Sunday, January 6, 2013

No More Books Without Quotation Marks...EVER! /mommie dearest


I finished The Round House, and I have decided to stop getting worked up about this quotation mark thing. How, you ask? BECAUSE I AM NEVER AGAIN GOING TO BUY A BOOK WHERE THE AUTHOR OMITS QUOTATION MARKS. Although I am disappointed by Louise Erdrich, I am not going to write her a letter.* I'm going to let my wallet do the talking and just stop buying her books.

There. I just made it my New Year's/Forever Resolution. It's going to mean constant vigilance: taking the time to download a sample before purchasing the eBook; rifling through the pages of a pBook before taking it up to the checkout counter. Life's too short for me to read books that make me feel like the author just took my money and then gave me a swift kick in the teeth.

I actually had a rather involved conversation about this in a private Facebook group today, which helped to clarify just why I find it all so annoying. I'll summarize for you here.

The omitting of quotation marks rides, in my mind, on a ridiculous premise: that punctuation is somehow standing in between a reader and the author's meaning. The whole purpose of punctuation to make written language concise and precise. To cherry pick *one punctuation mark* and decide that it must go--it's just bizarre. So quotation marks and quotation marks only are some sort of veil of mist, confusing the reader and making the author less clear? The very opposite it true. Now I know the difference between speech and thought, between speech and action. Maybe it's because the quotation mark is so often misused that authors have given up on it. But, come on, that's hardly the quotation marks' fault!

A friend replied that "Quotation marks serve to enhance the illusion of realism. Eschewing them emphasizes the subjective, private nature of the narrative. It's fine to hate it, but there's a reason authors choose to do it." 

I reject this reasoning, too. Literature itself is a construct. NO ONE thinks like characters in books do. The idea that you can make a narrative more introspective by taking away a punctuation mark just seems silly. Even in Erdrich's novel, it's clear that Joe, the narrator, feels voiceless. In fact, Joe's family, tribe, and entire race of Native American people have been voiceless. This idea is cogently understood from the narrative. What kind of weak sauce is it to use punctuation to prove the thematic point of your novel? It seems like the exact opposite problem of a child who punctuates a sentence with too many exclamation points. At the end of  sentence, the only thing a hundred exclamation points proves is that the writer doesn't know how effectively use expressive language. If an author must prove their point by taking away punctuation marks, that must mean they aren't confident enough in their language alone.

Another friend pointed out that there are different punctuation conventions in different parts of the world. I know that. Ireland comes most readily to mind, where authors start quotations start with an em dash. I don't have a problem with this at all. They are authors following the punctuation conventions of their own culture. But what else am I to make of only *certain* American authors deciding that going quotation-mark-less is the thing to do? Maybe it's my own experience of spending time with teenagers. It feels an awful lot like something the cool kids are doing. Cormac McCarthy did it, and so we should mimic him! Ugh. Grow up.

Finally, and most importantly, I don't actually believe there are readers out there who ACTIVELY SEARCH for books with irregular punctuation. I think there are folks who don't mind it, or folks who can live with it. But is there anyone out there picking up books and saying, "Oh, this novel uses standard punctuation. I better give this one a pass." I doubt it. Which leads me to believe that authors are doing it for their own pleasure or satisfaction, while not caring about their readers. And that's just fine with me. It's your book, write it how you want. I'm voting with my dollars and refusing to buy your book. Now we are all satisfied.

Nothing proved my point today as well as the other book I finished, The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. This novel is intensely introspective, a soldier's recollection of events during the Iraq War. At one point, John's mother encourages him to spend time with his pre-War friends. He demurs, and she pleads with him to "just think about it." He snaps back at her, "Goddamnit, Mama. All I fucking do is think." And he's right. John is caught in a maelstrom of painful memories of what he saw, what he did, and who he was.  The Yellow Birds was definitely less plot-drive and more internal than The Round House, yet it still employs standard punctuation. Not once while reading did I think that less punctuation would have made the author's point more clearly.

I am woman enough to admit that there may be exceptions. Teju Cole's Open City, a TOB book from last year, is a good example. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator himself is unreliable. He lies to himself about what other people say. The quotation marks are a subtle clue that he's not telling the truth. This is one of those books with staying power, something about it really stuck with me. I'm happy to have read it. However, I'm not all that sure it was necessary. I think the book would have been equally as powerful with regular punctuation. 

 This is a literary trend that I'm done with. There are more books out there then I could possibly read. Will I really be missing anything except my (most likely irrational) anger? 


