Quotes are _so_ last decade...
September 14, 2009 9:27 PM   Subscribe

When did it become passé to use quotation marks to denote direct speech in contemporary fiction?

I'll admit I haven't been keeping up with my reading for about a good 10-15 years now, but I made a recent decision to catch up in a big way, and started with widely recommended titles: "Man in the Dark" by Paul Auster, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Díaz and "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy.

In none of these books can one find quotation marks. I remember seeing this for the first time (though there have surely been many before then) about 10-12 years ago with McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses". I remember thinking then that it felt like a contrivance, and didn't think much of it.

Has this convention taken over the contemporary fiction world? Has it changed the readers' experience in some significant way? Does writing that still use them look and feel "outmoded"? Insight from those in the publishing industry would be particularly illuminating.
posted by war wrath of wraith to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I published a novel six years ago with lots of quotation marks in it. I think the large majority of contemporary fiction uses quotation marks.

I think I first encountered dialogue set off by dashes in stories by Donald Barthelme from the 60s. I'm pretty sure David Foster Wallace does this in Broom of the System too. Both of these guys were heroes of mine when I was in high school and college but I never adopted this convention, which I think tells you that there was no social pressure to abandon quotation marks.
posted by escabeche at 9:30 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's been around for decades (James Joyce, for example), and the only reason it is done is because it makes you seem more like a Writer. This isn't just my personal opinion, it's empirical scientific fact. It's a lazy way to write that renders an already-interminable book (see: Blood Meridian) comprehensively intolerable.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:36 PM on September 14, 2009 [7 favorites]


Another approach to your question might be: When and in what context did it become conventional to use double inverted commas to denote quoted speech? Why did that particular contrivance catch on?
posted by staggernation at 9:39 PM on September 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wow, turgid dahlia. But what do you really think? :)

I just flipped through one of my "contemporary fiction" shelves. Seventeen books used quotation marks, only two didn't... and one of those was McCarthy, who's rather well known for just that very thing, as mentioned above.

So I don't think it's common to omit them, and definitely not at a point where "passe" can apply just yet. Some writers just don't like 'em, never have, never will.
posted by rokusan at 9:43 PM on September 14, 2009


Response by poster: staggernation, that particular contrivance is called "punctuation" -- don't know if you got the memo. As far as I'm aware, yes, direct speech is indicated in writing by using quotation marks in the English language as per correct punctuation rules.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 9:44 PM on September 14, 2009 [3 favorites]


It sounds to me like leaving out the quotes is a pretentious affectation, a way for the writer to say "I'm too cool for school!"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:44 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


There are many different conventions for denoting speech in books. Prevalence of any particular type depends upon the country in which the book is published, current fashion at time of publication, and, of course, the author's intent (or whim, if you're being less charitable). Wikipedia has a pretty decent chart.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:44 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ah, and here is the section on the quotation dash.
This style is particularly common in French, Swedish and Greek. James Joyce always insisted on this style, although his publishers did not always respect his preference...

The dash is often combined with ordinary quotation marks. For example, in French, a guillemet may be used to initiate running speech, with each change in speaker indicated by a dash, and a closing guillemet to mark the end of the quotation.

Dashes are also used in many modern English novels, especially those written in non-standard dialects. Some examples include:

* James Joyce's prose;
* Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh;
* The Book of Dave by Will Self, which alternates between standard English chapters, with standard quotation marks, and dialect chapters, with quotation dashes;
* A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (not written in dialect);
* The Van by Roddy Doyle; and
* You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers, in which spoken dialogues are written with the typical English quotation marks, but dialogues imagined by the main character (which feature prominently) are written with quotation dashes.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:48 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I blame William Gaddis.

Or maybe I should say I blame William Gaddis they said telling her what she told him we said.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:53 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


To be fair, Gaddis uses a dash convention in both The Recognitions and JR for speech, as I recall.
posted by drpynchon at 9:58 PM on September 14, 2009


-- I blame James Joyce, he said wearily. He called them perverted commas, did you know?
posted by holgate at 10:00 PM on September 14, 2009


Direct speech is indicated in writing by using quotation marks in the English language as per correct punctuation rules

Which correct rules are these, exactly?
posted by rokusan at 10:03 PM on September 14, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'm reading this really interesting book "How Fiction Works" that doesn't address this question worded exactly this way but certainly seems relevant.

