Too many authors shun this humble form of punctuation
Everyone knows that the world’s material resources — food, water, oil — are distributed unequally, but few realize that the same is true for punctuation. Take quotation marks: Some forms of writing, such as handwritten signs in the windows of delis, revel in an abundance of these, so much so that an entire blog exists only to scold them for their conspicuous consumption. Yet in other parts of the world, terrible shortages of quotation marks prevail, leaving some readers confused, disoriented and even downright insurrectionary.
I’m talking, of course, about literary fiction, where at times quotation marks can be as hard to come by as a pre-publication blurb from Don DeLillo. Although every style manual you might care to name will tell you that lines of dialogue must be enclosed in these little paired curlicues (or single ones, if you’re British), many writers insist on leaving them out. Authors who have eschewed quotation marks include E.L. Doctorow, David Guterson, Charles Frazier, Nadine Gordimer, Kate Grenville, William Gaddis and (sometimes) Raymond Carver.
Why do they do this? I once heard Doctorow tell a group of journalists that if a writer knows what he’s doing, quotation marks aren’t really necessary. “You can tell when it’s dialogue,” he explained. Often enough, that’s true. However, to say that an element of written language can be eliminated without rendering the language itself incomprehensible is not tantamount to saying that the element is superfluous and ought to be abandoned.
Written language is inherently redundant, as cryptographers and information theorists term it — that is, every sentence contains multiple cues to its intended meaning. That’s why the moderators of Internet discussions will sometimes “disemvowel” objectionable posts, removing all the vowels from the words without deleting the post itself. Th txt rmns ndrstndbl, fr rdrs wllng t wrk. The moderator refrains from actual censorship, while those who’d rather not subject themselves to the rantings of trolls can simply skim past the resulting pseudo-gibberish unscathed. The point is, you can still read it if you try, you just have to exert yourself.
While it’s less of an impediment than disemvowelment, the elimination of quotation marks does make a work of fiction at least slightly harder to follow. You will need to read it a little more slowly, if only to figure out whether any given sentence is dialogue or narration. Defenders of the practice will insist that such techniques “force” the reader to contemplate the author’s prose more carefully because apparently we need to have our arms twisted to make us do so. And it’s true that the extra effort that goes into reading quotation-mark-free fiction does resonate with the widespread and rather Puritanical notion that reading you have to work at must be serious and therefore literary.
This justification doesn’t, however, take into account the low quality of the labor demanded of readers by the jettisoning of quotation marks. What, exactly, does anyone gain aesthetically from the chore of sorting out lines of dialogue? If the intention is to make the thing harder to read, why not disemvowel it and really give ‘em a good workout? Notwithstanding such avant-garde stunts as Georges Perec’s “A Void” (written so as to avoid using the letter “e”), the proposition that you can improve the literary quality of a text by arbitrarily cutting out some expected element to reduce its readability is, when baldly stated, just plain silly.
Perhaps the most famous shunner of quotation marks is the novelist Cormac McCarthy, who told Oprah Winfrey that he preferred not to “block the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” (McCarthy also disdains the semicolon. And it should be added that the 18th century’s most revered English stylist, Samuel Johnson, boasted of writing so cogently he never had to resort to parentheses.) There is a hauteur to such pronouncements; they amount to an assertion of the speaker’s superiority. Lesser writers might have to resort to cluttering their prose with “weird little marks,” but not a master such as moi.
For this reason, perhaps, most readers regard the absence of quotation marks as an affectation, meriting more or less indulgence depending on how much they like the author in question. Some will even patiently explain to you why a favorite writer does this (invariably invoking the ol’ “makes you work at it” rationale). But it’s hard to find anyone who truly believes a novel or short story is improved by the elimination of quotation marks — or that it would be somehow damaged if a copy editor snuck in and inserted them just before publication. And there are certainly readers who can’t endure this particular authorial quirk. I’ve met people who steadfastly refuse to read fiction without quotation marks around the dialogue.
I recently kvetched to a novelist friend that as much as I liked Michelle Huneven’s novel “Blame,” I was irritated by her omission of quote marks and wondered why she’d done it. “Well,” he answered without hesitation, “given the subject matter” — an alcoholic’s determination to redeem herself after being implicated in a fatal accident — “it was probably meant to signal that the book isn’t middlebrow.” With a story line that resembles an Oprah-friendly tale of personal redemption, skipping the quotation marks is a way for Huneven to assert that her novel is not too accessible, and to claim a cultural prestige that’s often equated with simple difficulty.
But there’s difficult and then there’s difficult; a minor yet pointless inconvenience introduced into a work of fiction for no perceptible purpose other than to shore up an author’s wobbly sense of his or her own status risks conveying not confidence but insecurity. More to the point, what writer of serious fiction today can possibly afford to put readers off for the sake of a little highbrow preening? (Cormac McCarthy, I guess.) Disemvowelment, after all, is a technique used to warn readers away from something they probably don’t want to read anyway. Maybe literary fiction should think twice before sending the same message.
More Related Stories
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
- Twitter torches Dan Brown's "Inferno"
- Brad Pitt keeps breaking his silence on how boring marriage to Jennifer Aniston was
- Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" to use porn star body doubles
- New Beyoncé single leaked
- The sweet, sure to be short-lived "The Goodwin Games"
- Damon Lindelof admits barely-clothed scene in "Star Trek" was "gratuitous"
- Justin Timberlake: I'm a mediocre folk singer!
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11