Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Type | Fiction | They Call Him Doctor Turnips

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin had the exceptionally cool-looking typeset Franklin Gothic named after him? No, me neither. Do you feel the great mushroom cloud of Ignorance being dispersed by the zephyrs of Illumination, Dear Reader? No, me neither.

Benjamin, of course, was celebrated by printers due to his own prominence in the printing industry, running, editing and writing his own paper in Philadelphia, publishing pamphlets, almanacs, and scientific essays about his own irritating achievements in the field of electricity. Now, Benji (if I may call Mr Franklin Benji) had a little puckish habit that we’ve used ourselves here at Silkworms from time to time, and one that I most embarrassingly used myself on occasion in order to fill up an empty page or two back when I was running the Books section for the Warwick University paper. He filled up his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, with his own work, published under different names, in each case altering the style to match. On occasion he’d even write in pseudonymous letters attacking himself, following up by a defensive rebuttal by a ‘third party’.

In his best and perhaps most famous piece of meta-buffoonery, Franklin wrote a yearly almanac under the name of ‘Poor Richard’, and took on his biggest and nearest competitor, the magnificently-named Titan Leeds, with a brilliant directness; he predicted, and publicised the man’s imminent death in the almanac itself. In Leeds’ next almanac, published after the date in question, he published a humourless response pointing out that he was, in fact, still alive. In turn, Poor Richard’s next almanac reported on the tragic death of Titan Leeds and railed against the scurrilous imposter who continued to publish almanacs in his name. A few issues later, Poor Richard even included a very respectful letter from Leeds’ ghost who confirmed that he had, in fact, died on the predicted date.

There’s a little of Franklin in Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet and writer who wrote through multiple personalities that were frequently in dialogue with one another. I say a little, because what’s fascinating about Pessoa is the fact that all of his heteronyms, from Dr. Gaudencio Turnips, through to Adolf Moscow and Vadooisf, feel less like part of a self-indulgent game and more like a genuine psychological compulsion. He himself in his poem Autopsychography, under his own name, noted the innate duplicitousness of the writer;

The poet is a faker

Who’s so good at his act

He even fakes the pain

Of pain he feels in fact.

And those who read his words

Will feel in what he wrote

Neither of the pains he has

But just the one they don’t.

And so around its track

This thing called the heart winds,

A little clockwork train

To entertain our minds.

I can see a modern writer trying the same trick as Pessoa. One of our stylists. A few years ago, perhaps the late Roberto Bolano. And it would be full of little ironical sneers and deliberate nudges. Like Poor Richard, but without the charm. One of the voices would no doubt be a fusty professor whose views are diametrically opposed to those of the writer. The writer’s voice, in fact, would not make itself invisible successfully.

Frida Kahlo poo-pooed her fellow Surrealists by claiming that they painted dreams, while she painted reality. Insisting that you’re ‘real’ while others around you are ‘fake’ didn’t start with gangsta rap. Neither did inventing your own ‘realness’; it’s an odd sentiment coming from a woman who pencilled her own iconic monobrow and moustache in to make them seem thicker.

Not that I’d ever wish Pessoa’s mental quirks on anyone – but aren’t we really in need of less stylists and more madmen? More writers who live their work, and don’t need to ‘act’ insane as a consequence. Sorry, Benji; but Gaudencio Turnips just feels more sincere than you.

Jon Ware
Fiction Editor


  1. What a dreadful article. How is it about type? All you do is post fascinating trivia about interesting people and then draw insightful conclusions from it.

    Gerald Fassendaffen

  2. I quite agree with you Gerald, reading this led me to join my eyebrows up with a permenant marker to ensure my frown reflected the severity of my scorn against such drivel. What's more, I intend to grow a moustache for the very purpose of ruffling it at this article. See you in a few weeks.

    Peter Ulysses Caine Kingsley

  3. Look, Gerald, Peter... if you were the guys who invented Facebook... you would have invented Facebook!

    Mark Zuckerberg