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Are We That Boring?

I read The New Yorker semi-religiously. That is to say, I usually read it quite thoroughly, if not in an exactly timely fashion. One of the things I did over the holidays was to catch up on a few back issues that had been piling up.

Now, I have to say that I have read many articles in The New Yorker on subjects that I would not have initially considered interesting. Fascinating articles, I might add, on things like … Tiger Woods (I hate golf, I couldn’t care less about Tiger Woods, but it was a great article), chefs I’ve never heard of, garden vegetables, leeches, boating on the Mississippi, and recently … wild hogs.

So, while reading my way through the Dec. 5, 2005 issue, I was delighted to come across a photo of someone I recognized. “Hey! That’s Matthew Carter!” And it was with great anticipation that I sat down to read “Man of Letters,” by Alec Wilkinson.

And I have to say it’s been a long time since I read a more stilted, boring, unispired article than this one. The author writes in the shortest, choppiest sentences I’ve read in a while: like bullet points strung together in paragraphs. Waitaminnit … a memory from deep in the past emerges. Yes, that’s it, having to write an essay for school on a subject which bored me to tears, I’d go through the reference material, make some lists, and then pile them into paragraphs as my body groaned with the supreme tediousness of it all.

From “Carter is sixty eight. He is British and he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He works in a room in his apartment.” to
“Most of us see type as black marks against a white ground. Type designers see white space interrupted by black marks. Each letter has a boundary on either side called the side bearing. The letter “O” has the same side bearing on each side, but most letters do not.” and on … these look exactly like the notes an author would take before sitting down to put them together in a readable, interesting article.

The article is remarkably long (not for The New Yorker, but for any article on a typographer, even compared to writings within the industry) and it does get interesting when the author starts to quote people—including Matthew Carter—directly. Partly because what they say is interesting (to me anyway), and partly because they speak in lucid, well constructed sentences.

To those who continually rant about the importance of typography as serving the text, might I just say that there are certain cases where it would be nice if the text were worthy of the typography. Or in this case, the typographer.

Maybe Alec Wilkinson just writes this way. About everything. Maybe he’s famous for it. My opinion probably doesn’t matter. But it was sad. A 7-ish page article in a major magazine. On typography. Written by someone who didn’t care. Too bad.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 2509 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON Jan.03.2006 BY marian bantjes
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
graham’s comment is:

the Robert Brownjohn book "Sex and Typography" is probably the polar opposite to what you describe here, Marian. lucid, moving-transcendent, in some respects, particularly in terms of illuminating a life lived through an occupation (design) that permeated that life utterly.

definitely worth a read-a bit of an antidote, maybe . . .

On Jan.03.2006 at 07:11 AM
graham’s comment is:

sorry-should say:

the book on Robert Brownjohn, originated by Eliza Brownjohn and written by Emily King (deepest respect to both for bringing it together with such clarity).

On Jan.03.2006 at 07:18 AM
JonSel’s comment is:

Ditto Graham's comments. I just got the Brownjohn book for Chanukah. What a read. Completely unflinching and fascinating from start to end. I wish more design writing was like that.

On Jan.03.2006 at 08:43 AM
jo’s comment is:

I read that same article in the New Yorker, and was perhaps blinded by my own rampant interest in the subject: I didn't notice the choppy writing. Looking back at it, though, I don't see how I didn't notice it; it is a sad day when a remarkable craftsman suffers under the strain of underappreciation.

At least he was profiled, though!

On Jan.03.2006 at 09:03 AM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

Marian, I felt the same on reading that article. Which is strange, because I don't read the New Yorker, I collect it�.

But careful what you ask for. I know, I know, designer don't get any respect; but perhaps the last thing we all really need is more public recognition. Because from my experience, life is better when clients don't question the How, but the Why.

As the saying goes, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous — which I wade through anytime someone wants me to search for the magic typeface. Since to know that there's a space under the bed is to know there could be monsters, hiding.

On Jan.03.2006 at 09:09 AM
jenny’s comment is:

I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt this way about that article. I'd had much the same reaction: I'm usually totally taken in by New Yorker articles whether the subject normally interests me or not, but I had a hard time finishing this one - on a subject that I'm extremely interested in.

