Why Authors Should Understand Typography

Though writing and layout have traditionally been separated, McSweeney’s fanboy Kevin Nguyen discusses the importance of typographic elements in modern fiction.

I think “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” is the worst idiom out there, because book covers should be judged. But you can’t criticize a book cover because they are rarely designed, let alone chosen, by authors.

Why shouldn’t authors have a direct hand in selecting the cover art? Why aren’t they responsible, or least more involved in, the layout of the book? We’re reaching a time where novels are more than words on a page; it now matters how they appear on the page.

Though some might think that a text stands for itself, this traditional philosophy ignores the actual act of reading. If we could just absorb the words from a novel, how those words appear wouldn’t matter. But that is simply not the case. The chosen typeset, its layout, and even the spacing between the lines and letters subconsciously affect how a reader interacts with the text.

Though a general awareness or insight on typography would probably benefit writers of all sorts, I think its greatest significance is to authors of fiction. Other mediums of writing, such as journals or essays, will always be limited by their layout. And even then, if the intention of a newspaper article is to communicate an idea quickly and accurately, creative play with type would only interfere.

But fiction serves a subtler, less immediate purpose.

Typography may be the most subtle class of graphic design, as most readers are not acutely aware of it. Similarly, great works of fiction are ingenious in the same way–understated but methodically crafted.

In an interview with The Morning News, Jonathan Safran Foer, best known for Everything is Illuminated, explains how a book should be considered completely rather than just a text.

A book is an organic thing. Everything should be in the service of making it just as forceful as it can be. It’s not—listen, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have a bar code on the back. I wouldn’t have blurbs on it. I wouldn’t have an author photo.

If literary postmodernism is the continued direction fiction is heading (and many argue it is), then typography should become an important part of the writing process. Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, is known for writing his novels in QuarkXPress rather than Microsoft Word. This allows him to consider the book’s layout as a part of the creative process.

Eggers is also the editor and art director of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, a literary journal renowned for its form almost as much as its content.

I admit that he is a rare cross between author and designer, and that expecting writers to be great at both seems unnecessarily demanding. I am not obliging writers to go out and learn software like Adobe InDesign (although I am encouraging it). At the very least, I think it’s important for authors to recognize the value and potential of basic graphic design.

Granted, I have not touched on how typography influences a reader’s interaction with text. This is a question I’ll leave for those bound to write the next great works of fiction.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.