Thursday, 25 March 2010

Support Your Local Serif - Charlie Butler


There’s been some behind-the-scenes conversation at ABBA Towers in recent days about the fonts we like to use when writing. Perpetua, Times New Roman, Calibri, Hoefler Text, Kristen ITC, Comic Sans MS, Garamond and even good old Courier have had their champions. Personally I’m still a longhand kid, which means that I favour Biro Scrawl 12pt for my first drafts. When it comes to writing things up I tend to default to Times New Roman, though I’ve been known to flirt with Garamond when TNR was looking the other way.
Does the choice of font matter? Certainly, it can help set the mood. A fun-loving, bouncy font may engender a book with the same qualities. Conversely my Garamondian flings have tended to coincide with attempts at historical writing, appropriate to that time-honoured typeface. If I ever wanted to set a story in the office of a hardboiled L.A. private eye, I’d be seriously tempted to write it in typewriterish Courier. Fonts are useful in editing, too. As Penny Dolan pointed out in a previous ABBA post, a change of font can be an effective distancing technique, helping writers achieve the necessary detachment from their own words.
If fonts matter to writers, they’re no less important to readers. Would the US Declaration of Independence, for example, have been taken as seriously had it been printed in Courier, Boopee or Planet Benson 2? That the answer is "No" I hold to be self-evident. Publishers (with or without the cooperation of authors) spend a good deal of time agonizing over choices of font, just as they do over covers, strap lines and everything else that goes to make a book the memorably sensuous and tactile experience that it is.
This may be changing, however. With the advent of e-books and other new technologies, readers are likely to have more control than before over the appearance and “feel” of the books they read, choosing their own fonts and layouts according to personal comfort and taste. Arguably this is to be celebrated as a democratization of art, a welcome shift in power from producer to consumer. But how far we can push this idea? Does it matter if we prefer Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Photoshopped into a different shade of yellow – or maybe pink? Perhaps we wish to hear Beethoven’s 5th in A minor instead of C minor? Or shall we watch The Battleship Potemkin in colour? Digital technology is there to oblige. This is all very exhilarating, but Van Gogh chose his palette, and Beethoven his key, for reasons that seemed good – and perhaps fundamental – to them. Who is to say which aspects of a work of art are “essential” and which mere “decoration”? When it comes to books, whose is the last word?

11 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

This is an excellent post, Charlie, on an issue close to my heart. Thank you :-)

Personally, I think 'democratizaton' in art is a red herring (or maybe a herring that has been photoshopped to magenta). It is an easy excuse for people with under-developed creativity of their own to put a little input (often destructive rather than creative) into a project conceived and executed by someone else and then claim some form of ownership of or stakeholding in the (often mangled) result.

That may (or may not) be fine if they hang it on their own wall or keep it on their own library shelf or hard drive, but it's very much not OK if it's put on public display unless it is clear to all that it is an unauthorised variant. I'm willing to champion artistic integrity and fight against the death of the author for a bit longer and hope it's not a lost cause...

hilary said...

I am never quite convinced that colour perception is exactly the same for all people. (And even if it is, colours definitely have different meanings to different people.) Nor that the music notes we hear are identical. I think is the relationship between the notes, or the colours that conveys the artist's or the musician's voice to the viewer or the listener. So key or shade is secondary, still important, but not the heart of the matter.

Same with books. (And I love fonts.) But in the end they are just a medium: print or braille, or spoken word, biro or hand chiselled runes (I write so slowly myself it might as well be in hand chiselled runes). Pink or yellow. A minor or C. A means to an end.

'Did you get it?'my son used to ask at the end of every joke he told, and we used to reassure him, 'Yes, yes, we got it!' And we were really saying, 'Yes, yes, you did it right, you told it well, we heard your thought, we understood.'

So I think the last word is with the reader (and the listener and the viewer) because they are the last in the line. The ones who get it. Or not.

(New courier for me. Everything else looks like trying too hard.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Probably the publisher's...!

Having said that, I do believe those who say that fonts with serifs are easier to read -- at least online!

Nicky said...

Colour is an essential to a painter, key to a composer, where a work is hung or played probably isn't. My words are what matters to me and while I have a preference as to how they are presented I already have not control over those once they are published. I don't particularly want to control every element of the presentation of a book - I haven't the skills - just don't mess with the words.

Nick Green said...

William Blake is an interesting case in point. His 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' were the original multimedia project, written, painted, etched, printed and produced by him, a feat hardly rivalled since. There are those who say you can only fully appreciate those poems in the form in which he produced them, because the images are so inextricably bound up with the words.

Brian Keaney said...

It is the words that count not the font.

Penny Dolan said...

Brian, one could as easily say "It is the person who counts not the clothes" - true, true - but how often do we find ourselves judging people by what they are dressed in?

Fonts are the clothes that words wear. If the chosen font is niggardly, too small a point, too tightly spaced it does not invite us in to the book. It is saying I will be hard work.

If the font is open and generous and has room on the page to breathe, then as a reader we feel welcomed. I think this is particularly true for children's books.

Blessings on all good book designers, as well as on publishers who aren't mean about their use of pages.

Lucy Coats said...

A good font is easy on the eye--and a proper point size is essential too. I dislike intensely those books where tiny type is crammed onto the page in order to save on paper. I notice when things are printed in sans serif, and find it unattractive. Personally, I choose to write in Calisto rather than anything else--but I do agree that changing the font is a good distancer of eye and brain.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

In a previous blog on the Hans Christian Anderson Award (which is being announced at Bologna as we speak)'And the winner is...' http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com/2009/12/and-winner-is-by-dianne-hofmeyr.html -I wrote of David Almond. He's a true author’s author. He loves full stops, comma’s, shapes of paragraphs & shapes of sentences on the page. He reduces his pages to a size where the print is merely a grey outline for the sheer pleasure of looking at the shape and physicality of the pattern of the print on the page. All this is quite childish he says. ‘But that’s why we write for children because we retain the childishness in us.’ So perhaps chosing a font is affirnmation of our childishness. We can play around with font because we are in tune with the child in us - and Penny is right about font being the clothing of words. It does make the text different.

KID LIT WRITERS said...

This is a wonderful idea to help "set the mood" for a writer! Recently, our blog posted a discussion on the idea that changing the font will help you see your manuscript in a whole new light as you revise it. Mary Kole of Kidlit.com first shared this idea. Thanks for yet another benefit of manipulating the font.

Charlie Butler said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone - interesting insights from all. Penny's clothes analogy strikes a chord with me: it appears to me that fonts and clothes send subliminal messages that simply can't be ignored, however much we might in theory wish to do so. (Judging books by covers is not wise, but it does seem to be human nature.) There are of course degrees in these things, and fonts seem far more integral to some works (as in Nick's Blake example, or many picture books) than to others; but I think it's impossible to say in a hard and fast way that there are texts where fonts don't matter at all.

It's true, as Hilary points out, that colours, musical keys, and fonts too, may have different connotations for different people, but the same is after all true of words themselves. If we can argue that fonts are just the medium of the words, and therefore relatively unimportant, might we not equally argue that words are just the medium of meaning, and might without loss be replaced by different ones that will convey that meaning more effectively to a particular set of readers? This is a line of argument from which most writers instinctively recoil, though some such intention presumably lies behind the practice of updating and adapting texts for different audiences. But that's another post...