Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Ode to Quotation Marks

Let's all heave a big sigh of relief. I've finished reading the books for Elle magazine, so it's back to business as usual here at the old blog, if, indeed an "old blog" so young as mine can indeed have a "business as usual." As for the books, one was not especially my cup of tea, one I strenuously disliked, and one...well, one I surprised myself by liking in spite of the nature of the topic covered and the rather unorthodox way in which the author chose to communicate dialogue.

I love quotation marks. Okay, there it is, the whole truth. I love how they set off what one character is saying and then what the other character is saying and so on and so forth. I like neat little lines of a dialogue - one character speaks? That's a paragraph. A second character speaks? Look, another paragraph! I think we could all agree that, in general, the teachers of basic writing across the world had a pretty good thing going with this system.

Now, on to my point. I don't know what it is about quotation marks, but a surprising amount of well-known and respected authors (not to mention some less well-known and respected authors) have felt the need to abandon our old friends, the quotation marks - signifiers of dialogue, markers of clarity, gloriously simple ways of shouting out to the world "Hey, somebody's talking here!" Maybe they replace them with little dashes to indicate speech. Maybe they forgo any punctuation to signify dialogue at all while still maintaining the new speaker, new paragraph rule. Either way, I have to admit that this blatant disregard for quotation marks distresses me to no end.

This is not say that dialogue without quotation marks cannot be "pulled off." A good writer writing a good story without quotation marks is still a good writer with a good story, but also a writer that has the vast potential to irritate me. A so-so writer pushing through a so-so story can be broken by their disuse of the standardized methods of quotation mark usage. I see no quotation marks, I see a book that stands at least twice the chance of my putting it down without ever drawing near to its stunning/poignant/brilliant conclusion. Frustrated by the ambiguity of when and which characters are talking (or wait, is this still narration?), I'm wildly tempted to heave a book across the room. However, quotation mark lover that I am, I can still be won over by a quality story such as the one I just read or maybe something like The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason who I seem to recall, also doesn't share my enduring need for quotation marks.

So, you say, there are plenty of books in the world that have dispensed with the standard usage of quotation marks in dialogue. Why rant now? Why the trouble over this one book?

This book made use of no quotation marks, no dashes, and no, my friends, not even any paragraph breaks to signify speech on the part of the characters. The dialogue is weaved into the narration distressingly eliminating most of the sense of speech, not to mention eliminating any clarity that might have been drawn from say, some...any indication of when and which characters might have been speaking rather than a mere continuation of the first person narration. The hulking paragraphs full of the first person narrator's thoughts tossed about with his speech and the speech of several other characters in his presence at one time made my mind go numb with confusion.

Am I too traditional? Is it too much to hope for to have clearly marked dialogue in every book I read? Am I so "inside the box" that I can't appreciate originality in dialogue presentation? I don't know. What I do know is that I love quotation marks, so much so that I've used more of them in this post than the author whose book I am opaquely referring to used in his entire novel. Oh, quotation marks, how I love thee!

Thank you. Good night.


  1. You are not being too traditional. Quotation marks like any other form of punctuation are there to help us read. I've ranted about the lack of quotation marks in books too. Dialog with out them makes all the voices sound like the words are being spoken in a tin can. I can't tell the characters apart or see when one of them has begun to speak. I hate it!

  2. Unfortunately, that sort of format is what literary fiction is rife with. People say it's brilliant. *I*, being the God on High that I am, say it's stupid and a way to get people to talk about your book and avoid its flaws.

    But what do I know? I'm hardly a best-selling author. (yet)

  3. Glad I'm not the only one!

    Not only is it hopelessly pretentious to abandon basic laws of writing, it's rather ridiculous to use (what I think) is a big flaw to obscure flaws!

  4. I love quotation marks as well. :) I second Megan's remark: when I see a dirth of quotation marks, I just think 'pretentious.' I also get annoyed by a lack of capitalisation, or long passages in italics. Basically, anything that makes reading physically exhausting annoys me!

  5. I am deeply disturbed by the current trend of omitting quotations marks in dialogue. Not only does it slow me down and frequently require me to backtrack once I realize that what I am reading, is, indeed, dialogue, it also makes me feel distanced from the characters and the story. These days, I thumb through a novel before purchasing it and if the author doesn't use quotation marks, WON'T purchase it.