An open letter to all writers everywhere, especially those who consider themselves “literary.”
Remember the quotation mark? We put a pair of them at the beginning of a statement to indicate when someone is speaking. When the person stops talking, we put another pair of quotation marks to indicate that the talking part is over.
Seems simple, doesn’t it? In fact, it is simple. As an English teacher, I teach it over and over every year, and it’s a concept so basic that after some practice, even the least promising of my students usually grasps it. And those who never do — well, it’s not a huge loss, because those students are likely to go to careers as engineers or janitors or nuclear physicists or daycare workers — all people who don’t need to worry too much about quotation marks.
In fact, just about the only people who absolutely have to know how to use quotation marks correctly are scholars, journalists, and fiction writers.
But then, dear fiction author with literary pretensions, your problem is not that you don’t know how to use the quotation mark, is it? No, you know the rules. You just believe that you transcend them. It’s not even that you can’t be bothered — it’s that you think you found a better, fresher, more original way to indicate dialogue in your narrative. You believe that whatever you’ve devised is an improvement on the tired, dreary, pedestrian old quotation mark.
News flash: It’s not.
Let’s look at a couple of (fabricated, I assure you) examples:
The warm breeze fanned her face. I’m getting out of here. Going home.
You don’t even know where home is anymore.
I do. She turned to him, her eyes hard. Home is away from you. Home is my shoes up on the table, my clothes on the floor. My life, my stuff, my own people. Home is what I wanted all these years. You’ll never understand that.
Shoes on the table. Clothes on the floor. For this she was leaving him? He turned away.
Example #2 — same passage, but appropriately punctuated.
The warm breeze fanned her face. “I’m getting out of here. Going home.”
“You don’t even know where home is anymore.”
“I do.” She turned to him, her eyes hard. “Home is away from you. Home is my shoes up on the table, my clothes on the floor. My life, my stuff, my own people. Home is what I wanted all these years. You’ll never understand that.”
“Shoes on the table. Clothes on the floor.” For this she was leaving him? He turned away.
I’m an avid reader, and I consider myself a fairly smart one. I read passages like Example 1 more often than I’d like to. Why? What does it add to the piece, to strip away the quotation marks? It forces the reader to figure out when people are talking, and blurs the distinction between what is said aloud and what is merely thought (like: “Shoes on the table. Clothes on the floor,” in the last line. In Example 1, I don’t know whether he said that to her, or just thought it to himself).
In fact, I’ve gotta say, the only difference I see is that Example 1 is waving a big red flag saying, “Look at meee!!! I’m a Literary Author!!! I’m all post-modern and avant-garde and I’m WAAYYY too cool for quotation marks.”
I’m sorry, but dropping your quotation marks is the literay equivalent of a forty-year-old youth worker wearing a baseball cap backwards and using the word “shizzle” in an effort to “be relevant.” Spare me.
As I said, I consider myself a moderately intelligent reader. I don’t mind working at a novel. I don’t mind putting in some mental effort to figure out what your character’s motivations are, whether your narrator is trustworthy, whether the minor detail you’ve just revealed is significant, or where your twisted, convoluted plot is going to take me next.
But I don’t want to have to waste those valuable brain cells (and after 40, believe me, every cell is sacred) figuring out when people are talking and when they’re not. Because we already have a perfectly good mechanism for indicating that.
Remember our old friend the quotation mark? You’re not too good to use it — you’re too good not to use it.