On Jan.03.2006 at 11:52 AM
dan’s comment is:

I feel your pain with the writing, though I have to say that I was quite pleased when numerous non-designers commented to me how much they enjoyed the article. It seemed to give them insight into a component of our profession that they knew little about (or ever knew existed).

Even if the article failed to provide us much beyond what we'd been taught back in our type 101 or design history classes, it did provide decent exposure to type design and an admirable craftsman in our profession.

On Jan.03.2006 at 01:00 PM
Timothy’s comment is:

I too was excited to see -- and underwhelmed by -- the article on Matthew Carter. It reminded me of a paperback I bought for a quarter at a garage sale, "The Mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle."

Sadly, the greatest mystery ended up being: how on earth does one write a boring book about the Bermuda Triangle? Ocean liners and aircraft disappearing into some pan-dimensional vortex without explanation. A thesis sentence like that, I would've thought you're home free -- but after two pages I was nodding off. The author just seemed to be reporting, with none of the passion or zeal of the enthusiast.

I suppose a talented writer can write competently, even skillfully, on any topic, but without that spark of personal interest, the results fall flat. Hopefully next time there's a feature on Mr. Carter, someone more directly interested or involved in design will get the assignment...

On Jan.03.2006 at 02:37 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

I've read and enjoyed several of Alec Wilkinson's books, including Moonshine: A Life in Pursuit of White Liquor and Midnights: A Year with the Wellfleet Police. His style — short, direct sentences delivered without inflection — is something that I associate with many New Yorker writers, especially John McPhee, but also E.B. White, Ian Frazier, Malcolm Gladwell, and Wilkinson's mentor William Maxwell.

Like Dan, I found that many of my non-designer friends commented on the article and told me how interesting they found it. (One friend actually cut it out of the magazine and sent it to me with a "thinking of you" note.)

As you can guess from some of the titles above, Wilkinson seems to enjoy writing about people who do something for a living that his readers don't think about often. It could be that we are all so familiar with typography in general and Matthew Carter in particular that we get impatient with someone leading a "Typography for Dummies" seminar. But perhaps that's exactly what was needed for most of the magazine's readers.

On Jan.03.2006 at 02:46 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

But careful what you ask for. I know, I know, designer don't get any respect; but perhaps the last thing we all really need is more public recognition. Because from my experience, life is better when clients don't question the How, but the Why.

Well, I think i understand what you're saying, Mark, but an article on a person in any profession need not go into the minutia of that profession. I would think that articles on the Who and the Why would be beneficial to anyone.

What I'm saying is when The New Yorker has a track record of profiling people doing things most people never thought about before, and doing it with interest and passion, I cry "unfair" when one of our own is so disserved.

Personally, as an editor, I would have rejected the article. And as a reader, a designer, and a typographer of sorts, I would rather have no article at all than one that presents one of our most important type designers in this way. I'm half tempted to rewrite the damned thing myself.

I have a suspicion that Alec Wilkinson savoured only this:

"His father died in 1980. He used to say only that he thought that the conversation at the dinner table might have been more interesting if Carter had chosen another field."

Really?

... Thanks Graham, the antidote is already on my wishlist.

On Jan.03.2006 at 03:03 PM
Nicole’s comment is:

I'm surprised at these negative reactions to an article I thought was terrific. What I liked about it was that it made content that is obscure to most people completely accessible. Don't forget, most people can't see the difference between Ariel and Helvetica, or serif and sans serif. Graphic designers were not the target audience.

On Jan.03.2006 at 03:05 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Like Dan, I found that many of my non-designer friends commented on the article and told me how interesting they found it.

This is a relief.

It could be that we are all so familiar with typography in general and Matthew Carter in particular that we get impatient with someone leading a "Typography for Dummies" seminar. But perhaps that's exactly what was needed for most of the magazine's readers.

I still say, if this is the case, it should be written by someone who has been bitten with the passion of it.

