Those Gosh-Darned Writers

by vinnyhaddad

If there is one thing that D.C. Greentham’s text makes abundantly clear, it is this: do not take for granted the resolve and innovativeness necessary to place words on a page. The genius of “placing” words on a page has been reserved for the author, but the designers of print and publishing deserve considerable credit of their own. As I was reading Greentham’s historical account, I constantly thought of the ways in which an author like Laurence Sterne made the materiality of the text a part of his narration, much to the behest of those that would actually have to print his work. For those unfamiliar with his seminal work Tristram Shandy, here is a brief background. Published in 1759, Sterne’s overtly self-reflexive autobiography of Tristram Shandy intentionally fails at every turn to tell a story due to intense digression and the time-consuming act of putting words on a page. But not only was Sterne intensely aware of the limits of text to tell a story, he also was aware of how work-intensive setting the type for his text would be. Take for example the following two pages from his text:


How is such a page possible?

"The Black Page"

Including a page like this must've made printing this text inordinately expensive.

Greentham’s account of the development of print through the eighteenth and nineteenth century suggests that incorporating such nonsense into a text would not only make the printing of it expensive, but difficult. Sterne found other ways to disrupt the machine-like process of typesetting a text: creating a chapter that had been “lost,” therefore causing the page numbers to jump, inverting the side of the page one would find the even number and odd number pages. Greentham’s section on the process of folding folios and setting where text would go based on page numbers (pgs. 118-131), make such a maneuver on Sterne’s part seem incredibly evil.
This tradition is not one that has died. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close masterfully made the printing and materiality of its text an integral part of its narration. In two of the most heart-wrenching letters of the text, the reader is faced with disruptions of print:


In the first picture, Jonathan Safran Foer literally has the writer of the letter run out of space on the page, forced to type over and over his text with the typewriter until the personal narrative is completely unreadable. In the second, a letter accounting terrible trauma is littered with red ink proofreading grammar. While the way in which publishers now digitally capture the image of texts and print them will have made the job of printing Safran Foer’s narrative much less obtrusive than Laurence Sterne’s, the tradition of meshing narrative and materiality is alive and well.