Why Not Bring Colour into Readers’ Lives?
For generations writers have used coloured ink in correspondence. Jane Austen wrote in ink made from iron gall, which first appeared as a pale grey, darkened on exposure to the air to a blue-black colour and faded eventually to brown. Charles Dickens often used bright blue ink. George Bernard Shaw occasionally wrote in red and Barbara Cartland almost always did. But when it came to printing books, their fiction appeared like every other author’s in the dense black type which printers had been using since the middle ages. The invention of chromolithography in 1837 meant that in theory text could be printed in almost any colour – and it was, in posters and in children’s books. But not in adult fiction.
Why wasn’t it, when we all know that colours can affect the way we feel and act? Warm colours can evoke equivalent emotions. Green is calming. Darker shades of purple and blue-grey can be depressive. Research has shown that certain coloured texts are easier to read than black on white and can remain in memory for longer. Yet in fiction we avoid them. We talk of ‘purple prose’ or ‘highly coloured’ narrative. But not literally. For almost 300 years, from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Danielle Steel’s A Perfect Life, we’ve stuck to plain black text. In 1929 the great American author William Faulkner wrote his classic novel, The Sound and the Fury, with the intention of using different coloured inks to indicate the shifting periods of time within his story. But his publishers, Harrison Smith in New York and Jonathan Cape in London, dissuaded him from doing so – and he was quoted as remarking sadly that he’d ‘just have to save the idea until publishing grows up.’
It hadn’t done so by the time he died in 1962 – and you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you I had no idea the thought had crossed his mind, when I decided two years ago to use coloured text in my fourth novel, The White Cross. (It hardly matters if you don’t believe me, but it happens to be true!)
My intention with this medieval story was to show the hero and heroine from totally contrasting viewpoints. He was to look back on their lives together and apart with a regret born of the knowledge that he had been in the wrong. He’d speak in the past tense in a black roman typeface looking back from some point in the future. She on the other hand would live entirely in the present, reacting to events as they occurred, voicing present tense and stream-of-conscious thoughts which would be printed in italics. And in colour – something warm to correspond with her own personality. (I hit upon a warmish brown, somewhere between chestnut and burgundy, bright enough to contrast with the hero’s standard black and dark enough to read without an effort.)
But that was just the start. No one I consulted was convinced that it would work, or was needed for that matter. Neither of my previous big publishers would take it on, and when I opted to self-publish through the wonderful RedDoor, initial quotes for colour printing were prohibitive. We persevered. We found an outfit who could print within the budget, provided that we didn’t need a proof. But when they did so, the colour was too pale, too difficult to read, and I was left with books I couldn’t sell.
A failure then? A vindication of the publishers who’d told Faulkner some 90 years ago that it would never work?
Not a bit of it. Because I’m glad to say the second print run turned out fine; the colour was just right. Everyone who’s read the book so far has told me that it adds a new dimension to the story. What’s more it’s selling well. Which means perhaps that it’s not publishers who have grown up, but readers. Readers who wouldn’t dream these days of watching television or using a camera or a laptop that only offers them the option of plain black and white.