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.

May 15, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole Goes to …

I came across the following praise for Junot Díaz’s first book, Drown, while doing research on his The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It appeared in a Newsweek article that named Díaz one of the “New Faces of 1996” www.newsweek.com/id/101264/output/print. The article said that before receiving a six-figure, two-book advance, he was “just another 27-year-old fiction writer with an MFA”:

“Now he’s the latest overnight literary sensation. But luck had nothing to do with Diaz’s success. He earned it with his talent. … Talent this big will always make noise.”

Let’s leave aside that “overnight literary sensation” isn’t just hyperbole but a cliché. If big talent will “always make noise,” why couldn’t Herman Melville get an advance for Moby-Dick? (His publisher claimed he hadn’t earned back the money he received for his last book.) Why have so many other great writers died broke and neglected by readers?

To say that luck has nothing to do with literary success is an example of the American denial of luck, a romantic myth. Díaz has talent, a lot of it. But he was also lucky. He came along when doors were opening to groups – including women, blacks and Dominican-Americans like Díaz – whose voices traditionally had been suppressed. This change is the most important – and welcome – to occur in publishing in my lifetime.

But to say that even today talent “will always make noise” is to imply that publishing is an unfailing meritocracy and injustices no longer exist. This is untrue. The authors who are certain to “make noise” today aren’t those with the most talent – they’re the ones with the best chance of sharing a sofa with Oprah.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 14, 2008

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Junot Díaz’s ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ – Books I Didn’t Finish

The latest in a series of occasional posts on winners of or finalists for major prizes and whether they deserved their honors

Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. By Junot Díaz. Riverhead, 335 pp., $24.95.

What it is: The first novel by the author of the short story collection, Drown. The dust jacket of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao describes it as a book about “a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd, a New Jersey romantic who dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love.”

Winner of: The 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

How much I read: The first 60 pages and some later passages.

Why I stopped reading: A short prologue introduces fukú, a type of curse or doom, in a tone of beautifully controlled menace. The first seven pages of this novel may have been the best opening of a novel published in 2007. But the tone shifted in the first chapter and, with it, my attention. Much of the story is told by Oscar’s friend Yunior, whose narrative devolves at times into telling instead of showing. Oscar’s language is also heavily profane and vulgar, and although the profanity and vulgarity may have been necessary, they made it harder to warm up to the book. It probably didn’t help that my three years of high school Spanish didn’t prepare me to translate much of the Spanish and Spanglish in the book, so I had the sense that I was missing a lot of the subtleties.

Was this one of those prizes that make you wonder if all the judges were on Class B controlled substances? No. The 60 or so pages that I read weren’t as good as those of the best Pulitzer fiction winners I’ve read, such as The Stories of John Cheever (1979), A Summons to Memphis (1987), and The Age of Innocence (1921). But they may have been much better than some of the worst Pulitzer winners, which have long since dropped out of sight.

Best line in what I read: The first lines of the novel: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú – generally a curse or doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World.”

Worst line in what I read: “He walked into school every day like the fat lonely nerdy kid he was, and all he could think about was the day of his manumission, when he would at last be set free from its unending horror.” That “manumission” is one of a number of examples of elevated diction that clashes with breezier tone that exists elsewhere in the book.

Published: September 2007 us.penguingroup.com

Furthermore: Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic, grew up in New Jersey, and lives in New York City. He teaches writing at MIT.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 18, 2007

Novels by Junot Díaz and Alice Sebold Rank Among the Best and Worst of 2007, the Editors of New York Magazine Say in Year-End Wrap-Up

What’s the best novel of 2007? It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz‘s tale of “a monstrously fat, occasionally suicidal Dominican-American ‘ghetto nerd,'” the editors of New York magazine say in a Dec. 17 article written by Sam Anderson. I haven’t read the novel, but there’s room for a bit of caution here: Last year the editors’ choices included Claire Messud‘s The Emperor’s Children, second runner-up in the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. But New York got it right that Alice Sebold‘s The Almost Moon stands out for badness even in a year in which “lots of big names underwhelmed us … Amis, DeLillo, Roth, Rowling.” Anderson faults the novel’s voice, pacing and characterization. He didn’t mention the fourth-grade reading level and almost comically off-key lines like: “This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/03/.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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