Meg Elison's Blog

Black and White and Red All Over: On the Semiotic Effect of Color Printing in Genre Fiction

By Meg Elison
Uncanny Magazine
November 5th, 2020

Nowhere is color psychology, the theory that colors affect mood and attract or repel us, more recklessly applied than in marketing and branding. Brands signal to your subconscious, using long-established codes and associations. When they’re working to build trust, they show you that in white and blue. Green means health. Red means blood as in danger; as in first aid; as in sex. Bringing colors into the printing of genre books is marketing; books that stand out visually can signal their uniqueness or their difference to a potential buyer. However, in an age when many buy books they’ve never held in hand, it’s not just that. Color informs us about what fruits are sweet and what animals may eat us; it can tell us which books are juicy or predatory, too. These choices in color printing are also an attempt to engage parts of the human subconscious that might not otherwise be reached. We weigh the seriousness of a text on whether it includes color or pictures; the most serious texts will include neither. We perceive gender, value, and associate resonance in these colors, even when there’s just a little that deviates from what we expect. Books printed in more than just black ink on white paper are vanishingly rare, and the application of color often has a great deal of meaning beyond aesthetics. Color is a tool, a semiotic induction bound to engage the subconscious parts of the mind that arise to do the labor of imagining and providing substance to a work of fiction. 

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (1979) is an entry-level epic fantasy, written for an ambitious child who wants a deep worldbuild but something a little more accessible than Tolkien. The story takes place in two locations and two timelines: one in the imagined world of Fantastica, the other in a small boy’s adventure with a purloined book. In most editions of this novel, the text is printed in two colors: red and green. The red printing tells the story of the boy in our world; the green the tale of Fantastica in peril. The effect on the eyes is strange; the colors are opposites on the wheel and it’s a shock to go from one to the other just as much as it’s a surprise to read a book printed in anything other than black. 

The use of color in Ende’s masterpiece serves to separate one world from the next, but it does much more than that. It makes the eye behave differently while reading, receiving a shock after every paragraph break. It’s difficult to pull off the trick of being a book about an unusual book, but this printing is what puts the work over the edge, even in translation from the original German. Bicolor printing suggests the reader has stumbled across something special, something rare. 

For the reader who saw this trick as a child, another example might not have presented itself for more than a decade. If we grow up, if we are ready to confront the true horror of real estate, the next book to put this principle to use might have been Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). 

Danielewski’s inimitable post-modern horror novel uses a lot of formal abnormalities to set itself apart from the typical reading experience. Pieces of the book are printed as marginalia, or in pull-boxes like those used for important quotes or blurbs in a textbook. Selections are printed backward, readable only in the mirror. On some pages, white space overwhelms a single word or a short phrase, forcing the reader to confront the emptiness, or else flip pages rapidly to advance. All of this is used to tell the story of a house that defies the laws of physical existence, and the madness of the people who are obsessed with it. 

Most shocking of all, Danielewski (and his unsung team of layout artists and publishers) uses color printing to single out a specific word throughout the work: house. ‘House’ is always printed in blue, a subtly unsettling choice that spots on every other page or so, breaking the reader’s pace and reminding us that the house is a thing that does not belong. Symbolically, the rest of the text is mundane and correct: it is black. What is blue becomes aberrant, but in a just-noticeable way; as subtle as a haunted house sitting on a street in a suburb. Rarely but notably, deletions from the footnotes are also printed in red, screaming like an alarm and drawing the eye to them out of order, as demanding as a bleeding cut. House of Leaves is a perennial backlist bestseller because there is nothing like it. Each of these formal elements leaves a powerful stamp of experience on those who read it, remembering the non-Euclidean strangeness of the titular house, but also the ineluctable weirdness of the text itself. 

If weirdness in genre text lends itself to color printing, S. by Doug Dorst is the ultimate example for both. S. is a book about a book: a tale told in conversational marginalia written in the edges of Ship of Theseus by fictional author V.M. Straka. Dorst wrote the intradiegetic novel about a man kidnapped by the monster crew of a cursed ship and taken on a bizarre journey first so that it could stand alone, then set about writing the marginal notes between Jennifer and Eric, two people trying to unravel the mystery of this book and Straka himself. Taken from an idea presented by labyrinthine narrative lover J.J. Abrams, what follows is complex and self-referential. The book also contains ephemera such as photos and postcards, maps and notes and napkins that fall from between the pages. 

