The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


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  • Reviving Antal Szerb March 15, 2015
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  • Another View: Tracing the Foreign in Literary Translation by Eduard Stoklosinski March 14, 2015
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  • The Latest Five from Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” Series March 14, 2015
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  • B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman March 14, 2015
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  • On Being Blue by William H. Gass March 14, 2015
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Pro Or Con Quotation Marks

The Wall Street Journal has an unfortunately dumb editorial by Lionel Shriver attacking authors who opt not to use quotation marks in their fiction. Shriver takes what might be an interesting topic for discussion–what the inclusion or disinclusion of quotations marks from speech does to a novel’s aesthetics–and oddly shoehorns it into a flat, quasi-populist condemnation of authors who push away readers with "difficult" quotationless fiction:

Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly.
According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of
Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six
a year. You’d think literary writers would be bending over backwards to
ingratiate themselves to readers — to make their work maximally
accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.

Perhaps no single emblem better epitomizes the perversity of my
colleagues than the lowly quotation mark. Some rogue must have issued a
memo, "Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore" . . .

Why not toss in the serialists for using all those ugly sounds and those abstract expressionists for, you know, not painting pretty pictures of things?

Empty as Shriver’s "art for the people" line of argument is (you can write a perfectly vapid, easy read without quotation marks; for instance, just use em dashes to set off quotes, or just make it plainly obvious when a character is speaking with those rarely used words he/she said) Shriver puts herself on even shakier ground when she attempts to critique the aesthetics of quotation marks:

The appearance of authorial self-involvement in much modern literary
fiction puts off what might otherwise comprise a larger audience. By
stifling the action of speech, by burying characters’ verbal conflicts
within a blurred, all-encompassing über-voice, the author does not seem
to believe in action — and many readers are already frustrated with
literary fiction’s paucity of plot. When dialogue makes no sound, the
only character who really gets to talk is the writer.

There are two points here: no action and no sound. The first one is quite simple to deal with. Anyone who has read many of the authors Shriver mentions as going quoteless (Coetzee, Vollmann, Saramago, Diaz) knows that their books are plenty plotty. (In fact, Pulitzer-winner and bestseller Diaz would even rebut Shriver’s point about pushing away readers.) Or we could reverse this and note that famously plotless writers such as Proust and Sebald managed to make their stories stand still with plenty of quotes.

The second point is almost as easy to rebut as the first. Why would dialogue make "no sound" simply because it wasn’t encased in quotation marks? Speech is obviously about the way the words are put together, not about the fact that they’re put between a couple pairs of dumpy lines. This is, in fact, why quotationless quotes can work in good fiction–because skilled authors can establish voice without any quotations marks at all, and they can make multiple voices distinct enough that readers can discern who is speaking.

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  2. Reality TV Novel The novel was bound to critique reality TV someday. The Guardian reviews a shot at it that sounds worth checking out. Maxwell’s all-dialogue device eschews...
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3 comments to Pro Or Con Quotation Marks

  • Mary Ann

    Come On!!!
    If Cormac McCarthy ( a master craftsman) does it, can it possibly be wrong? Let’s give these creative folks some slack and the readers some credit. If the reader is not disturbed by the lack of punctuation, why mention it?

  • Well said. I agree that “authorial self-involvement” can go too far and be simply pretentious (I think B.R. Myers argued this point well in A Reader’s Manifesto). But she’s a bit off going after people about quotation marks. Saramago, at least, is hardly a difficult read. I love his books, quirky punctuation and all.

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