Doesn’t anyone know what a typewriter is anymore?

FYI, I have been thinking about race and fiction-writing a lot a lot.1 And I started what was going to be a very authoritative blog entry on two books by white authors with a lens on white supremacy, A Free State by Tom Piazza and Charlie Smith’s brutal masterpiece Ginny Gall. I spent a couple-three hours on that one. But I couldn’t seem to circle in on what I really wanted to say, and I realized for the umpteenth time that I’m not a nonfiction writer and decided to go watch “House of Cards.”

This is, like, the most harrowing Jim Crow novel by a white person ever. But I didn't have the chops to write a review.
This is, like, the most harrowing Jim Crow novel by a white person ever. But I didn’t have the chops to write a review.
Still and all, there’s something I’d like to get off my chest. It’s about typography.

I don’t even play a designer on TV but I love typography and design. Say what you will about The One-Way Rain, and I have, but Eben Sorkin’s book design is dope. So it really, really bothers me when I see something typographical that I don’t like. I’ve considered using Ligature Crank as a Twitter handle. You can believe me when I say I will always notice when the New Yorker slips up. My other pet peeve is novels set in a variety of typefaces. Attention book designers: I do not need to see a typeface like Bradley Hand, Felt Tip Roman, or God forbid Comic Sans2 to understand that the particular text I’m reading is supposed to be a letter. I am smart. I have been reading novels for some forty years. Please don’t do that to me.

I’m also not crazy about the common use of sans-serif type in an otherwise serif-type book to indicate sections that should stand out on their own as belonging to a different part of the story. Believe me, unless the author is extraordinarily incompetent, the fancy type stuff is not necessary. The only time I’ve ever seen this sort of thing done well was in Meg Wolitzer’s The Uncoupling. In that book, designed by Amanda Dewey, e-mail communications are set in a snappy retro face with slab serifs, while the main text is set in something a little more Garamondy to my untutored eye. The two typefaces are often used in the same line, and the effect is subtle and thought-provoking. That’s it, though—that’s the only one.

Which brings me to two contemporary books that attempt to reproduce typewritten text and fail signally, in two different ways. The first is Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyemi. The story features a correspondence between the author St. John Fox and his ambivalent reader Mary. We are to understand that the letters are typewritten, because they are set in Courier. Here’s something about Courier you may not know unless, like me, you have discovered it to your sorrow. The em-dash (—) that is so arresting in a typeface like Times Roman is, in Courier, shrunk to something more like an en-dash (–). This horrible little glitch is one of my biggest beefs with Courier. Moreover, I don’t know how old you are, but typewriters don’t have smart quotes. Thus, you can imagine my ire when I saw this:3

What a typewriter doesn't do
What a typewriter doesn’t do

No typewriter in the 1930s would have sloped quotes. Also, St. John would use two dashes, not an en-dash that didn’t even exist among his typewriter’s keys. (I almost said on his typewriter’s keyboard, which just makes me sad.) And I’m not even mentioning the error with the single quote.

The second book was one I liked much better, qua book, but I still had a typographic bone to pick. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips, is about a young woman in an unnamed city (I love those unnamed cities) who takes a stultifyingly boring job entering strings of numbers and letters into a database. Early on in the novel we are shown, on a separate page, a typical sheet of data. It’s really an illustration, not part of the text proper, but it’s very important to the story and I kept referring back to it as I read. This is a pretty ace book which you should read, so I won’t spoil, but later on the protagonist discovers that the company she works for is very old, and she retrieves a file from the nineteenth century. “The form hadn’t changed,” Phillips writes. “There they were, the typewritten dates, the ‘D’ at the top right, the ‘G’ ending the second row . . .” Okay, so the old form is legit typewritten, on an actual (recently invented) typewriter, and we’re meant, I think, to assume that the modern forms our heroine works with are too. But according to the illustration they look like this:

More of what a typewriter doesn't do
More of what a typewriter doesn’t do

The face is American Typewriter, which is not monospace. Typewriters write monospaced letters, because each typebar is the same width. Some folks think it’s perfectly fine to have a “typewriter-style” face that isn’t monospace (here is a bunch of typographers talking about this). But if you want to create something to illustrate a typewritten sheet of paper, please, for the love of God, and I realize I’ve invoked Her twice now but this is important, use a monospace font. Better yet, use a typewriter.


1 The term fiction-writing properly takes a hyphen, which I omitted from the group’s title to avoid pedantry.

2 I am not hip enough to be one of those people who accepts Comic Sans.

3 Apologies for the image quality (especially poor on mobile) and non-embiggenating.