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May 14, 2020

"Reading heated dialogue without quotes is like watching a chase scene in 'The Bourne Supremacy' with the sound off" — Lionel Shriver


Couldn't agree more.

Here's her impassioned paean to the rapidly vanishing quotation mark, published on October 25, 2008 in the Wall Street Journal.

Missing the Mark

Quotation marks have fallen out of favor, and that's bad for books

Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six a year. You'd think literary writers would be bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves to readers — to make their work maximally accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.

Perhaps no single emblem better epitomizes the perversity of my colleagues than the lowly quotation mark. 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. 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. The text should be as easy to process as possible, saving the readers' effort for exercising imagination and keeping track of the plot.

What effect is this quote-free format meant to achieve? Ideally, a minimalism that lends text a subtlety and sophistication. Since Cormac McCarthy may be most responsible for popularizing the custom, let's examine a passage from his 2005 novel "No Country for Old Men":

You could head south to the river.

Yeah. You could.

Less open ground.

Less aint none.

He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. No cloud cover in sight.

The absence of quotation marks may intensify the gruffness of the exchange. Punctuation errors may also imply the lack of formal education typical of his characters. Perhaps the dialogue is all the more swallowed by a vast Western expanse, in which human utterances amount to mere tufts of sage-brush.

Yet take the same passage with quotes added:

"You could head south to the river."

"Yeah. You could."

"Less open ground."

"Less aint none."

He turned, still holding the handkerchief to his forehead. "No cloud cover in sight."

Is that landscape any less vast? Honestly, what do we lose when we insert those quotes? To Mr. McCarthy's credit, he has at least carved out his own style, which other writers have aped. Yet it is hard to imagine that his often riveting, atmospheric novels would be of any lower literary quality with proper punctuation.

Proponents of quotelessness argue that the practice pays aesthetic dividends. Eschewing quotes herself, British novelist Julie Myerson fancies "the cleanness of these letters and words without any little black marks flying around above them." Book critic John Freeman believes no-quote dialogue "lends everyday speech a formal elegance."

But, is the style always elegant? From Susan Minot's 1998 novel "Evening":

... But you see I've just been at dinner — he glanced over his shoulder, then lurched forward — in Boston with my great old friends — the Beegins — and I've only just heard of your mother's — he pressed his chin into his chest — misfortune and wanted to pay my respects.

All those dashes simply replace one form of clutter with another. Kate Grenville and Jonathan Safran Foer have sometimes opted for italics. (In "Child 44," Tom Rob Smith distinguishes dialogue with both dashes and italics, in a disconcerting overkill of alternative-ness.) The italics convention lends dialogue a curiously forceful, emphatic sensation while still keeping speech pent-up, inside, barely audible.

For that is the overwhelming effect of the no-quote style: quietness. Novelist Laura Lippman, who still uses quotes, complains, "I can't help feeling everyone is muttering." Fair enough, when lines are murmured, the emotions expressed soft. But lines like these from Susanna Moore's "The Big Girls" (2007) look peculiar:

Just what is it that you're not getting? he shouted. Your son has been molested.


Is this what you're like with LizAnn? I heard myself scream.

We don't hear any shouting; no one screams. Reading heated dialogue without quotes is like watching chase scenes in "The Bourne Supremacy" with the sound off.

The refusal to make a firm distinction between speech and interior reflection can also evoke a hermetic worldview. Explaining why she writes without quotes, British novelist Julie Myerson asserts, "In my experience of the world, there are no marks separating out what I think and what I say, or what other people do." Yet when the exterior is put on a par with the interior, everything becomes interior. What is conveyed is an insidious solipsism. When thinking, speaking and describing all blend together, the textual tone levels to a drone. The drama seems to be melting.

Surely most readers would happily forgo "elegance" for demarcation that makes it easier to figure out who's saying what when their eyelids are drooping during the last few pages before lights-out. The appearance of authorial self-involvement in much modern literary fiction puts off what might otherwise comprise a larger audience. By stifling the action of speech, by burying characters' verbal conflicts within a blurred, all-encompassing über-voice, the author does not seem to believe in action — and many readers are already frustrated with literary fiction's paucity of plot. When dialogue makes no sound, the only character who really gets to talk is the writer.

May 14, 2020 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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