In the use of colors, S. is flamboyant. Each layer of annotation gives us the voice of the speaker as well as a timeline of when it was written. Eric, the first reader, makes his furtive notes in light pencil, afraid of a librarian’s eye. Jen follows boldly in bright blue, then Eric answers her back in black ballpoint. Jen returns in a layer of orange gel pen, and Eric answers in green after traveling to Europe and South America in search of more clues. Jen’s choices mark her throughout as younger, less studious, the person who provides opportunity for exposition because she knows less. Her pen choices reflect this: less serious, less academic, more childlike, more girlish. Eric’s choices are consistent with him as a grad student: more respectful of the text itself, less aberrant to the typical printing values, more rigorous in his role as educator. In the final pass, the pair (spoiler) turns to purple and red: the perfect colors to express the change in their relationship. In these margins, the two have fallen in love and are thus equally aberrant and equally ridiculous.

S. provides an engrossing and bizarre reading experience because of these deliberate choices. Dorst knows that there is nothing inherently gendered or value-laden about these color choices, but he trusts the reader’s connotative values to adhere close enough to intuitively inform the tenor and timbre of this conversation. He projects innocence and curiosity through Jen’s voice, but also through her pen choice. He projects Eric’s timidity arcing into certainty going from pencil to pen, and then his studious focus into love and limerence as his notes branch out into more vivid colors. It is as clear to the reader as the symbolism of a white dress, a black hearse, or a red lip-print upon a mirror.

There are examples of this principle applied not to the print itself, but to page edging. In 2017, fans of the narrative horror podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” were delighted to discover that the first edition hardback of the Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor novel in the Night Vale universe titled It Devours! has its page edges printed in purple, giving the book an unusual look in profile and matching the Night Vale merchandise branding in exact shade. The cover of It Devours! is a shocking shade of yellow, sitting in direct opposition on the color wheel to that purple and providing a high-contrast and otherworldly look to the novel. Similarly, Tamsyn Muir’s 2019 Gideon the Ninth delivers a solidly gothic aesthetic not only with its skeleton war cover art by Tommy Arnold, but also with black-edged pages as if the book had been handled by someone covered in midnight-harvested graveyard dirt. 

Both color printing and page edging have a particular resonance in American culture with the experience of the Bible as a product of design and marketing. Many editions of the Bible printed in English feature the words of Jesus Christ in red, a tool which sets them apart from the rest of the text for ease of location when reading, or to emphasize them above all others. Here again, the symbolic use of color is important; red is not only used to attract the eye but to evoke the feeling of danger and to call our imaginations to blood. Jesus is introduced through a quartering of his royal blood, confirmed in the manner of virgin blood, and ultimately sacrificed in the bloody climax wherein his blood becomes magic to engender eternal life. These Bibles grew out of a more practical use of color in printing. Before the Gutenberg press allowed for the mass production of the Bible, early religious manuscripts were often scribed in two passes: first in black and second in red in a process called “rubrication”. Rubrication functions as a navigational aid by marking the beginning of a section in the same way that publishers now use page breaks, chapter breaks, or paragraph breaks. Drop capitals were used as a convention not to bestow importance on the text, but to separate closely-printed sections into comestible pieces for the reader. American genre writers may have taken this concept from the Bibles of their childhoods and the traditions that inspired those books, even if only subconsciously. 

In a similar vein, many mass-produced Bibles feature gilded page edges. Gold traditionally symbolizes value and has been used in religious iconography for centuries to install haloes and beams of light to indicate divinity. Its use in the Bible carries that divinity from the flesh to the word without words; hear ye the word of the gold. Novels with pretense to divinity often satirize this expectation by printing an edition with gilded pages (see Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal for its biblical drag). Others have used it to acknowledge the zealotry of the book’s own fandom: Chuck Palahniuk’s classic of face-pounding masculine toxicity Fight Club boasts one collector’s edition stamped on the spine in 22kt gold with leather binding, gilded page edges, and a ribbon bookmark reminiscent of an ecumenical text. When these colorful tricks appear in genre fiction, they come without an intention of cross-dressing, but the association is clear.

Fiction speaks to the psyche, arousing empathy for people who never lived and courage for battles that don’t have to be fought. This effect is profound, whether it’s printed in black ink or e-ink or whispered into the ear by a talented narrator. Color speaks to us on another level, subtly engaging the subconscious to make assumptions and associations, to taste the words in a synesthetic trance even as they deliver us the dialogue, the setting, the tone. It’s not accessible to every reader, and it’s not right for every book. But in a line of books that are all black and white, there are readers who will always choose to go on the adventure that is red all over. 

Meg Elison is a San Francisco Bay Area author. Her debut novel, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife won the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award and was a Tiptree longlist mention that same year. It was reissued in 2016 and was on the Best of the Year lists from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, PBS, and more. Her second novel was also a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. Elison was the spring 2019 Clayton B. Ofstad endowed distinguished writer-in-residence at Truman State University, and is a coproducer of the monthly reading series Cliterary Salon.

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