*As for Louise Erdrich, I briefly considered penciling quotation marks into my copy of The Round House and sending it to her at her bookstore. But even I know that's crazy. And it would take too long. But I still can't believe that line at the end, she has the narrator look at a stack of books and think, "There were no quotations in my father's repertoire for where we were..." I mean, really?!?!

But you know what I'd do if I had all the time in the world? I'd start a blog called Necessary Quotation Marks and put quotation-mark-less passages from books, followed by the same passages with quotation marks. Hah!


  1. [Comment Part 1 of 2: I wrote too much.]

    I haven't really said much about this because I keep thinking, "Have I even read a book with no quotation marks?" So I went digging around on the All Knowing Internet to get more information about this "no quotation mark" situation and... I found some stuff. That's right, you've sucked me in. :)

    Ok... so when you were here, we discussed the book Blindness which is a book that we have both read and appreciated. And I mentioned that I had forgotten that that book doesn't have any character names and is basically a wall of words. I just flipped through it today and... no quotation marks, either! But... that didn't bother you, right? In fact, we actually discussed it a bit in 2011 right here. Two interesting notes: 1. You did not say that the lack of punctuation drove you crazy and 2. I actually said that that would "normally drive me batshit." However, perhaps this is a case, like you mention with Open City, where the technique was actually pretty effective -- it sort of also made the reader "blind," if that makes sense. I don't remember ever feeling confused while reading that book about who said what and when. That book was also incredibly written. I think he probably could have thrown in gibberish words and I would have stuck with it.

    (In that little discussion, you also counted it, along with The Road as one of the most harrowing books that you've ever read... maybe those books were so harrowing because they lacked quotation marks? Har. Har. Moving on...)

    Cold Mountain also gets mentioned as a quotation mark-less wonder, so I checked into this. What's weird about this book is that sometimes it uses straight-up zero quotation marks and sometimes it uses the em dash. So it's inconsistent. Ugh. I can't remember why I did not like that book, but I didn't. The characters? The story? Does he walk a long way and then die before he gets there or some shit? I honestly cannot remember. Maybe there was residual no-quotation-marks resentment going on. I don't think you liked that book, either -- do you remember the quotation mark-less situation?

    So that's two books I've read with no quotation marks that... I didn't really notice when they were missing. One book I liked (well, appreciated), the other I didn't. Don't really remember ever thinking much about the missing punctuation at the time of reading -- did you?

  2. [Comment Part 2 of 2]

    Everyone is pinning this fad on Cormac McCarthy, so I looked into this a bit. I have never read (nor will I read) The Road, but I found a link to this interview with him where he traces this quotation mark-less thing back to (Breathe. Stay calm.) ... your pal James Joyce. (The outrage! Okay. Calm down and hear me out...) *However*, I would argue that Joyce used the em dash which is *something* that tells you that it's a quotation, which you covered above. But CM says more (try to take a deep breath here before the rage takes over...) because he talks about wanting to minimize visual distraction in the book *but* (Breathe! Breathe!) the most important part of this interview comes in the last 10 seconds, when he says: "But you really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks to guide people and write in such a way that there's not confusion about who's speaking." (It's short -- watch it.)

    Soooo... I think that this, above all else, is the key: *If* an author is going to make this choice, for whatever reason, then they are required to write in such a way that the lack of quotation marks is not a distraction/source of confusion. From what you showed me in The Round House, it seems like the book was written in exactly the same way as it would be with quotation marks, with the marks just... gone. And you can't do that.

    1. The Road was BRILLIANT. I'm saddened to hear that you all won't be giving it a try. :(

    2. I have heard that from many, many people, Adam, but... I just can't stomach the story. I know what it's all about and I know what I can handle and... that one is over the line for me. Jenny has read it (and loved it) *and* she knows me and she agrees. So I'm going to have to stick with my plan.

  3. Ooof.... one more thing. If you implement this new policy, in answer to your final question, "Will I really be missing anything?" Well, you would have missed Blindness, right?

    1. We have both read Blindness and we did love it... and that's what I was pointing out to Jenny. But... in the end... I think if someone raved about a book long enough and said, "Jenny, there's no quotation marks, but this one is *worth it*, she would consider it.

      The *issue* is with books that just seem to be... leaving out the quotation marks with absolutely no good reason. Like... *everything* else is the same, but the marks are missing? Even Cormac McCarthy says that in the interview that I linked to above -- if you're going to leave out the marks, you'd better be prepared to help your reader figure out what is going on in some other way. From the sound of it, The Round House did *not* do that, resulting in Jenny's frustration.

  4. I was actually going to talk about Joyce, because it doesn't shock me at all that people would trace this back to him. He uses the em dash/standard Irish punctuation; however, the famous last chapter of Ulysses does not use ANY punctuation. It's the stream-of-conscious thoughts of Molly Bloom.

