Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Disrupting the printed page

with 4 comments

A page from House of Leaves

Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere—although I haven’t been able to find the exact reference—that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same. Stevenson’s advice is generally taken as a warning against the use of ornate vocabulary that doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the line, but in my own work, I’ve also applied it to the level of paragraphs and chapters. Not every chapter should read the same way, of course: a climactic moment should feel different from a chapter primarily devoted to setting up information for a coming run of scenes, and a novel that was written in the same tone throughout would soon grow dull. When you glance quickly over the text without reading it, though, every page of my fiction looks pretty much like any other. Along with the many other arbitrary rules I follow, I’ve never used narrative devices like found documents or diagrams, I stick to one typeface, and I’ve done what I can to make the surface of the book look as seamless as possible, presumably on the theory that any visual device that calls attention to itself can only distract the reader from the story.

This may seem like something other than a matter of style, since it’s primarily visual, but I don’t know what else to call it: it affects the balance between dialogue and description, helps determine paragraph length, and has a subtle but very real influence on the narrative register of my stories. A book that alternates between many different tones often reflects this on the page: the stylistic shifts in a novel like Ulysses are visible at a glance. This is also true of popular fiction, which can alternate between long passages of rapid dialogue, extended sections of description, and strings of short paragraphs and sentence fragments for action scenes. Part of the reason I’ve tried to keep my novels visually consistent is a desire to see if I can get the same effect through the writing alone. In a way, it’s another constraint I’ve laid down for myself: I try to make the story’s events as colorful and interesting as I can while remaining within the same narrow visual range. It limits my range of options while forcing me to develop other skills to compensate, and thus far, I’ve been pleased by the result.

A page from The Tunnel

All the same, I sometimes get a little jealous of novelists who seem comfortable with radical typographical or visual experimentation. I’ve never managed to get through all of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, for example, but it still occupies a treasured place in my home library: every few months, I’ll leaf through it, my eye caught by its oddly sinister flags, shifting fonts, and stretches of comic strip narrative, each of which stands like an island in the middle of the sea of Gass’s prose. The same is true of the works of such authors as John Barth and Georges Perec, not to mention House of Leaves. When I flip through a novel in a bookstore and come across a diagram or unexpected illustration, I’m always a little tickled, as if I’ve stumbled on a bonbon for browsers. Indeed, a striking typographic trick will often make me more likely to buy a book, or at least remember it: they’re like advertisements within the text for the author’s ingenuity, or cleverness, which may be one reason why I resist them in my own work, at least in the absence of any overwhelming reason to the contrary.

And while I wouldn’t rule out using graphic elements in my fiction in the future, I have a feeling that their presence would be as systematic as their absence has been so far. I’m most comfortable when operating within clearly defined rules, even if they’re only obvious to me, so any attempt at formal experimentation I’d make would probably be closer to something like Dictionary of the Khazars, my favorite novel of this kind, which embeds considerable typographic and visual invention within an attractively uniform surface. It’s a choice that can have unexpected consequences these days, when it’s likely that many of my books will be read on Kindle or a similar format over which I have less control: few, if any, of the novels I’ve mentioned above would survive that transition. When all of your sentences look more or less the same, you don’t need to worry about how they’ll appear in print, and I’ve been glad to leave that aspect of my novels to professionals who know what they’re doing. That way, I can focus on trying to put variety into the story itself, regardless of how it’s laid out on the page—which is more than hard enough as it is.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

4 Responses

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  1. I love “House of Leaves”, and the fun of twisting the book to read it, to get bombarded with blue and red words, HOUSE HOUSE HOUSE, loved it. But not everyone could pull it off. There’s a book, “Ella Minnow Pea” by Mark Dunn, that also plays around with fonts and layouts.(Another book of his, “Ibid: A Novel”, is done entirely in footnote format. I did not like it as much as “Ella”, but it was fun.


    June 27, 2013 at 8:56 am

  2. Ibid: A Novel sounds like just the sort of thing I’d like—I’ll check it out!


    June 27, 2013 at 5:54 pm

  3. I’m reminded of one of Paul Auster’s trademarks as perhaps the subtlest form of stylistic flourish possible within a purely textual medium, which is the intentional lack of quotation marks around dialogue:

    His eyes are shut, and his right hand is pressed tightly over his heart.
    Chest pains, Nick says, leaping to the obvious conclusion.
    How bad?
    Just give me a minute, Ed says. I’ll be all right.

    It carries with it a subtle but striking sense of disorientation, and it’s one of those things you don’t even consciously notice until you’ve consumed 20 pages of it. Then it suddenly occurs to you how unnatural a printed page of character-driven fiction really looks when that particular form of punctuation is entirely absent. The very rhythm of the text, on an almost mechanical level, has shifted. The dialogue and narration are now visually indistinguishable, like a play in which the actors’ clothes are painted to match the backdrop. For a writer like Auster, who’s made a career out of understated, ill-defined angst, it’s a remarkably effective trick.

    And god only knows what that conversation with the copy editor was like.

    BTW – On an odd note, we both attended Chabot Elementary (just a couple grades apart). I keep meaning to email you about a now decades-old anecdote that I think you’ll appreciate. It ties almost suspiciously well into the subject matter of most of your blog posts.

    Alex Varanese

    June 27, 2013 at 9:32 pm

  4. Funny you should mention this, because I’ve always been interested in how typographical choices, like the lack of quotation marks, affect the tone and mood of dialogue. (The use of a quotation dash has a similar effect.) I haven’t read Auster, but I’ve been meaning to do so for a long time—thanks for the tip!


    June 28, 2013 at 9:09 am

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