I'm only about a third in, and I'm not an English or Literature specialist by any stretch, so assume some inaccuracies in my understanding here. The book starts off talking about different styles of narration and authorial voices. In particular it talks about how speech and thought are presented and based on the explanations in there (so the following is my interpretation and not a direct paraphrase of the book's argument) it seems like avoiding quotation marks would aid in what the book calls "free indirect style." which is a "close third person" voice, meaning that it's third person narration but very much in the head and voice of a (or multiple) characters. It's "When the gap between an author's voice and a character's voice seems to collapse altogether when a a character's voice does indeed seem rebelliously to have taken over the narration altogether" (p.23). "We see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once." (p.11)

He gives examples of exerpts where statements made as narration are clearly the narrator's statements and yet the words and style and biases seem to come from a character. I would think that avoiding quotation marks even in direct speech would help to maintain and create that ambiguity between narration and character.

Incidentally, he cites Flaubert as being the first master of this style and my quick search on Amazon finds that the first hit for Flaubert (an edition of Madame Bovary) includes no quotation marks. Now to be fair, this is translated from French and uses em-dashes instead, so it's unclear what one can draw from that. The French do use the <>> style quotation marks to denote direct speech, but em-dashes too, so conclude whatever you like with caution.

Oh and I did say I'm no lit expert, so please don't tear me apart lit people. If I'm way off base I can accept that.

Turgid Dahlia: Please provide citations to these empirical studies of which you speak.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:20 PM on September 14, 2009 [2 favorites]


I first noticed it in novels translated into English back in Spanish class 35 years ago. I thought it was a Spanish thing. Guess not.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:22 PM on September 14, 2009


[Works in publishing. As an editor.]

This is still far from the accepted way to do things. I've been at this in one way or another for--seven years-ish? And I've never, not once, worked on (or even received) a manuscript that didn't use quotation marks to indicate dialogue.

This seems to happen exclusively in so-called literary fiction--it's not something that I've ever seen in genre fiction (in which I work), presumably because the writers of genre fiction are aware that if they opted not to punctuate, there would be flame wars about how science fiction/romance/mystery writers aren't real writers, and look, they can't even punctuate, har de har har har.

...Anyhow.

I'm of the opinion that this is mostly done to make books seem more "literary". It happens for the same reason that James Frey, in the unreadable piece of excrement "A Million Little Pieces", capitalized Random Words and didn't use punctuation. It seems that some people feel that this adds authenticity and/or artsyness to a manuscript.

I am of the opinion that these people are completely and totally wrong, and that they're contributing to the ever-growing tide of illiteracy, but what do I know.

Additionally, there are some authors who have sufficient clout (either through who they are or who they know) that they can simply decide that this time, they're not using quotation marks. Or capital letters. Or an editor. Or whatever.

Regardless of the reason, it's my opinion that for many readers, the lack of quotation marks reads as more of a (confusing) contrivance than anything else. Use of quotation marks doesn't strike me as "outmoded" at all--books that don't use quotes are still outliers. The use of quotes is viewed as the standard, and I don't think that will change any time in the near future.
posted by MeghanC at 10:51 PM on September 14, 2009 [4 favorites]


I am of the opinion that these people are completely and totally wrong, and that they're contributing to the ever-growing tide of illiteracy, but what do I know.

I may be prejudiced, because I liked it, but I think that you would have a hard time arguing that Blood Meridian is contributing to the ever-growing tide of illiteracy.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:11 PM on September 14, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm of the opinion that this is mostly done to make books seem more "literary".

Look, I like quotation marks too, and I use them, and I prefer books that use them, in general. The answer to the question remains: it's rare, but some authors like it that way, and so what?

But this judgmental poo-pooing is ridiculous. While there are a few bad examples thrown in (Frey) most of the authors listed here who are proponents of various forms of "not using quotation marks" are accomplished, serious, and quality writers. To claim that they're affecting something to make them seem "literary" is ridiculous.

Unless you are really arguing that McCarthy, Barthelme, Welsh, Dick and goddamn James Joyce are clueless poseurs who could sue some schooling from y'all?
posted by rokusan at 11:29 PM on September 14, 2009 [7 favorites]


"sue" --> "use". Apparently I transpose in indignant rage.
posted by rokusan at 11:30 PM on September 14, 2009


I'm no literary expert, but I am seconding MeghanC here.

I have only read a couple of books without quotation marks (McCarthy, Wallace, and maybe a couple of other I can't remember), and it affects quite strongly how you percieve the characters. You do feel, in a sense, more inside of their head. It creates ambiguity between the characters' thoughts and the narration.

