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):

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, the winners of which will be announced tomorrow night.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. I recently read Sweetsmoke by David Fuller, a Civil War era story about a slave on a tobacco plantation. All the whites and freed blacks have quotation marks, all the slaves do not, “Because, in this writer’s view, they have no voice” (according to the author’s blog).

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — November 19, 2008 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

  2. Interesting. That may be a unique use of the device.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 20, 2008 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  3. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith uses dashes and italics, but no quotation marks if I remember correctly. It was surprisingly easy to get used to, and I didn’t have any trouble determining who was speaking, but I don’t imagine it would work for every author who uses that technique. Also one reason why it didn’t bother me was because I sort of saw the dialogue as subtitles, since the book takes place in Stalinist Russia and I knew they weren’t “really” speaking English. That might just be a weird Sarah response, though!

    Comment by sarahsk — November 21, 2008 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  4. How well the device works does vary with novel. And I can see how it might work better in novels in which you know people are speaking another language because the “foreignness” of the lack of quotes could, in a sense, represent the foreignness of the language. Thanks for bringing this up.

    A librarian just told me that an author named Jenna Blum also omits them …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 22, 2008 @ 12:53 am | Reply

  5. I found the lack of quotation marks in Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD very distracting. Every time the dialogue began, the story stopped dead. I have read works where authors use italics or some other way to make dialogue stand out. The SWEETSMOKE style sounds interesting, but if an author has to “explain” his style before it makes sense, then I think that is a distraction that takes away from a story.

    Comment by David H. Schleicher — November 23, 2008 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

  6. And italics bring their own problems. They can make it seem that a novelist is trying to add emphasis to the words through the italics — especially at first, before you’ve sorted out what’s going on in the book.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 23, 2008 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

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