Sunday, December 9, 2007

Quotation Marks in Fiction

In a comment on MetaxuCafe to my previous post, Jim Murdoch raised a question about the use of quotation marks:

I read over this piece several times but I kept stumbling over the lack of quotes. I’ve read books before that dispense with them and I’ve never understood what the author hopes to gain by dropping them.

As something that comes up with some frequency, I thought it would be good to open for discussion as a Sunday Salon topic.

I wrote in reply:

Quotation marks are a printers convention. I've abandoned them in stages. For a while, I used a modified French system: Em-dash without the guillemots. In time, even the dashes restricted the reading beyond what I found acceptable.

Quotation marks are artificially restrictive, and deadly if you have any inclination to observe and leave evidence for the many layers of mental activity that mediate between an explicit speech act meant to be heard by another character, and a purely internal voice--one that may not even be entirely acknowledged by the mind in which it occurs. For everything but explicit speech you have to resort to stage directions.

He mumbled under his breath. He thought to himself. She said, or thought she said... without being sure he heard what she intended. She thought, as soon as the words were out her mouth. etc...

This is the narrator telling the reader how to read. I find it insulting.

In a film script or play, the actor fills in the lacuna. So do good readers if you don't treat them as infants. Sometimes you hear what another character has said like an echo in your own mind.

I prefer to use a minimum of directions. He says, she says. Not so much to point out the explicit speech, as to warn the reader to be on the alert for shifts from open speech to internal monolog, reflexive afterthoughts, words perhaps spoken, but not as dialog meant to be heard, semi-conscious associations. I also want to include the narrator in the scene--sometimes as projection of a character's thoughts, sometimes to throw the meaning in doubt, to open the interpretative possibilities.

If you pay the slightest attention to how your mind works in a conversation you will see that most of what happens, happens entirely outside of anything you could include in those silly little printer's signposts. Minimalism is one way to get at this, like Josipovici--I'm thinking of In a Hotel Garden, where the speech is so enigmatic, so stripped of background and stage direction, that it remains open for the reader.

I'm not a minimalist. I have to go about it by other means.


  1. Interesting post and I think I understand what you're driving at. Trusting the reader to make these connections is important in developing trust between you and them.

    Where things begin to fall apart for me is dismissing quotation marks for dialog simply because they're "silly little printers signposts."

    If that's it, why stop there? Why not skip periods and commas and apostrophes. While you're at it, you should eschew paragraph breaks and question marks, too. After all, those are just conventions, the trivial constructs of printers and writers.

    I don't mean to be flip, except to illustrate a point.

    Conventions, or standards, become so to establish common understanding among a greater number of people. It's why stop signs are red octagons, and hyperlinks are blue and underlined. As silly and arbitrary as those things seem, they work.

    When given the choice between insulting a few and ensuring my intent is clear with nearly everyone, I'll go with clarity every time.

    Great post. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Hey, Rob in Denver!

    Thanks for your comment!

    A convention works until it doesn't.

    Whether it works or doesn't depends on what you want it to accomplish.

    What is "clarity?" What do you want to be clear?

    I didn't say that I dismissed quotation marks. I said I've found they don't work for what I want to do--because they don't work, not because they're "silly little printer's signposts."

    The quotation marks obscure exactly that which I want to be clear, what I am most intent on evoking--those many intermediary levels of language-making.

    If that's not important to a writer, go with the quotation marks.

    A larger issue has to do with fiction, with novel writing, as exploration, and of pretending the artifice and the conventions aren't there--the pretense of a clear window to reality. That the "ease" of reading with certain conventions is the ease of knowing what to expect, of trading on the Common Coin.

    This is a lie. A nice, useful, often comforting lie, but a lie. Words do not "represent" reality. The gap between life and words is part of the subject matter, whether one acknowledges this or not.

    How can you be so confident that your "intent is clear to nearly everyone." More likely, the reader, trading on common coin conventions, hears nothing but the common, generic "meaning," which has nothing to do with your "intent," in as much as what you "intend," (see, I do use quotation marks!) is other than the Common Coin.

    I value 'mindfulness.'

    "One should not act or speak as if he were asleep." ... or read as though in a dream, for that matter.

    Narratives are the foundation of moral judgement, the real arbiters of value. Narratives that remain invisible enslave us.

    To write for the comfort of one's readers is the deepest insult. To assume one's reader share with you a desire to wake from the dream of Power is an essential act of respect.

    In a world operated by well-remunerated slaves, the slaves are likely to feel insulted if what you say rouses them from their dream.

    This should hardly serve as a deterant.