That's not to say that some author's are just trying to seem arty. For sure that's the case. Sometimes. But it's foolish to dismiss non-quotation-marks out of hand. I just view it as another tool which can either be used effectively by a professional, or brandished as a ham-fisted attention-grabber by a hack.
posted by molecicco at 2:23 AM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seriously. Look closely at the list of writers using this technique: Joyce, McCarthy, Welsh, the Self of "Dave." Notice anything they have in common? Like, maybe, a fascination with dialect and speech, and a tendency to let it bleed out of direct quotation so that the thoughts and impressions of the characters become one with the narrative? Those authors are using the dash as a tool to help them achieve this aesthetic end.

If you are noticing it more and more, that's because you are reading more books written by authors who have this aesthetic. Why that is will depend on how you choose books to read. But anyway, if you don't like it, that's cool. No-one has to like every single literary technique. But just throwing it in the "pretentious" basket cuts you off from potentially productive and pleasurable pondering of what literature means to you, and why you don't dig this in particular.
posted by No-sword at 3:15 AM on September 15, 2009 [9 favorites]


I first noticed it in novels translated into English back in Spanish class 35 years ago. I thought it was a Spanish thing. Guess not.

No, you're right. It's a European thing--James Joyce got it from the French, and writers that use dashes are likely doing it with a bit of a nod toward Joyce.

Look, I like quotation marks too, and I use them, and I prefer books that use them, in general. The answer to the question remains: it's rare, but some authors like it that way, and so what?

I think this illuminates one of the differences between literary and (I don't want to call it "genre" or "pulp" for a variety of reasons, most of all that these terms are often used as sneering pejoratives by members of the literary world) mainstream fiction--that, in mainstream fiction, the readers' needs for clarity and straight-forwardness often come first, whereas those needs are considered secondary to the author's need for stylistic or artistic experimentation in the case of literary fiction.

I don't think either is better. But I think that readers are free to like or dislike--or find something pretentious or not--what they will, regardless of whether the writers in question are "accomplished, serious, and quality writers." Regardless of whether the lack of standard punctuation is to seem literary or for some other reason (for example, to let speech and exposition elide), it's a conscious choice that the writers are making and one that really does have the potential to confuse readers in a very basic way ("Hey! I lost my place on my page! Who's talking now?!"); I think it's pretty easy to see why that would be seen as "pretentious" by some.

But MeghanC is right--hardly any writers make that choice, anyway.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:55 AM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I first encountered it reading Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Like any literary convention, you can make it work for you, but if you don't it will kick your ass.
posted by rikschell at 5:12 AM on September 15, 2009


Funny, I'm currently reading All the Pretty Horses and it's why I came into this thread. At first it really threw me for a few pages, but much like reading Roots---you learn it after 10 pages or so. Maybe 5. Much easier than Roots or A Clockwork Orange.

In All the Pretty Horses I think the lack of quotation marks sort of lends itself to the story a little bit---certainly to the characters. They're really just some good ol' boys, perfunctory speech, nothing grandiose, short succinct sentences.

Like I said, it was a little weird at first, but I don't mind it now.

I don't think you can say 5 out of all the major release novels in the last 10 years not using quotation marks means its "passe." Hell, I don't think you could say that if it was 150 of the major release works in the last 10 years.
posted by TomMelee at 6:00 AM on September 15, 2009


No-sword and rokusan are correct. If you don't like it, fine, don't read books that use it. To pretend that your personal preference (based on what you're used to, just like whether you prefer the toilet paper to hang one way or the other) is some kind of universal imperative, and impute unworthy motives to writers who do things other than the way you prefer, is parochial and childish.
posted by languagehat at 6:44 AM on September 15, 2009


Mod note: few comments removed - disagreeing, fine. calling people names and comment trawling, not fine, never okay for askme.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:50 AM on September 15, 2009


Echoing others above who suggest the absence of quotation marks may be part of the writer's aesthetic intention, and more than an affectation, consider Jose Saramago's Blindness, which, in translation anyway, includes no quotation marks and no paragraph breaks introducing new speakers. Was Saramago attempting to recreate a sense of blindness and confusion in the reader by tweaking such familiar conventions? Probably. That he could do so within the context of the narrative speaks to his artistry (readers eventually discover the novel is the transcription of the heroine's telling of her adventure -- written by a blind writer who can only keep his place on the page by feel. Quotation marks and paragraph breaks would have caused him to lose his place.).
posted by notyou at 7:12 AM on September 15, 2009


I first noticed it in novels translated into English back in Spanish class 35 years ago. I thought it was a Spanish thing.

