One-Minute Book Reviews

January 5, 2009

What’s Wrong With All Those Exclamation Points!!! In Books or E-Mail!!! (Quote of the Day / ‘Send: The Essential Guide to E-Mail for Home and Office’)

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At the end of February, I’ll announce the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. And if tradition holds, some will read like a screenplay called Attack of the Killer Exclamation Points.

What’s wrong with overloading a book with exclamation points besides that it looks — well, dippy? David Shipley and Will Schwalbe respond indirectly in Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Home and Office (Knopf, 247, $19.95).

They note that in e-mail the exclamation point has found new life as a surrogate emoticon:

“The traditional rules allow for an exclamation point only after an actual exclamation – ‘My Goodness!’ or ‘Good Grief!’ Few abide by this any more.

“Exclamation points can instantly infuse electronic communication with human warmth. ‘Thanks!!!!’ is friendlier than ‘Thanks.’ And ‘Hooray!!!!!’ is more celebratory than ‘Hooray.’ Because e-mail is without affect, it has a dulling quality that almost necessitates kicking everything up a notch just to bring it to where it would normally be. If you try saying ‘Thanks’ or ‘Congratulations’ in the flattest voice you can muster, you’ll notice it sounds sarcastic. Without an exclamation point, these may read the same way on the screen.”

The catch is that while exclamation points are an “effective way to combat e-mail’s essential lack of tone,” the authors say, they’re also lazy: The better your choice of words, “the less need you will have for this form of shorthand.”

That comment suggests why a blizzard of exclamation points hurts books more than e-mail: We know our electronic correspondents don’t always have the time to refine every word. Authors do have the time. And unlike e-mail, books have tone, the psychological cast or shading of their words. If the tone is well-controlled, a book may succeed even if other aspects of it fail. Authors who substitute exclamation points for the right words are defaulting on a vital task: control of tone helps to set the mood much else in a book.

Have you read a 2008 book by an author who abused exclamation points or another punctuation mark? If so, you can nominate the book for a Delete Key Awards by leaving a comment.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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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