A SMEAR OF WORDS
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Some readers of Ink Soup will recall, and others will generously believe, that I was once the Cartoon Editor of the old Saturday Review, a magazine that is no longer with us, though God knows I tried!
As the editor responsible for putting droll little drawings here and there in the book, I was in some sense an art editor, assuming always that you will concede the term "art" to little squiggles with no other point than to cheer you up.
But I was not the Art Editor. Oh, no. Don't ask me who he or she was ... my memory does me great favors at times ... but it does not matter, for all Art Editors share certain traits.
The fundamental trait is this: Art Editors see the pages of the magazine as a display space. It is less magazine than gallery, or perhaps Soho wall. They prize above all the qualities of vividness, balance, color harmony, magnitude, shock ... whatever.
The words, on the other hand, for which most subscribers are paying the magazine, are necessary - even Art Editors know this - but they are a necessary evil. They must somehow or other be made to contribute their share to the graphic ensemble. The trouble is that for the Art Editor the contribution of the words is much like that of wallpaper to a room.
To the Art Editor, words are a medium. This is of course true for the writer as well, but for the Art Editor words are a visual medium, and there lies all the difference.
For the Art Editor words are merely stuff, material, background, texture, to be shaped in accordance with the design requirements of the page in question. A ragged left margin is often called for, to balance a ragged right margin.
I recall one Art Editor's decision to run the words right off the right side of the page and onto the left side of the next page. When it was objected that this was a slight inconvenience to readers, she said, "Readers are smarter than you think."
This is true, is it not, dear reader? But suppose every line of this column ran beyond the column limit to be read by you on the following page.
These thoughts are inspired by a gorgeous magazine that I will not name. It is edited (and also owned, I gather) by a former student of mine. I am a subscriber.
As an objet d'art it could hardly be more attractive. It is the perfect coffee-table item. The photographs and graphics in it are absorbing, sometimes alarming, sometimes amusing.
But there are also words. At least I think that the pale gray wash against the white page consists of words.
My eyes are not of course what they once were, but with my reading glasses I have no trouble going through three newspapers a day, to say nothing of lesser matter, such as novels, poems, directions for inserting tab A into slot B, and the excruciatingly tiny type of my Greek New Testament.
But read the quarterly edited by my former student I cannot. Against the brilliant polished white background the pale gray type, even with a magnifying glass, looks like some artifact recovered from the top of a mountain, where it lay for eons under the baking and fading action of an Art Director's sun.
As an objet, the magazine is impressive. As a magazine, it does not exist.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.