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.


Recent Posts



Criticism Isn't Free


CR is dedicated to thoughtful, in-depth criticism without regard to what's commercially appealing. It takes tens of hours each month to provide this. Please help make this sort of writing sustainable, either with a subscription or a one-time donation. Thank you!





3 Comments

Got Something To Say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

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.

Shop though these links = Support this site

Copyright © 2015. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.