Quotation marks are, among their other roles, used to “enclose a person's spoken words or unspoken thoughts.” (Rules for Writers, page 262) It's a maxim I've followed all my writing life, and one I have long believed all serious writers adopted, too.
Imagine my surprise, then, to note author Kaye Gibbons — lauded by talk-show magnate Oprah Winfrey, The New York Times Book Review and others — did not use a single quotation mark in her 1987 book Ellen Foster, nor in the 2006 follow up The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster. Yet, there are many characters in these two books, and those characters offer words and thoughts aplenty.
So, here's the question: If published author Kaye Gibbons has done away with a portion of the punctuation pantheon, and gotten Oprah and the NYT to love her for it, should I do it, too?
Ellen Foster is the story of an 11-year-old girl from a severely dysfunctional family. The titular character's ailing mother kills herself, driven to it by her alcoholic husband. Ellen goes to live in a series of temporary homes, including that of her maternal grandmother, who blames the girl for her daughter's death. The grandmother dies in Ellen's care and Ellen eventually ends up with a foster family, from which she chooses her new last name, “Foster.” Along the way Ellen learns the value of self-reliance, cold cash, friendship and racial tolerance.
“Nobody but a handful of folks I know pays attention to rules about how you treat somebody anyway. But as I lay in that bed and watch my Starletta fall asleep I figure that if they could fight a war over how I'm supposed to think about her then I'm obligated to do it. It seems like the decent thing to do.” (Ellen Foster, page 126.)
Ellen has a distinctive voice, that of a bright but uneducated Southern girl of the 1970s. I appreciate author Gibbons' ability to create her characters' voices, which she does largely through ungrammatical but very clear sentence construction, and admire the way she allowed Ellen's voice to mature from one book to the next. By the time The Life All Around comes into play, Ellen is 15 and a lot of the corn-pone “aw, shucks” is gone, but it's still recognizably Ellen.
But there are no quotation marks in the book, suggesting Gibbons did not read Rules for Writers, and putting her into a small but growing category of writers on my bookshelf who have eschewed traditional punctuation. Also in this cohort are Joyce Maynard, Cormac McCarthy, and Frank McCourt.
It scarcely stops there, however. In a 2008 article for the Wall Street Journal, author Lionel Shriver suggests abandoning quotation marks is a trend and a sign that literature is becoming pretentious and less approachable: “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 Vollmann.” (“Missing the Mark,” WSJ, Oct. 25, 2008)
Shriver writes that the reason behind the banishment of quotation marks is an attempt at “a minimalism that lends text a subtlety and sophistication.” However, the result, he believes, is to leave popular fiction, which still uses quotation marks, more attractive to readers, and literary fiction as an ever-more dusty slog up a difficult road.
“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.” (“Missing the Mark,” WSJ, Oct. 25, 2008)
Shriver goes on to write that the practice creates confusion between the characters’ interior and exterior lives as “when the exterior is put on a par with the interior, everything becomes interior. … When thinking, speaking and describing all blend together, the textual tone levels to a drone. The drama seems to be melting.” (“Missing the Mark,” WSJ, Oct. 25, 2008)
This blend or creation of the drone may be the point of some of this. Frank McCourt does not employ quotation marks in his memoirs ‘Tis, Angela’s Ashes, and Teacher Man, and the decision creates a narrative that is clearly part of a past dusty and dim even to the writer. When Joyce Maynard does it in Labor Day, she creates a similar feel, that of a character looking back to a not-quite clearly remembered history. If, as in journalism, quote marks are used to delineate the exact speech that a source utters, is there a need for them if the dialogue is only half remembered, its blanks filled in through context clues, and only heard at the distance of years?
Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quote marks, either, a fact I noticed while reading The Road a couple of years ago. The Road also has a feeling and tone of things gone past and only vaguely recalled. The dialogue is more paraphrased than precisely captured.
“He cried for a long time. I’ll talk to you every day, he whispered. And I won’t forget. No matter what. Then he turned and walked back out to the road.” (The Road, page 286)
After reading, Labor Day, the second book in which I consciously noticed an absence of quotes, then rereading The Road, I’d hoped that I’d come across a tool, an interesting way to write young characters from a distance. Then I read Ellen Foster and believed I was really on to something: Three books, three young protagonists, no quotation marks. Then I looked back through the M’s on my shelves and realized McCarthy does the no-quotation-mark thing it a lot. Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses also are devoid of quotation marks. McCourt sealed the deal; it’s not about the kids.
When I asked Joyce Maynard about her quotation-mark aversion in Labor Day, her answer boiled down to aesthetics; she likes the way their lack looks on the page. When Oprah Winfrey asked McCarthy about his punctuation peculiarity, his answer was similar: “You shouldn't block the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn't have to punctuate." At the same time, "You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks to guide people, and write in such a way that it won't be confusing as to who is speaking." (Flak Magazine, June 18, 2007)
So, no plan. Just prettiness, according to two of our quote-markless authors.
Still in search of an answer, I sought counsel in The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Oddly, there’s nothing in there that helps me. Elements instructs how to punctuate with quote marks, etc., but not precisely when to use them. Wait … there is something: “Prefer the standard to the offbeat.” (Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, page 81).
Take that, Kaye Gibbons, and all your quotation-mark bashing ilk. I shan't be joining you.
Works Cited or Discussed
Kaye Gibbons. Ellen Foster, Vintage Books, 1990
Diana Hacker, Rules for Writers, second edition, St. Martin's Press, 1988
Kaye Gibbons. The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster, Harcourt, 2005
Lionel Shriver. “Missing the Mark,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 25, 2008
Joyce Maynard. Labor Day, Harper Collins, 2009
Cormac McCarthy. The Road, Vintage, 2007
Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian, Modern Library, 2001
Cormac McCarthy. All the Pretty Horses,Vintage, 1993
J. Daniel Janzen, Flak Magazine, June 18, 2007
Frank McCourt. 'Tis, Scibner, 2000
Frank McCourt. Angela's Ashes, Scribner, 1999
Frank McCourt. Teacher Man, Scribner, 2005
William Strunk Jr., E. B. White, and Roger Angell. The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, Longman, 1999