I haven't read his books, but I'm certain I've read articles by Wilkinson before, and most likely enjoyed them. If so, it would have been because Wilkinson was inspired by the subject. To me that's the difference between a great piece of writing and an assignment.

Wilkinson is undoubtedly an excellent writer, but this was, in my opinion, a poor article.

On Jan.03.2006 at 03:19 PM
Whaleface’s comment is:

These comments have inspired me to move the December 5th issue to the top of my pile of unread New Yorkers. Even those of you who didn't like the piece are one leg up on me. My pile stretches back in to November.

Hoping to get snowed in soon to make a dent in my pile. At least I know now where to begin my reading. Thanks!

On Jan.04.2006 at 04:09 PM
Caren Litherland’s comment is:

Gosh, I loved that article. Alec Wilkinson has shown his mettle as a writer, at least for me; I've been reading and appreciating his stuff for years now. It's true that he has a very straightforward, understated style—he sort of proceeds through parataxis, placing one short descriptive sentence next to another, until he builds something.

I loved, in the subsequent days, hearing non-designers say things like: "Wow, what a great article!" And: "I never realized how much work it was to create a font!" And "I never knew he created Verdana!" (Or: "I never knew anyone created Verdana!")

In our age of bundled fonts, a lot of people seem to think that typefaces just sort of occur in nature. They're always already there, kind of like canned vegetables, alienated from their genesis. So I applaud the New Yorker for writing an article about Matthew Carter that even my mother can appreciate.

On Jan.05.2006 at 06:47 AM
Frank’s comment is:

Yes. We are.

On Jan.05.2006 at 10:24 AM
jessica fleischmann’s comment is:

A big thanks to Caren Litherland for her upbeat comments, which almost make mine moot. Yet more of us should weigh in on the side of careful reading of careful writers. I was sadened by Marian's diatribe against The New Yorker's clear, concise portrait of typographer Mathew Carter. And also sadened that most of the rest of the comments are so critical of Wilkinson's no-frills writing. I am concerned that this equation of straightforward journalism--nay, storytelling--with the state of being boring indicates a lack of imagination, a tendency of too many designers to prioritize surface over substance.

The story is direct, carefully observed, to the point, and allows room for the reader to extrapolate: all elements of Carter's work. The dryness of this article is no doubt an intentional stylistic choice by the author and editors to not get in the way of the subject of the article. This is very much in keeping with the New Yorker's editorial stance. Print magazines don't have the luxury of space found on the web. Many friends, designers and

non, have enthusiastically referred me to the article.

Inspiration is not always marked with exclamation marks. Enthusiasm for a subject can manifest as much in the choice of that subject matter as in style of delivery of that subject. Understatement does not equal lack of passion. Some writers measure their words more than others.

Marian, did you possibly enjoy other articles by Wilkinson before because you were not familiar with the subject matter, so it was new and thus interesting? What I read in your critique is that you wanted to be entertained, rather than merely informed. You critiqued the style, confusing it with substance, perhaps because you're too close to the content. You couldn't see the words for the typographer?Too bad.

On Jan.05.2006 at 12:55 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

I'm genuinely glad that Caren and Jessica disagree with me so wholeheartedly, enjoyed the article, and know many others who did as well.

But I have to take exception to Jessica's condescending tone.

While I've never been a big fan of the choppy sentence style, I can certainly see that it has its place. However, I don't think the delivery of facts is one of them. I found myself tripping over these sentences and it's the first time ever in a New Yorker article that I've had a problem with the writing style.

As I've said earlier, I have no doubt I've read Wilkinson's writing before and completely enjoyed it, but in this instance he seemed so incredibly disengaged—to the point of listmaking.

Jessica, please do not confuse "entertainment" with interest. Please do not confuse exclamation marks with em-dashes (oh the em-dash, the pause that refreshes).

Enthusiasm for a subject can manifest as much in the choice of that subject matter as in style of delivery of that subject.

To have enthusiasm is one thing, to inspire it is another. This, for instance, is what makes some people great speakers or teachers, and others boring drones. If Wilkinson was enthusiastic about Carter's work, I think it would have been more evident.

