Pamela to pomo, Sydney Shep

Samuel Richardson of London, Printer: A Study of his Printing Based on Ornament Use and Business Accounts 
Keith Maslen
University of Otago (Studies in English 7), $95.00,
ISBN 0473077604

Reading/Saying/Making: Selected Essays
Alan Loney
The Writers Group, $39.95,
ISBN 0473076284

At first glance, Alan Loney and Samuel Richardson Might seem unlikely companions on a library bookshelf. Yet, the self-proclaimed postmodernist and the 18th-century novelist share a common passion and vocation – printing. Loney, the autodidact, and Richardson, the fully-trained Master Printer, both reside squarely in the typographic landscape of material language. But whereas Richardson flourished in London’s commercial world, producing over 10,000 Parliamentary bills, statutes and law patents, newspapers, books, and ephemera, Loney chose the rarefied and, for him at least, the financially unstable world of the fine press printer, producing some 40 titles during his letterpress career. If, as the New Zealand designer bookbinder and sculptor Edgar Mansfield was fond of saying, you are as old as the number of books you have created, then the difference between the two printers/writers might seem obvious – or is it?

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After 50 years in the making, Keith Maslen, New Zealand’s pre-eminent bibliographer and book historian, has finally delivered his landmark contribution to Richardson scholarship. Samuel Richardson of London, Printer is much more than a descriptive bibliography of Richardson’s printing output between 1720 and 1761. It is a meticulous and assured reconstruction of Richardson’s printing house practice based on extant correspondence and incomplete printing accounts as well as a thorough investigation of those idiosyncratic yet silent signatures marking the text – the printer’s ornaments. These decorative, handcut head-pieces, tail-pieces, floriated initials and factotums, many of which are reproduced in this volume, enabled Maslen to discover whole genres of hitherto unascribed works: unofficial House of Commons printing, printing on behalf of British booksellers, commissioned works by London gentlemen, and a handful of newspapers such as The Plain Dealer and The Daily Gazette.

The result is a bewildering twenty-fold increase in Richardson’s known printed output and a recognition of the firm’s commercial success. Richardson’s sound business acumen, his complex managerial skills, and his gradual expansion and diversification of the Salisbury Court business made him one of the most important printers in 18th-century London, and informed his rapid rise from apprentice to head of the Stationer’s Company.

Maslen’s magnum opus, coming as it does after his magisterial study of the contemporary Bowyers printing house, is bound to radically redefine the life and work of the author of Pamela, Clarissa, and Charles Grandison. Print culturalists and literary critics should now regard Richardson as first and foremost a printer, who chose to write for recreation in his precious leisure time. As Maslen points out, “authorship may profitably be regarded not purely as an act of individual genius, but as a creative dialogue between author and reader, mediated by those whose business is textual transmission.”

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Like Richardson, Alan Loney’s business is also textual transmission. His recent collection of essays Reading/Saying/Making gestures towards the interpenetration of eye, ear, and hand in the creative dialogue between author and reader. Yet, while the author repeatedly, infuriatingly, and almost too cleverly escapes the web of readerly interpretations, the printer/publisher wants to retain absolute control over the production, dissemination, and reception of his language. An impossible though delicious paradox. This conspectus of over 20 years of engagement with New Zealand’s literary, critical, and publishing centre is generally hostile and rarely generous. It reads, at times, like a personal manifesto and, at times, like the staged histrionics which John O’Connor has aptly termed “operatic dichotomies”.

Loney remains most lucid and compelling when, dispensing with his own egos and alter-egos, he demonstrates a breadth and subtlety of reading, when he engages with his literary heroes, and when he discusses New Zealand’s typographical histories. All too often, however, Loney reduces his own lack of recognition and success to the evils of the “other tradition”. In this depiction of the “other”, he includes the commercial printing and publishing establishment whose centuries of knowledge, ironically, provided the foundation upon which Loney’s limited forays into private press printing were based.

When Loney announced in late 1998 that he was quitting printing for good, many of his colleagues thought, “No, not again.” After all, a comparable notice had preceded the demise of Hawk Press in 1983 and Black Light Press in 1991. What made this announcement different was that, in a way, Loney had backed himself into a corner. Rather than pleading financial insolvency, the excuse this time was to focus on his writing. Why did printing, perforce, have to drop out of the creative equation? Granted, Loney’s small output was never revolutionary by any stretch of the international fine press imagination; it remains highly conservative compared to book artists in New Zealand and abroad who are redefining letterpress printing as they redefine the book object itself. What more paradoxical position could a latter-day concrete poet cum postmodernist be confronted with? The act of printing is a conscious act of materialising meaning; it is an act distinctly at odds with the postmodernist agenda.

The ultimate contradiction became the ultimate impasse. Loney’s happy conjunction of reading, saying and printing embraced in this volume of essays has now become a poetics of escape: from the country which he argues never gave him the understanding he deserved; from the fragmentation of his self-consuming language; from a literary community refracted through his binary prism of tradition and margin. If these essays point to the old Loney, perhaps The Falling or his soon-to-be published novella (about a 15th-century legal case between Gutenberg and his purported betrothed) point to the new. We’ll wait to see it in print – in commercial print, that is.

The late Don McKenzie built a stunning career upon the simple observation that texts may be created by authors, but their meaning is manufactured by the designing hand of printers. With Richardson as with Loney, when author is printer and printer is author, what is the geometry of that fearful symmetry?

 

Sydney Shep is Senior Lecturer in Print & Book Culture at Victoria University of Wellington and The Printer at Wai-te-ata Press. She is also Co-Director of Silent Isle Press, a fine printing and design bookbinding studio.

 

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Posted in Biography, Essays, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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