cheering for the characters and the writer for pulling it off (and getting it past the marketing department).

I find myself wanting to write multigeneric fiction for much the same reasons I like reading it. I like the element of surprise – oh, I thought this novel was one thing, now it’s something else. The diverse elements of the narratives appeal to different parts of myself. None of us is one thing, we have complex, contradictory identities and histories, personalities and obsessions, and a good novel speaks to us in many ways. Why shouldn’t there be jokes on one page, serious stuff on the next? Why not realism here, and the supernatural there? It’s risky, of course. I don’t always have the skill to pull it off.Some readers objected to the appearance of ghosts in my first novel, Ghostlines – the noirish realism of the opening chapters created an ambience that some readers thought inhospitable to spirits, and it lost me at least one publisher. Others loved it, though.

My new novel Death of a Typographer is another, more ambitious attempt. The main narrative is a kind of playful not-quite-realism, peopled by characters obsessed with typography. The action is punctuated by murders, which the protagonists have to solve, though I wouldn’t call this a pure crime novel – my model is more Douglas Adams than Ian Rankin. The interpolated narratives go down other paths – a supernatural tale, a love story, a political thriller – and in those chapters I’m trying to be a disciple of Mitchell and Egan. I’m aware that by writing this way I’ve created a rod for my own back, sales and marketing-wise. What is this novel? Who knows? Who cares? All I can say is that each of those stories is one I wanted to tell, in the way I told it. In some magical way, if I’ve succeeded as a writer, it all makes sense. And if I haven’t succeeded – as you never do, not completely – there’s always the next book.

Interview in the Sunday Age

I was interviewed by Thuy On for the Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Herald about my novel Death of a Typographer. Thuy is a fan of the book, which she describes as “a romp of a book, sprightly and erudite”. We had a lovely chat about fonts, fiction and typography – you can read the interview here. Better still, order a copy of Death of a Typographer.

Obsession. Murder. Fonts.

My new novel, Death of a Typographer, a murder mystery about type, was published in September 2019 by Australian Scholarly Publishing. You can order it here. It includes more than 30 fonts, excellent typography, and 300 pages of tasty nutritious fiction. Thuy On in The Sunday Age called it “a romp of a book, sprightly and erudite.”

Cover design by Stephen Banham.

And here’s the back cover blurb.

If you’re curious about those little marks that Stephen has used to divide the paragraphs, they are known as pilcrows. The pilcrow has an interesting history, originating as a mark made by medieval scribes, long before its current incarnation on your computer screen as a ‘hidden character’ denoting a new paragraph. As it happens there are quite a few hidden characters in my novel too, so it’s appropriate that Stephen has used it here.