by Timothy Schaffert
he colophon—the “note about the type” that sometimes closes a book—has a certain musty elegance. It’s best read aloud in your mock Orson Welles, while sipping a Negroni (a cocktail that tastes like a French kiss from a heavy-smoker who’s been sucking a cherry cough drop). Whether the age in which we live is post-postmodern or post-post-ironic, the colophon is a Pepe LePew-ish mix of adorable and arrogant, and certainly contributes to the bookishness of a book—today’s e-books care barely a smidge about the type, with Kindle setting every last word in the too-cute-for-words “Caelicia.”
The colophon’s poetic insignificance—detailing the history of the inventor of the shapes of the letters—seems anomalous to the no-nonsense, practical-minded, plot-driven novel. Therefore, it lends itself well to fictional revision, inviting both reverence and parody, as do so many aspects of our sentimental and lofty literary culture. It may be imprecise to declare colophon-inspired fiction a sub-genre, and examples of it have existed for too long to be considered a trend, but we offer here a brief bibliography of various acts of colophonia:
• Last year’s My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize: The Fabricated Memoirs of Jeff Martin included a colophon that personified the typeface as a boozy has-been.
• Him Her Him Again The End of Him (2007) by Patricia Marx skews the colophon with a bit of literary vaudeville regarding an un-modern font invented by “the tongueless monk.”
• Tim Dorsey’s novel of Hollywood, The Big Bamboo, carries its sprightly satire beyond the final page and right into the colophon, which is actually a fake news bit regarding an “epic thriller about rival neo-classical typesetters.”
• Andrew Steinmetz’s poem “Monograph” (from his collection Hurt Thyself) cheekily examines the various quirks of publisher, printer, and author, from the Library of Congress listing to the unnumbered last pages (“…these blank white pages appear / to represent God…”), including the note about the type that bespeaks “the publisher’s sense of modesty.”
• Though an honest-to-god font, the Fairfield typeface gets a somewhat whimsical treatment in the note about the type of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World by Mike Edison. The note indicates the type’s “loyal following among late-twentieth-century pornographers looking for a high degree of transparency in their printed work.”
• A 2007 entry in the New York Times book blog Paper Cuts examines the “twee” and “borderline obnoxious” nature of colophons, highlighting the playful approach Stacey Greenrock Woods takes in her memoir I, California. The reader responses in the lower scroll-down are worth a read to, and direct you to a few other examples of colophons in literature: Jonathan Safran Foer has a penchant for toying with text, as demonstrated in his novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but his short piece “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition” features no tricks of typography; Ron Carlson’s short story “A Note on the Type,” that appeared in Harper’s in 1993, is a fairly traditional bit of fiction (regarding a man’s development of a typeface) that many regard a modern classic.
• McSweeney’s established its signature mix of Marx Brothers, literary meta-fiction, and typographical whimsy early on: issue #3 of 1999 includes a fictional riff on the very real Garamond (both typeface and designer). (The issue also includes a piece by David Foster Wallace that runs along the magazine’s spine.) The 2000 anthology Mirth of a Nation: The Best Contemporary Humor includes phony submissions guidelines, a note about the editor, and a note on the type (a colophon dismissed as “silly” in a review by the Chicago Tribune), all by McSweeney’s editor/founder Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s has subsequently featured a fictional colophon on its website, as written by Ben Greeman, which includes reference to a typeface consisting of “pebbles arranged in a shallow bed of sand and viewed from the top of a tall tree.”
• “A Note on the Type” by Ravi Mangla appeared in the literary journal elimae, and examined the style of “typographer, lithographer, kitemaker and philosopher Jerome Gabriel Mathieu” and alludes to a pulped early version of The Catcher in the Rye.
• Among the finest examples of this colophon tomfoolery has to be Bruce McCall’s “A Note on the Type,” published in the Shouts and Murmurs section of the New Yorker (Oct 6, 1997). In it, he outlines the history of “Backslap Grotesque Italic Semi-Detached,” then goes on to include “A Note on the Writer of the Note on the Type,” “A Further Note on the Type,” “Added Note From the Writer of the Note on the Type,” and “A Final Note on the Type,” swirling us deeper into a comic miasma of self-reference worthy of S.J. Perelman.
• Other examples of note: Mark Jude Poirer’s collection of short fiction from 2002, Unsung Heroes of American Industry, includes the story “A Note on the Type,” which attempts to restore proper distinction to a designer named Urg Kis; Alexander Theroux satirized the form in his short “A Note on the Type,” about a type called Rubberfab, that first appeared in Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1991; and Ray Russell published a piece called “A Note on the Type” in Paris Review—previously in the journal, he’d published another bit of literary camp: a lawyer’s letter to an author, outlining the potential for libel.
[With all this in mind, Prairie Schooner will be embarking next year on a digital project to include colophon-inspired fiction, satire, and poetry. Watch this space for details about submissions, etc., or “like/follow” us on Facebook/Twitter.]