To accompany Mia Fineman’s essay on Helvetica, the font that is now the subject of a documentary film and an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Slate asked a number of prominent writers to tell us what font they compose in and why. Courier was the clear favorite among our unscientific sample, but Times New Roman, Palatino, and something called Hoefler Text had their champions as well. (It seems to come down to whether a writer’s formative experience came on an Olivetti or an Apple.) Here are the responses:
Jonathan Lethem, author, You Don’t Love Me Yet: A Novel I dislike the temptation of making a raw draft look like it’s already typeset. Before computers, I wrote three novels on a typewriter, and there can never be anything but 12-point Courier (double-spaced) forever: I write on an eternal Selectric of the mind. I can even hear the rattle of the metal ball against the sheet of paper, I swear.
Nicholson Baker, author, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper
I learned to write using Elite 12-pitch typewriter type—on Olivetti manuals, IBM twirly-ball Selectrics, and Juki daisywheels. Now I mostly use Courier New, and my writing’s gone all to hell. I miss the naked polliwog of the Elite g. The main thing, though, is to use some nonproportional typewriter-style font—you need the sentences to look their worst until the dress rehearsal of the galleys, when all the serifs come out dancing.
Andrew Vachss, author, Mask Market
I write everything in Courier 12, because I write for publication, not pleasure. Since I cannot control the font the (eventual) publisher selects, what do I care how it looks on my screen? Courier 12 is the Type-O blood of fonts—works just as good for a N.Y. Times op-ed as a screenplay or a short story. Not only is it the easiest to convert, it’s the least pretentious, so the writing has to stand (or not) on its own. I don’t even use italics or boldface; that’s clutter, not clarity. Fancy fonts are fine for blogs, just as calligraphy is fine for diaries. But when you’re writing for anyone other than yourself, you want to get as universal as possible.
Elisa Zuritsky, writer and producer, Sex and the City
I talked to my therapist, and she said my love of Courier stems from my childhood. Back before I knew what deadline, hack, or rewrite meant. When the most fun I could imagine was a trip to my father’s office, where I could be alone with the IBM electric typewriter. Another chance to tickety-tick-tick something that would make me laugh. And then show it to my mom and she’d laugh, too. So, I guess my loyalty to Courier is a way for me to maintain my bond with my mother. In other words, it’s all her fault. That’s what my therapist says, anyway.
Luc Sante, author, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York I compose in Courier New. It’s not so much out of loyalty to the typewriter—a mere three or so years transpired between my writing in longhand (using the typewriter only for fair copies) and acquiring a computer. I hated writing on the typewriter because it entailed typing the same page again and again. I like Courier because it seems provisional—I can still change my mind—whereas Times New Roman and its analogues look like book faces, meaning that they feel nailed down and immovable. I also like the fact that in Courier each letter is accorded the exact same amount of space, which I think is only fair to the i and the l.
Anne Fadiman, author, At Large and At Small
My favorite fonts are unrepentantly anti-Helvetican. Most of my books have been set in Walbaum, which sounds like a chain store but is in fact an early-19th-century font designed by Justus Erich Walbaum, a German punchcutter whose luscious serifs may have been influenced by his early apprenticeship to a confectioner. When I was the editor of the American Scholar, we set our text in New Baskerville and our titles in Mrs. Eaves, a neo-letterpress font based on types by 18th-century English printer John Baskerville and named after the woman who was first his housekeeper, then his mistress, then his wife. Mr. Baskerville and Mrs. Eaves interacted gracefully both in life and on the page.Although it’s a thrill to see my words printed in such elegant fonts, I’d never actually write in them. I’d be afraid that my prose would become too precious, like that of a student of mine who, until nudged toward something more prosaic, refused to compose in anything but Garamond. I attempt to counter my natural tendency to overwrite by printing out my work in an aggressively foursquare version of Times Roman, one more heavily inked than Times New Roman or CG Times. It exists only on Hewlett-Packard #92286P, an obsolete font cartridge that plugs into an obsolete printer. When my printer dies, my beloved font will die as well.
Caleb Crain, author, American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation
Obsessing about fonts is a form of procrastination, so of course I have indulged in it ever since I graduated from a TRS-80 Model III to a Macintosh. On my first Macintosh, which was the first Macintosh, my favorite was New York, which Apple seems to have invented as a very loose bitmap approximation of Times New Roman. I was young then and more open to alternatives than I am now, so I was also willing at the time to try Geneva, which looked like an approximation of Helvetica. But I soon turned against sans serif fonts, because they seemed hard to read. My goal has always been a legible font with a neutral personality, as appropriate to flower arranging as to triple homicides. No fussiness and no quirkiness. I have a special abhorrence of squat, bubbly fonts, like whatever it is that the Library of America is typeset in, perhaps because my astigmatism makes such fonts look even pudgier than they actually are. New York was far from perfect—the serifs are too pronounced and give it a higgledy-piggledy look, and its round forms began to look a little too orotund after a while—so I went to Palatino when that was released. Maybe its verticality reminded me of the font that the word Marlboro was printed in on the cigarette packages, whose seductively elongated lowercase “l” and “b” still make me wistful, after more than a decade of not smoking. Palatino was my font for a long time, but Apple uses it in its advertising, which ruined it in the end. In the last five years, my default has been Hoefler Text, though on the small-pixel screens I have to ask Microsoft Word to magnify the page by 125 percent in order for it to look right to me. It’s polite and unobtrusive. Adjacent letters never touch. The regular, medium weight of the letter forms makes them easy to read, but they are shaped distinctly as letters—no one will mistake them for geometry-class refugees. They’re almost as nice as the type from my defunct Olivetti Lettera 22.
Maile Meloy, author, A Family Daughter: A Novel
We had a Macintosh computer at home from the time I was in seventh grade, but when I went to college, my parents gave me a Brother word processing typewriter. They claimed it was just as good as having my own computer, which was exasperatingly untrue. I associated the machine’s Courier-like font with approximation and longing, and borrowed my roommates’ Macs—they all had Macs—whenever I could. I know that mine was a minor hardship, by any comparison, but when I finally got a hand-me-down Macintosh, I developed a deep and grateful attachment to Times. It had the look of honesty about it, no stretching or stuffing of page lengths, and it seemed like a real computer font. (Never mind that on a crappy dot-matrix printer, everything I wrote looked far worse than the crisp pages the Brother rolled out.) That was the year I started writing stories, and by now I’m so used to Times that other fonts look strange and unfamiliar. It might as well be my own handwriting on the page.
Dushko Petrovich; artist in residence at the Royal Academy in London; founding editor of Paper Monument, an art journal
My first job out of college was in the career-services office at Yale. It was oddly civilized in there: People smoked, we had very nice carpets, and the dean looked out for everyone. So much so that one day she sat behind her beautiful desk and personally revised my résumé for me. The first thing she did was change the font. “Which one’s that?” I asked. “Palatino,” she said. And then, after drawing in the cigarette: “You can change it if you don’t like it.”Out of admiration, out of superstition, out of habit, in chivalrous devotion, on too many computers (for how many thousands of words?), on three continents, at all hours of the day and in every single human mood, I have remained completely loyal to this font. Fourteen point, to be precise.
Richard Posner, senior lecturer in law, University of Chicago Law School; judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit; author, The Little Book of Plagiarism
I usually compose in Century Schoolbook. But I cannot for the life of me remember why I chose that! I used to compose in Baskerville, which I like a lot. Garamond is nice, too. And I composed two books (both on intelligence reform) in Verdana, which I also liked; but I no longer remember why I did that, either.