Saturday, 20 March 2010

Parody, parody, parody

John Gross was at the Oxford Literary Festival today, talking about his new anthology The Oxford Book of Parodies. The best description I’ve heard of this book is ‘an alternative literary history’; an indirect literary chronology that introduces readers to great writers through affectionate – or sharp – reimaginings of their work. John spoke about the problem of presenting a literary parody to an audience that might not be familiar with the original. Would they get the joke without the impossible expedient of printing the parodied item on the facing page? He concluded that the acuity of the parody determined this: the parodies by Max Beerhbohm of minor literary figures of his time were rendered plausible by the obvious accuracy of those of Shaw or Wells.

He didn’t specifically touch on the problem of the visual presentation of parodies – how much does one’s recognition of the wit depend on the configuration of the parody text echoing that of the parodied? But this was a consideration in the design of the book. Many of the sources John draws his examples from (New Statesman competitions, for example) prevented accurate or complex typographic referencing of the original. In designing the OBP digital typesetting provided a liberation from these constraints, so the question became, not can we make the parody look like the original, but rather when should we do it?

Some cases come to mind: A. E. Housman’s parody of Greek tragedy (is it a parody of the stilted translations, or the stilted Greek itself?) needed to be set in the style of the Oxford Classical Texts, or Brill editions, and not regularized into the standard ‘drama’ format used in the rest of the book.


Robert Benchley’s parody of Wagnerian opera requires the pedantic typography of a 19th century theatre programme.


The text from Posy Simmonds’s Graphic novel Gemma Bovery was recreated to match the original character-for-character, space-for-space; it’s a parody of a newspaper column, and (I believe deliberately) takes the poor justification and erratic typesetting of her own newspaper, the Guardian, for its inspiration.


Anne Fadiman’s take on Clarissa Harlowe as a text-message-smart kid from Beverly Hills 90201 could have been rendered as a window from a mail client, but I chose to render it as a print-out – in a default Windows 7 core font, of course.


But by far the most challenging was the typographic recreation of a non-existent entry in the OED. Henry Bayliss, an assistant to Sir James Murray, prepared this, in exact adherence to dictionary style, when Murray decided in 1902 that the word radium was not widely used enough to warrant inclusion. Peter Gilliver has reproduced the spoof slip from the OED archives, and this is how it appeared in Dictionaries, 25 (2004):


Gilliver subsequently transcribed the slip to appear in Charlotte Brewer’s book on the OED:*


None of the the foundry types used for the (hand-set) OED have been digitized, so it was a matter of finding acceptable substitutes, and adjusting the sizes on the current 72 point = 1 inch system to match the traditional bodies (brevier, nonpareil) used in the dictionary. The regularity of the original’s typesetting and the fidelity of the spoof helped the task immensely. For the basic body type (brevier Oxford Old Style), Linotype Old Style 7 was used, 7.8/8pt, with normal horizontal and vertical scaling. The italic was given an additional slant of 10° to match the extreme slope of the original. For the nonpareil type, 6.4/6.5pt was used. The special ‘A’ version of Imprint, digitized by Monotype for the setting of OED2, provides the semibold old-style figures for dates. Font Bureau’s Giza, modified by expansion and additional stroke weight, substitutes for the OED’s Egyptians. Finally Rockwell, again with stroke weight adjustment, provides the bold square brackets around etymologies.


I think there are two ‘slips’ in the parody, and I corrected them in the setting, with Peter Gilliver’s approval. The subject field label Math. was italicized, and a b. was inserted to introduce the attrib. and Comb. block. I wonder if these formats were so conventional, and known to the editors and compositors, that Bayliss felt no need to include them on the slip?

* Charlotte Brewer, Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED. London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007

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