    To parse this down, I think what I'd say about Blindness is that he was breaking *so many* punctuation rules that the lack of quotation marks was just part of an entire stylistic choice that obviously had way more going on. Same thing with James Joyce---and in that case, EVERY SINGLE chapter of Ulysses experimented in some way with form or style. It's not something he did *all the time*!

    Yes, I hated Cold Mountain. I don't specifically remember it being quotation mark-less. But that might have been my first encounter with it, and I do actually remember it being a solitary, lonely book. How much talking did people actually do to each other in that book? That's a rhetorical question, of course, because I'd never reread it to find out. THE ENDING was a huge problem for me. I believe I might have actually thrown that one across the room when I finished it. Heh.

    You'll notice that I left myself a little wiggle room up above. No more BUYING books with no quotation marks, but if it ends up in the Tournament of Books, or if a trusted friend like you were to tell me it would be worth it...I'd just borrow it from the library. Hah!

    And your last paragraph in comment 2 is key---if you're going to do all the standard things that you'd do with quotation marks (the indenting, the comma, etc), then it just seems silly to omit it. If, LIKE JOYCE or SARAMAGO, going with a whole other stylistic thing IN EVERY WAY, then I suppose I could give it a chance.

  5. Also, it's funny that you say you wrote too long. I checked my post because I was sort of idly curious about how long it was. A THOUSAND WORDS, or 4 double spaced pages. Oh boy. Who could believe I'd have so much to say? As previously discussed, it is so much easier to write about things you hate!

  6. Also, because of all my ranting on this, several people sent me this article today. Haha!,30806/?ref=auto?ref=auto

  7. Interesting. When I recently read "Väldigt Sällan fin" by Sami Said (a minor 2012 hit in Sweden that I doubt will ever get translated into English) I actually made a mental note of how the lack of quotation marks (or em dashes) contributed to a highly personal, subjective tone. In a good way. So I guess I agree with your pal that in certain books, "eschewing them emphasizes the subjective, private nature of the narrative". Maybe the reason it worked for me in this book is that the narrator defines himself strongly as an outsider, although not necessarily an unreliable one.

  8. Uh oh. You're going to miss out on a lot of good books, if you stick to that rule. =/

    (Hemingway does it quite a bit, as does Cormac McCarthy.. those are just off the top of my head. I love Louise Erdrich, too).

    1. It's not look I could read all the books in the world anyway. Either way I'm going to miss out on a lot of good books. At least this way I'll be reading books that don't piss me off right out of the gate.

      I never liked Hemingway or McCarthy, maybe that's one of the reasons why. That and they don't bother writing interesting women.

    2. It's months later, and I keep thinking about what Roof Beam Reader said above, that I'm going to be missing a lot of good books.

      But of course I'd like to think of it the other way: those writers are going to be missing a very good reader. Not only a person who reads widely and prolifically, but a person who SPENDS a lot of money every year on books. I talk about books, recommend them to friends and family members. I'm one of a dying breed. That also seems worth considering.

  9. So... The question is: Does the satisfaction/cold comfort of knowing that those authors won't get your hard-earned cash outweigh the potential negative of missing out on good books?

    It seems like your answer is "Yes."

    To me, it seems like you, personally, have the potential to suffer more negative impact than the authors do. But, you know, you'll have your indignation to keep you warm. :)

    In all seriousness, when this topic makes your *blood boil*, then it's probably best for you to avoid these books. Why read something that's just pissing you off?!

    Until... 15 different trusted readers you know tell you to read a certain quotation mark-less book and why. And, by the time a book has gotten *that* much praise, you'll be an empty-nester, so you can listen to the aBook and avoid the issue entirely! Heh.

  10. Yes, that's the exact answer I am looking for...I need trusted readers to give me the green light. And then, I need to listen to more aBooks!

  11. Hi
    My Name is Saul, I am from Cardiff (United Kingdom). I am thinking of writing a book very soon. I have just finished reading Andre Agassi autobiography, "OPEN". I have noticed that the book has no speech marks throughout the book. But I must say I thought that the story/read is very, very good. I must hasten to add that the exclusion of quotation marks does not detract from a good story.

    This in turn has poised a dilemma for me! As I am writing my first book - it would be a hell of a lot easier to write it without the use of speech marks. " As long as the story it good". Also when reading, "Grammar Rules", by Craig Shrives. He seems to suggest as long as the writing/dialogue is fully understandable and does not detract from the story- then this might be alright to do.

  12. Perhaps, you are right saying that there are different punctuation conventions in different parts of the world. However, do not forget about those vital 15 punctuation marks you probably dont know.