Monday, August 1, 2011

The importance of design to straight-forward prose

If you look at your average literary magazine or publisher, you quickly find that the division between vessel and content is firm. One story in a magazine looks more or less identical to the next. If it weren't for the title pages and the names in the top margins you wouldn't know one story from the next. (The poetry is sometimes easier to tell apart.) There are good reasons for this and there are bad reasons. In terms of the former, it is usually good design to use consistency in one's layout and typography. If there's no major difference between one piece and the next that necessitates a change, you probably shouldn't make one. And there is a relatively narrow range of usable, readable arrangements of text: you can ornament it all in several ways, but for instance aligning your text right or centered is pretty much out of the question. You can only crowd the text so much. You need white space. On the other hand, if your content never challenges your container -- if your first design always works for everything you publish -- you're probably a boring publisher. 

This is not to say that everybody needs to publish formally adventurous material. I have a preference that they do, or at least remain open to it -- you've got a page there, why not use it? -- but in general readers prefer that the form stay out of the way, that the text remain invisible, and certainly there are many pleasures in such writing, and I don't blame anyone who prefers those pleasures to all others. But I think we neglect the fact that prose wherein the form is invisible achieves that invisibility by a careful employment of form all its own. Consider the over-crowded page: in some ways, this seems to devalue and deemphasize form more than any other style of page. Overcrowding is primarily a strategy of pulps and budget-conscious publishers to reduce page count and therefore cost. And yet it makes me more conscious of form than nearly anything. It's oppressive. With every word I manage to read, I have to ask myself if I want to bother with the next. Formal invisibility is not the absence of form: it is the carefully managed presence that denies itself, that hides in plain sight.

I was thinking about this in relation to David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, in many ways a very traditional novel from a writer who has made some really wild fiction (Cloud Atlas). For the most part, the form is invisible. It hides in plain sight. There are some images, but they're simple, unassuming, and they only serve to demonstrate images described in the text. They are polite and contained.

The layout being traditional and the prose conventional, the main decisions in designing the book would have been the font, the spacing of the text, the dimensions of the pages, and the margins. (Keep in mind I'm working from the paperback here; the hardback presumably differs in some respects.) And they're not exactly weird or anything. The book feels a very slightly wide and pleasantly blocky. It could use a slightly larger inside margin for the sake of visual balance (you could narrow the outer margins to match), and the convention of placing the full title at the top right of the right-hand page does it no favors (the title is so long it nearly occupies the entire top of the page), but basically it's a clean, pleasant, readable design with nothing remarkable about it.

Unless we recognize that good, thoughtful, usable design is always remarkable. And there is one detail that shows the designer's engagement -- and the author's -- in this invisible form. That is, Mitchell's one-line paragraphs remain one-line paragraphs wherever they were clearly meant to be so.

Mitchell's paragraphing is thoughtful, careful, purposeful. He manages rhythm and tone by deploying different densities and lengths of language. And one tool he uses quite often is the one-line paragraph. For example, a full section from page 264 (with two spaces substituted for real indents due to Blogger's limitations):

The door slides six inches before emitting a high, snging groan. Orito holds her breath to hear the noise of running footsteps...
  ...but nothing happens, and the fathomless night smooths itself.
  She squeezes through the gap; a door curtain strokes her face.
  Reflected moonlight delineates, dimly, a small entrance hall.
  An odor of camphor locates the infirmary through a right-hand door.
  There is a sunken doorway to her left, but the fugitive's instinct says, No....
  She slides open the right-hand door.
  The darkness resolves itself into planes, lines, and surfaces...
  She hears the rustling of a straw futon and a sleeper's breathing.
  She hears voices and footsteps: two men, or three.
  The patient yawns and asks, "'S anyone there?"
Orito withdraws to the entrance hall, slides the infirmary door shut, and peers around the shrieking door. A lantern bearer is less than ten paces away.
  He is looking this way, but the glow of his light impairs his vision.
  Now Master Suzaku's voice can be heard in the infirmary.
  The fugitive has nowhere to run but the sunken doorway.
  This may be the end, Orito thinks, shivering, this may be the end...

The fact that on the original page the majority of these paragraphs are one line, a few are one line and a word or two, or at most two lines and two words on a third line, is extremely important to how this section reads. And it's not an accident. You can see places where Mitchell gets the paragraph he wants through the somewhat unconventional use of ellipses. This is something he does quite often, always for rhythm, often for paragraph length as well. In this particular example the form mirrors the content -- the paragraphs are structured for suspense -- but often it is less literal, the one-line paragraph being used more as a device to make the reader unconsciously read the prose more as a poem. Image becomes more central in these passages. The language intensifies, reaching for a different kind of beauty. 

It looks conventional because the author and designer were careful to make it so. Mitchell's use of the paragraph is shrewd and inventive, but it doesn't look inventive: that's how it works. The designer, meanwhile, could have ruined the effect by careless placement of the margins, or by selecting the wrong width of page. But these decisions were quite deliberate. You can tell because there's just enough room for many (most) of the one-line paragraphs in the book. They found a set of parameters that worked just right, and in the same stroke subdued our awareness of their own cleverness and care. Because the columns of one-line paragraphs look so solid and blocky, we notice them less than we might otherwise: they almost read, collectively, as paragraphs in their own right.

That's what careful design can do for you, even if your prose is intended to be extremely conventional and totally invisible. It doesn't just contain your content, it makes your book work.

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