I want neither to be entertained nor merely informed. I want to be interested; I want to be sad, not relieved, when the article is ended. And when I fail to be interested by a subject I'm already very interested in, I have to take a second look and say "what the fuck?" I critiqued the style for failing to bring the substance to life, for me. I confused nothing.

because you were not familiar with the subject matter, so it was new and thus interesting?

That is entirely possible. That's also partly why I wrote the critique here on Speak Up—as opposed to writing a letter to the editor—because I wondered what others familiar with the subject thought.

And now I know.

On Jan.05.2006 at 01:51 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

p.s.

If you read Graham's first comment at the very beginning, here, he has perfectly described exactly what I was looking for.

On Jan.05.2006 at 01:54 PM
Ricardo Cordoba’s comment is:

Like Jo, "I read that same article in the New Yorker, and was perhaps blinded by my own rampant interest in the subject"... I was only too happy to see Matthew Carter profiled in The New Yorker!

Now I kinda feel like going back to re-read it...

On Jan.06.2006 at 12:48 AM
Caren Litherland’s comment is:

Well, Marian, I appreciated hearing the reaction of someone who has actually practiced type design. Many times over the years I have tried to design a typeface (if only to understand type better); I have failed every single time. So perhaps one of the reasons I liked this article so much is that it describes something that I just can't do, no matter how hard I try.

A friend's significant other is a programmer. And, for reasons unknown to me, he decided a few years ago that what he really wants to do is design and develop websites. Now to my knowledge he has never managed to produce a working site. But he sure does love to read and talk about it! So when I find myself at a dinner party with this guy, I can always count on him to corner me, without any preamble, and start peppering me with detailed questions about whatever he happens to have read that day on zeldman.com.

The process of designing and developing a site, in all of its minutiae and (frankly) drudgery, is anything but boring for me. It's like a new life beginning each time. But I find talking about that process so boring that it's almost physically painful.

If I'm at a dinner party, presumably I'm not working. Presumably I'm relaxing, or trying to relax. So the last thing I want is to be forced to think about, say, the pros and cons of Fahrner Image Replacement.

What if Alec Wilkinson were to write a piece about someone like Daniel Brown? I don't know, I imagine I might find it kind of unpalatable. But a Hillman Curtis Designer Series Quicktime movie about Daniel Brown? Now that would get me going.

So when you finish the Emily King book on Robert Brownjohn, let us know what you think of it. (It's on my wishlist, too.)

On Jan.06.2006 at 01:02 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Don't you think the difference between Alec Wilkinson's article on Matthew Carter and Emily King's book on Robert Brownjohn has much more to do with the difference between the subjects than the skill of the writers?

On Jan.06.2006 at 07:39 AM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Michael, let me just reiterate that I'm not calling Alec Wilkinson's skill as a writer into question, but his evident interest in the subject. It's possible even that, for me, his style as a writer didn't suit the topic, but I doubt that.

Having not read the Bownjohn book, I can't compare, but Graham's words "lucid, moving-transcendent, in some respects, particularly in terms of illuminating a life lived through an occupation (design) that permeated that life utterly," describe what I would consider a great portrayal of any person. Perhaps that's asking too much, in which case, for a magazine article of this nature I would have liked "genuine curiousity and a near-obsessive immersion in the life and profession of [any person]," which many NY'r articles have ... barring that, I'd settle for "insight into another [life]," which we got, but as noted, largely through quoting other people, without much personal investment from the author (despite the undisputed time it takes to research and write such a thing).

I wish I had time to re-read the article, read some others of Wilkinson's and critically compare with other notable NY'r articles to either strengthen my point, or come back and say, "Y'know, I guess it was just me." But alas ...

On Jan.06.2006 at 12:08 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

We not boring, only a'tistic.

On Jan.06.2006 at 02:10 PM
ps’s comment is:

marian,

i hope you'll be more pleased with the piece about you in eye magazine -- congratuations.

On Jan.07.2006 at 08:46 PM
marian bantjes’s comment is:

Thanks ... it would appear I'll be the last person to read it, however. Who knows when my issue will arrive.

On Jan.08.2006 at 12:27 AM