Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Marks of Distinction

A good style should show no signs of effort.  What is written should seem a happy accident.  ~W. Somerset Maugham

They’re tiny and seemingly inconsequential, so the decision appears easy enough: to use or forego quotation marks in literary fiction.

I was sold on dumping the little guys after David Vann, one of my literary heroes, explained why he doesn’t use them. None of the writers he loves use quotation marks to frame dialogue, he said, and in the hands of a skilled writer, dialogue is perfectly understandable without them.

I went straight home and began drafting a story.  As the story grew into a novel, I shared excerpts with a handful of readers. Their comments encouraged me – they liked the characters, wanted to read more. But though I’d told them this project was literary fiction, one still dared to complain about the lack of quotation marks around dialogue, saying it made her work too hard.

I wavered. I didn’t want readers put off. But if I tossed the little buggers back in, would my manuscript be perceived as less than literary? That worry is ubiquitous among writers. There’s something about not being taken seriously – an issue for nearly every one of us, on some level – that makes us long to be literary. Respect, distinction, snootiness, peer pressure – these forces all play into the seemingly simple question of whether to mark dialogue with quotation marks.

“Some rogue must have issued a memo,” writes Lionel Shriver in a Wall Street Journal piece titled “Missing the Mark.” "Psst! Cool writers don't use quotes in dialogue anymore."

In following Vann’s example, was I only trying to be as cool as the guy I look up to?
I had to admit that I’d had to reword and rework a few spots in my novel to ensure clarity without relying on quotation marks. But I did like how the prose looked on the page – clean and uncluttered, hinting of poetry and drama and fine literature. In a word, cool.

Nonetheless, I chucked my initial impulse and went back to quotation marks. I felt vindicated when a portion of my work-in-progress took top honors in a literary fiction contest. The judge said nothing about the quotation marks being an unliterary nuisance, and I must admit that I got especially excited when she characterized my project as literary, but with book club appeal. Readership might in fact trump cool.

Now I’m gearing up for another round of revisions on the project. I thought I’d settled the quotation mark question, but then I read Eowyn Ivey’s lovely first novel The Snow Child, which eschews quotation marks. For a different project, I revisited Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven, the first full-length nonfiction historical narrative I’ve read that left dialogue unpunctuated. Blum explains in an afterword that he left out the marks where the dialogue is invented.

More waffling. I began to feel out of touch as I do whenever I catch a report on who’s up for the Grammys or which TV shows everyone’s talking about around their water coolers. Hadn’t I until recently still been double-spacing after every end mark? Wasn’t I still clinging to the Oxford comma to the chagrin of some of my hipper friends?

“If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate,” Cormac McCarthy told Oprah Winfrey (How had I missed that those two conversed? Another pop culture faux pas.) This sounds a lot like what Vann said – not surprising, since McCarthy is one of Vann’s literary heroes. None of us wants to be lumped with the bunch who don’t write properly.

“What effect is this quote-free format meant to achieve?” Shriver asks. “Ideally, a minimalism that lends text a subtlety and sophistication.” But does dropping quotation marks really elevate ordinary speech to elegance, as critic John Freeman suggests? Or does it make everyone sound like they’re muttering, as author Laura Lippman complains?

Shriver points out a problem with lines like this one, from Susanne Moore’s The Big Girls:
Just what is it that you're not getting? he shouted. Your son has been molested.
The over-arching effect is a quietness, Shriver says, “an insidious solipsism” in which “the only character who really gets to talk is the writer.”

Another justification for omitting quotation marks has to do with making readers work. Isn’t that what literature is supposed to do? Not categorically. Mining for subtext is pleasant and rewarding, but trying to determine who’s speaking when quotation marks would easily mitigate the confusion seems like work for work’s sake.

In her Salon piece “All I Want for Christmas is Quotation Marks,” Laura Miller writes,
“There’s difficult and then there’s difficult; 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?”

What writer indeed? I circled back to my literary hero and studied a few works by his literary heroes. Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Annie Proulx, Marilynn Robinson, James Baldwin, Grace Paley. All, in at least some of their work, enclose dialogue in quotation marks. Cormac McCarthy was the lone exception.

To Vann’s literary favorites, I added my own  - Alice Munro, Jayne Anne Phillips, Elizabeth Strout. All punctuate dialogue in the conventional manner.

In the end, what matters is the effect demanded by the narrative. Those books by Blum and Ivey share an atmospheric dreaminess, a blurred sense of what’s real and what isn’t. A less traditional look on the page, a little fuzziness about who’s saying what – that’s all to good effect, with the added bonus of pleasing readers who consider themselves literary.

Because my novel demands neither a highly interior effect nor a blurred sense of reality, I’ll likely leave my pages cluttered with “those weird little marks,” as McCarthy calls them. To the extent that literary equates to good and true, I covet the label. To the extent that it presumes difficult and unapproachable prose, not so much. As for cool – well, I gave that up a few years back.

Try This: From a page or two heavy with dialogue, remove the quotation marks. Consider how it looks on the page and whether you have to rewrite to make clear who’s speaking. If you like the effect (for reasons other than coolness), the shape of the piece may point you in new ways to think about the piece. Explore ways in which you might allow it to become more interior, or more surreal – but only if it feels like those effects are integral to the story.

Check This Out: The definitive source on conventions for (ahem) literary work is of course TheChicago Manual of Style. The latest edition – number sixteen – came out in 2010. They’re not kidding when they subtitle this hefty volume The Essential Guide for Writers, Editor, and Publishers. Everyone who’s in this for keep should own a copy. Of note: the option of foregoing quotation marks around dialogue has yet to earn a mention.