One-Minute Book Reviews

November 18, 2008

Where Have All the Quotation Marks in Novels Gone? (Quote of the Day / Lionel Shriver)

Have you noticed something missing from the novels you’ve read lately? Such as all the quotation marks? The novelist Lionel Shriver recently had a provocative essay in the Wall Street Journal on the perils of a white-hot literary fad popularized by Cormac McCarthy: dropping quotations marks from lines of dialogue. Shriver writes:

“Some rogue must have issued a memo, ‘Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore’ to authors as disparate as Junot Díaz, James Frey, Evan S. Connell, J. M. Coetzee, Ward Just, Kent Haruf, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Dale Peck, James Salter, Louis Begley and William Vollman. To the degree that this device contributes to the broader popular perception that ‘literature’ is pretentious, faddish, vague, eventless, effortful, and suffocatingly interior, quotation marks may not be quite as tiny as they appear on the page.

“By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous. Surely what should distinguish literature isn’t that it’s hard but that it’s good.”

Some writers argue that that including quotation marks is intrusive that and omitting them reduces clutter in fiction. But if you aggressively exclude the marks, can’t that be intrusive in its own way? Shriver shows that it can by quoting passages by well-known novelists in which missing quotations result in confusing, misleading or labored prose. Read her essay here (and send a link to this one to any creative writing teachers or students you know): online.wsj.com/article/SB122489468502968839.html?mod=googlenews_wsj.

Apart from the writers on Shriver’s list, others who have omitted quotation marks include Henry Shukman in his well-received 2008 novel, The Lost City. What books have you read that use the device? How well did it work? I’d love to know if you’ve found examples in any of finalists for the 2008 National Book Awards www.nationalbook.org, the winners of which will be announced tomorrow night.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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