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The Trouble With Stereotypes

As with so many things, in printing 19th century Britain came late to the party. Stereotyping, the practice of making a mould of a page of forme-set and proofed type, then casting a new metal plate from that mould, had been first attempted by the Dutch  more than a century before, and perfected by the French firm Firmin Didot in the late 18th century. It made the whole business of printing so much easier. You only had to set type once, and to produce new editions of a book all you needed was the old plates and a handful of new pages at the front. That meant you weren’t just setting less type (a time-consuming and laborious process) but you also needed less of it, since once a page was set and had been stereotyped you could dismantle it again and get the type back, rather than having to keep it locked in the forme while you set the rest of the book.

Sluggish, reactionary Britain thought this was a dreadful idea. Although in the long run it certainly made printing cheaper, the extra cost of stereotyping was thought to be excessive. Even worse, it reduced the need for expensive hand-made type – one of the main reasons why British publishers resisted it for so long, since they had a vested interest in the type manufacturing and setting processes. And of course increasing the overall unit cost of small, dangerously political publications made them just that fraction harder for the low-income public to read. Many English printers thought that stereotyping would never really catch on. But catch on it did.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this has nothing to do with putting together a new poetry magazine. But we are still living with the aftermath of stereotype plates. Modern printing is, after all, economically very similar to stereotyping: what else is a pdf file to a printer but a stereotype plate for the 21st century? Yet the legacy of stereotyping cuts far deeper. Stereotyping is what was used to transform the works of Dickens, of Scott, Byron, Austen, and all the rest into fixed, unchanging books. Edition after edition, it helped to create the idea that the printed word was itself as fixed and immovable as the metal it was printed from. And this in turn created the subtle impression that authoring a work was a one-time-only affair. In stereotyping, the author completed the transformation from a book’s nurturing companion to its originator, handing manuscripts down from the clouds already cast on golden sheets.

Old habits die hard. Who wouldn’t want to be as famous as Dickens? Who wouldn’t want to write a book whose authority, its shape in the interpreting mind, was just as immovable as the plates it was printed from? What a wonderful fiction that was! Yet this is the fiction that lingers, still, in the hearts of writers, who see authorial control as being the only route to the production of the book they envision. The bad habit of referring to a writer’s work as a ‘text’ rather than just that, a work, stems from the confusion of poetry with the page it was printed on brought about by stereotyping. Stereotype too lives on in the notion many contemporary poets hold that, once printed, a poem can be safely abandoned.

Stereotyping and its derivatives are the technology of another century, the last sets of plates long ago melted for scrap. Perhaps the printed book isn’t so far behind, to be slowly subsumed under the wealth of shimmering, polymorphing electronic texts that grow unhindered in the badlands of publishing’s new electronic frontiers. Printing books and magazines may one day not be a matter of routine, but a matter of craft and finesse. In poetry, even in these days of online potential, to print is to dream upmarket, to imagine oneself in the fine interlocutions of the auditorium and the salon, to exchange the privacy of conversation and workshop for the tarnished grandeurs of public space.

This is where we editors come in. A new magazine must negotiate with those dreams, finding a way to express them that reflects an understanding of the new world into which we write. Editing, and editing a magazine in particular, is essentially a kind of magical, squaring-the-circle act of taking the imaginary audiences of writers and translating them into real audiences. But this work is much more like that of the typesetter than the stereotype-founder, building the pages into their final shapes letter by letter rather than stamping them into place plate by plate. Poetry is a letter-by letter process too: for all that a poem might at last drop hot off the mind’s press in one clean go, it seems to me that the writing is just the crystallizing of a long period of thought and imagination. So I’m all for a process of building pages around poems, not the other way around. Too many magazines, it seems, pour all their poems into the same old page-moulds, pushing the thoughts of readers and writers into the same shapes. Yet refusing to think freshly about each new piece of writing, page-by-page, letter-by-letter, risks an encounter with that other word stereotype has bequeathed to the language. Cliché! The page hits the hot metal, leaving a new impression – but the writing’s something we’ve seen before.

Posted 9 years ago

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