Maybe Spanish writers do it because they can't find the «» keys.
posted by decagon at 9:33 AM on September 15, 2009


James Joyce said he his interior, stream-of-consciousness style was heavily indebted to Edouard Dujardin's Les Lauriers Sont Coupés (1888), which also employs dashes instead of quotation marks to signal when a character is speaking.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 9:37 AM on September 15, 2009


I also noticed this growing up in Spain in the 80s. I assume that different (American) authors do this for different reasons, among them a desire to appear Continental and sophisticated. That's the skeptic in me speaking.
posted by msittig at 10:25 AM on September 15, 2009


I'm pretty sure David Foster Wallace does this in Broom of the System too.

For what it's worth the Penguin paperback of this I'm reading right now uses regular quotation marks, may have been edited differently from an earlier version though.
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:42 AM on September 15, 2009


The dashes have been around since Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (which was a huge influence on Joyce, so I think the Dujardin thing was a bit of misdirection). Tristram Shandy began publication (it was issued in parts over many years) in 1759.

The dashes go in and out of vogue. They were big in the US and England from the 1920s up until World War II; they enjoyed a brief renaissance in the early 1960s in the US; they seemed to crop up in Australia in the 1980s; and now they're back in the US.

Despite temporary rises in the dashes' popularity, the quotation marks always dominate, and they seem to be able to do so handily over the past 250 years. Don't write the quotation marks' obituary yet by any means.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:49 AM on September 15, 2009


E.L. Doctorow's new novel Homer and Langley has the absent-quote thing; I found it annoying, but more or less got used to it (haven't read the whole thing yet, though). I took it to be a stylistic choice, meant to seem more artsy; it seems to me there were more run-ons and other missing punctuation, too.

I'm also currently comparing a translated novel to the original French; the French version used the quotation dash to indicate speech, and the «» if the speech lasted longer than a paragraph. I find that easier to read than the quote-less dialogue. It makes me wonder if something being said is internal dialogue or actually said out loud if there's no quotes.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:40 PM on September 15, 2009


I feel like a few of the responses here are along the lines of 'Why would an author use third person instead of first person? It's gimmicky!' Sometimes writers do things because they are correct for the story, or for the language and sentences used. Sometimes writers do things because it's interesting. In the arts, at least, artists should not be slaves to convention merely because conventionality exists.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:51 PM on September 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


The dashes have been around since Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (which was a huge influence on Joyce, so I think the Dujardin thing was a bit of misdirection).

"...he picked up at a railway kiosk a book by Edouard Dujardin, whom he knew to be a friend of George Moore. It was Les Lautiers Sont Coupés, and in later life, no matter how diligently the critics worked to demonstrate that he had borrowed the interior monologue from Freud, Joyce always made it a point of honor that he had it from Dujardin." James Joyce, Richard Ellmann, p. 126.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 7:35 PM on September 15, 2009


Response by poster: Sorry to return to the thread rather late; I had some internet problems and couldn't check back until now.

Ok, lots of great discussion here, splitting the mefi community (though not as much as another question I asked). I know the thread's already dead, but just to tie up some loose ends...

First of all, I know that different literatures have different conventions -- for instance, the single quote is used in the UK, and the already mentioned dash is used in France, etc. That wasn't what I was questioning at all.

Second, while I don't have any grammar book references to throw at anyone, I don't think anyone here is arguing that using double quotation marks to indicate direct speech in US English is not accepted convention. So while I appreciate meta-questions as much as anyone else, this particular one may better suited for a different discussion.

Third, I know that a few examples don't make it an established practice, but a scan of just the few writers mentioned in this thread (Auster, McCarthy, Doctorow, Díaz, Welsh) will tell you that it's a trend of a sort -- these are some of the most acclaimed and talked-about writers working today. That doesn't mean that the quotation mark is dead for the hundreds of thousands of other working writers, but it does mean that assumptions about it may be on their way out.

Once again, thank you mefi comunity for a rousing discussion - I just thought I'd address some of the questions brought up in the thread.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 7:49 PM on September 15, 2009


I am of the opinion that these people are completely and totally wrong, and that they're contributing to the ever-growing tide of illiteracy, but what do I know.

I like to pretend that the quote key on Cormac McCarthy's typewriter was broken. It helps me not go out of my increasingly tiny mind whenever I read something he wrote.
posted by planetthoughtful at 11:53 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


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