This is no. 93 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I love italics. They make me feel as if the author is whispering tremulous secrets to me. The words need to be worth leaning closer to take them in. That’s all I ask.
An idiosyncratic, opinionated, passionate reader who is dear to me skips passages in italics. Reading next to her was the first time I learned that some people don’t read them. It breaks my heart.
Moby Dick has a famous first line, but before “Call me Ishmael,” Melville gives an italicized description of a “late consumptive usher to a grammar school” who provides an etymology of the word “whale”:
The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.
Dusting books on grammar and punctuation with my own queer handkerchief embellished with gay flags, I am also reminded of the approach of death. I am also in search of dry and spectacular facts about creatures from the watery parts of the world. About people, too.
I am wearing a new T-shirt emblazoned with Fat and Queer (which is the title of a forthcoming anthology) in the font Italic Lobster Two. Some friends have confused the font with cursive. The lean of italics can suggest handwriting, language shaped through the press and flow of a hand. The queerness of italics for me is both in the way it looks—that tilt—and in how it brings attention to that which gets set aside.
The poetry of Adrienne Rich is one place I learned to linger over italics. She wowed me with sudden evidence or testimony, complete with notes in the back. Poring over those notes, I discovered that Emily Dickinson, June Jordan, or Édouard Glissant might be speaking in her work in direct quotes, not attributed in the body of a poem, but marked by italics. That tensions and influences within a piece of writing can be made explicit and acknowledged without loss of lyrical beauty and power. The voices that spoke to her might speak to me, too. I could speak back.
Italics as revelation! Slipped in so softly, briefly. Easy to miss. Rich to explore. I followed those italic breadcrumb trails.
And, oh my goodness, dedications? In the front of a book: a name, maybe a line. Those are the hottest italics of all time.
And epigraphs? The quotations at the beginning of a novel, a story, a poem, or a chapter? There, the writer gives a glimpse into or intentional misdirection about other writing that the piece is in conversation with. Those italics were some of the first things that allowed me to sense what it might be like to be a writer.
In my novel Venus of Chalk, I wrote a good deal of the prologue in italics. It involves an afternoon party and the only sex scene in the book. The sex is between fat lesbians. One is a home economist. It’s very specific. Readers often miss the erotic lives of such characters. This is one of my persistent challenges as a writer and a human being: how to effectively invite people to notice—to linger over—characters, bodies, lives, impulses that seem easily skipped.
The novelist Daniel José Older has pointed out that using italics when a multilingual and/or multicultural speaker switches languages is a falsification of how people speak, think, talk, and are.
The text of the King James Bible that friends gave me in high school is set in a font very close to italics, half-slanted. Because it was the King James Version, it invited me into all sorts of intense experiences with language. That King James Bible was the first adult book I owned that was and is an intentionally beautiful object. Everything Jesus said is printed in red.
I started writing on a manual typewriter. I used it to draft my first novel, Fat Girl Dances With Rocks. I couldn’t type italics. I had to underline words and imagine them. I dreamed of italics. I aspired to them.
I had to fight for that prologue with fat lesbian sex and italics. I wanted to offer that chance to readers who could brave those things.
Who could brave them or who longed for them.
Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.