Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On Writing: Quote-Marks Dodgers on Trial

     Before I die there are several questions I'd like answered. Question one might be: Why did the musician born as Prince Rogers Nelson change his name to a symbol between 1993 and 2000? Question two: Why do some literary fiction writers opt not to use quotation marks?
    The answer I want for both questions is “genius,” but I expect the one I’ll get is “affectation.”
    James Joyce, in his (call it what it is) autobiographical novel A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, opts to use the long dash instead of the lowly quotation mark. It's something he apparently borrowed from the French. It seems a fairly typical move for a young Irish man who wants to come off as a sophisticate and make himself seem fancy. 

     I can respect Joyce's choices in other parts of Portraits. I like how his writing and word choice gets more sophisticated as his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, ages. In latter chapters, dialog gets scarce as Stephen becomes more reflective and immune to his classmates' taunts. However, the quote-mark thing continues to be an issue for me.
     It seems to be a growing problem, too, as writers, perhaps spurred by Joyce’s rule-breaking ways, strike off on grammatical paths unknown. In an age of text-talk and IM-speak, when so many can’t tell the difference between the words “yeah” and “yea,” I wonder at the wisdom of writers who refuse to model the writing rules to their English-speaking readers.
     The Charge: The abandonment of quotation marks speaks more of the author’s desire to be “literary” than of the needs of the work. Misuse of them, or their abandonment, suggests to me a writer who thinks he or she is too cool for school.
    The Prosecution: In a 2008 article for the Wall Street Journal, author Lionel Shriver writes that abandoning quotation marks is 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'.” (“Missing the Mark,” WSJ, Oct. 25, 2008)
     Shriver says the practice creates confusion between the characters’ interior and exterior lives as “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)
    The Defense: A couple of summers ago, I asked author Joyce Maynard about the lack of quotation marks in her book, Labor Day. Her answer boiled down to aesthetics; she likes the way the page looks without them. When Cormac McCarthy was asked about his quotation-mark abandonment, 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." (Flak Magazine, June 18, 2007)
   Verdict: Joyce is guilty as charged, along with Kaye Gibbons, McCarthy, Maynard,  Frank McCourt, 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
    Sentence: Quit being fancy and write right.


  1. I recently read another one that you can add to the list: Matt Bondurant. Aesthetically pleasing, maybe, but distracting as hell to me.

  2. I'm with you! I also hate it when I have to pull out the dictionary every few sentences to find out what an author is trying to say. I prefer simplicity.

  3. Prince changed his name to an unpronouceable symbol while he was bound to a "unfortunate" contract that he wanted to break. He was unhappy with the terms of said contract but because he was, in fact, still under-contract, he was barred from making music under the name of "Prince". He chose a name that could only be written, not spoken, so people would still refer to him as "Prince" or "the artist formerly known as Prince" and therefore retaining his name. When his existing "shitty" contract expired, he had a really big party and went back to being Prince.

    I still like quotation marks too.

  4. Well, I guess half my reason for living is now gone. Thanks, ELD.

  5. It was my pleasure. I thought it was brilliant...from a business standpoint anyway.

  6. I like the messy pages! Leave me the "weird little marks" Please!

  7. I hear you, brother. One of my favorite authors, David Payne, does dialogue without paragraph breaks. I get used to it when reading his work, but it is annoying (as all hell). Who's speaking? You have to pay attention ...

  8. Great post! I, too, am a stickler for the rules.