Lionel Shriver and the “perversity” of quotation marks.

I’m just coming to this Lionel Shriver piece from the Wall Street Journal.  My reflexive response is to get pissed and write her off as an apologist for stupidity, but I’ve had my coffee, so let’s try an even hand at fairness.

Apologist for stupidity
Apologist for stupidity

Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly.

AND?!! Sorry.  Let’s continue.

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.

To the degree that you just lumped James Frey into a category with Coetzee, Saramago, and Vollmann, I find this a stretch.  Just because there are hack writers leaving out quotation marks to indicate their wicked street cred doesn’t mean that skilled practitioners like Saramago are trying to play ball with the cool kids.  Have you even read Saramago?

Protected by force field of brilliance from accessible books being thrown at him by Shriver

Guy does not give two shits about “Cool.”  Thank God.

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’s wrong with a little onus?  Seriously, though.  There’s no shortage of easy-to-read popular fiction that’s drivel and vanilla.  There’s also no shortage of quality (sorry – “quality”) fiction that salutes the Quotation Marks flag.  And there are some people – me – who enjoy both the quotation mark, as well as books that don’t use them – or less specifically, books that provide a challenge.  Shriver’s the one feeding the conviction.

She then calls out Cormac McCarthy, with mixed results, and offers up – fair-handed fair-handed fair-handed – some examples of dialogue that really could use some nice quotation marks.  But anyone can provide examples for either side of the argument.  For any argument.  That doesn’t prove the point.

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.


Mmmm, no.  Everything becomes interior?  It’s a book.  That’s part of why I signed up for it.  I know that’s not exactly what Shriver means here, but come on – maybe the author wants all of it to be interior?  Maybe that’s part of the story?  Maybe that’s a chosen narrative device, and not flair?

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.

No.  It took me longer than I usually take on a book to finish Death with Interruptions, in large part because Saramago 1) doesn’t break for paragraphs, and 2) doesn’t use quotation marks.  And because I read the majority of it in bed.  All one block of text.  Challenging?  Yes.  Worth it?  Absolutely.

The appearance of authorial self-involvement in much modern literary fiction puts off what might otherwise comprise a larger audience.

And?  This isn’t New Kids on the Block.  You don’t like it, don’t read it.  Having to write with the goal of satisfying as many people as possible doesn’t sound like literary fiction, it sounds like pandering.

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.

Those readers ought to find something legitimate to be frustrated about, like, oh I don’t know two mismanaged wars rampant poverty economy in the toilet mortgage crisis food crisis impending global warming catastrophes?  If your biggest problem is the lack of plot in a Coetzee book, you’re 1) stupid 2) wrong 3) needing to pull your head out of your ass 4) cutting off your nose to spite John Banville.

… Was that fair and even-handed?  I can’t tell; hard to see the screen for all the foaming-at-the-mouth I’ve got going on here.  What a mess.

* (…”Perversity”?)

Living in "the post I'm-no-Saramago world"
Living in 'the post-I'm-no-Saramago world'

5 Replies to “Lionel Shriver and the “perversity” of quotation marks.”

  1. Thank you, Matt, for doing this so I don’t have to.

    Sometimes it makes sense not to use quotations marks. And sometimes quotations marks are just plain oogly.

    Feh. I’ll change my mind the day I’m more thrilled by Lionel Shriver than I am by Coetzee, snob that I is.

    I love the bag of chips.

  2. Worse is that the thing made it into a national newspaper. Is it that easy, that a crap piece like this can see the WSJ light of day? Maybe it’s time to reconsider freelancing.

    The day you’re more thrilled by her than by Coetzee is the day I start referring to your site as “Ward Wrong.”

    …Clearly, Shriver thinks she’s all that and a bag of chips.

  3. –You know why Joyce never used quotation marks? Because he thought they were ugly. Simple as that.

    –Im willing to bet that McCarthy, Gordimer, et al. dont give it much more thought than that. Maybe Joyce was on to something; quote marks ARE ugly. Hell, McCarthy doesnt even like the apostrophe.

    –It can be weird getting used to Saramago and other unconventional authors. What Shriver doesn’t seem to realize is that all those “weird” authors really know what they’re doing.

    –Hey, maybe someone should send her a copy of “The Sound and the Fury.” That book is almost all interior monologue. Shriver would have a seizure reading it. 😉

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