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Unquote: The Benefits of Excising Quotation Marks

By posted at 6:00 am on April 2, 2015 16

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Quotation marks can be insidious little creatures. They have immense, unacknowledged power. They can turn a good idea into a “good idea.” With the simple addition of the those lines, something that would have been accepted for only its definition becomes suspect, questionable, even a parody of itself. Quotation marks render a statement euphemistic, a cover for the real thing, as in, He’s with his “friend” Andrew. Or they can be dysphemistic, as in, He’s with his “boyfriend” Andrew. Words surrounded by light, floating lines seem to lift right off the page, hovering over it, detached from any fixed meaning.

The exact same sentence appears wholly different to us when framed within the distancing “protection” of quotes:

There is no God.

is very different from,

“There is no God.”

The difference, on the surface, is that in one case a writer made a statement, while the other is merely quoting what somebody said or wrote. One is potentially offensive, controversial, even incendiary; the other is simple reportage. It transfers the meaning to a character and away from the author. But the point remains: we’ve been trained to view the words within quotes (whatever they may be) as inherently separate from everything else.

Let’s look at a piece of prose and investigate its functionality with regard to quotation marks:

“We’ll get him,” I said quickly. I was fearful as I said this, dizzy.

“Yes.”

He took his hands away. “Yes,” he said again. He tapped his watch, bit down on his lip. “Now if the police would come. They need to get a statement. They should have been here.”

“Which police?”

“Exactly.”

Dialogue (as suggested by quotes) is the space where an author gets to engage in colloquial speech, where the lively voices of “real” people are offset by the articulacy of the prose. This reinforces something most of us implicitly (and uncritically) believe: that ordered, writerly language is superior to messy, human speech. A narrative voice looks down from on high, even when that narrator is the protagonist.

Let’s look again at the dialogue excerpt from above, but this time with the quotation marks removed:

We’ll get him, I said quickly. I was fearful as I said this, dizzy.

Yes.

He took his hands away. Yes, he said again. He tapped his watch, bit down on his lip. Now if the police would come. They need to get a statement. They should have been here.

Which police?

Exactly.

coverThis passage comes from early into The Round House by Louise Erdrich, and it does not have quotation marks. Without quotes, the distinction between the father’s dialogue and the prose describing his anxiety are blurred. If a reader pays attention to the rhythm of the language, what’s spoken and what’s written become clear. Suddenly, the words spoken by the characters look different, don’t they? They’ve become equal to the surrounding narration. But instead of the dialogue disappearing into the background, it now pops off the page, but not in the uncertain, hovering way quotation marks created, but more like 3-D, a jutted-out image still strongly tethered to the foundation below.

coverThere’s also something else about the way quote-less prose looks. To my eyes, this Louise Erdrich passage reminds me of poetry. Miranda July doesn’t use quotation marks in her story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, and definitely takes advantage of the excision. Here is the opening of her story “I Kiss a Door:”

Now that I know, it seems so obvious. Suddenly, there is nothing I remember that doesn’t contain a clue. I remember a beautiful blue wool coat with flat silver buttons. It fit her perfectly, it even gripped her.

Where did you find that coat?

My father bought it for me.

Really? It’s so cool.

It just arrived this morning.

He picked it out? How did he know how to pick out something so cool?

I don’t know.

The thing about poetry is that it moves in associative ways, which means the reader must make little leaps with the poet, follow along a thread of thought, of theme, of language. Stories don’t usually work like this. But all we get here is a little paragraph of guiding information before being launched into a conversation that contains no dialogue attribution or quotation marks. But what do we know? First, that there is an I narrator and a she who is wearing the beautiful wool coat. Thus, we can surmise that the subsequent conversation is between the I and the she. Also, the narrator’s disbelief that a father could pick out such beautiful things tells us much about her relationship to her dad. The narrator is clearly impressed with the woman in the coat, which leads us to the next section:

It seemed unfair that Eleanor should be so pretty and the lead singer of the best band and have a dad who sent amazing coats from expensive stores that were tailored to her exact measurements. My father didn’t send me anything, but he called me sometimes to ask if I could give him a job.

I’m a waitress.

But what about the person who works under the waitress?

The busboy?

Yeah!

We don’t have busboys. I bus the tables.

You could subcontract out to me; it would save you a lot of time.

Look, I can’t send you money.

Did I ask for money? I asked for work!

I just can’t do it right now.

I don’t want money; I want a meaningful path in life!

I have to go.

Just fifty dollars. I’ll pay the wire fee.

The first paragraph elucidates the names and situations of the characters, but really we already figured out most of the information by gleaning it from the dialogue before it. We knew that the narrator was jealous of the singer, and, moreover, that part of the reason had to do with comparing their fathers. Then we’re launched directly into another conversation, this time with the father, and the comparison is solidified: one father has money to spare; the other asks for some.

But the main point is July’s technique asks slightly more than what readers are used to, especially for stories that are written with clean, direct prose, nary a periodic sentence in the bunch. In a way, July is training her readers to make these associative leaps, to be willing to go directly from abstract narration to a scene with characters, without any hand-holding. Not to mention that her stories would look clunky and busy if quotes were added, and, I would argue, they would actually make keeping track of who’s talking more confusing. And this is because of the way the dialogue pops when it isn’t constrained by those sneaky marks.

Some writers, no matter how well it’s done, will never jump on the quote-less train. They just hate it. When asked, other, less annoyed writers say they’ll continue to use quotes for the sake of clarity and convenience. Why risk confusing the reader unnecessarily? But is this their only reason for the continued usage of something plenty of writers have shown is not vital? Is convention the only thing keeping it going?

When I read fiction without quotes, I find that the voices reach deep into my mind and latch themselves there. I recall the voice of Junot Diaz’s Yunior brashly declaring his masculinity and inadvertently showing his immaturity. I vividly remember Ali Smith’s troubled characters and their linguistic investigations. This is because, I believe, their language –– the most recognizable aspect of any person –– is given the same platform as the so-called literary prose describing their lives.

This is why I no longer use quotation marks in fiction. And why I think more fiction writers should rid their work of these subtly insidious lines. In the end, they aren’t even necessary, and it takes no additional work for the writer to communicate who’s talking when. Don’t believe me? Read the fiction of Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Miranda July, Ali Smith (or James Joyce, Roddy Doyle and various others who use dashes as attribution), and tell me you find it confusing. Attribution still exists here. But now the language of your characters will seem just as important (and just as stylistically fertile) as the rest of the book. Every single aspect of a novel is important, not “important.” Let’s let the voice of our characters sing, come to life –– let their words pop of the page, because they are no longer chained to it.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.





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16 Responses to “Unquote: The Benefits of Excising Quotation Marks”

  1. Jack M
    at 9:22 am on April 2, 2015

    Quotation marks are punctuation, just like periods and commas. We can just do without all of them if you like. They don’t get in the way of my reading, but rather they enhance the reading experience. If you are bothered by them, then you aren’t a very good reader.

  2. Howard
    at 12:58 pm on April 2, 2015

    Fiction writers who don’t use quotes must do so carefully. The examples you give are actually confusing to read. I can’t tell whether the character is thinking or saying their words, especially when the content is emotional and the words are just as likely to be thought or spoken. If the writer is trying to focus on plot, rather than character development through dialog, then I can see an weak argument for the excision of quotes; but, under 99% of prose conditions, quotes need to be used to separate thoughts from words. All forms of punctuation enhance what a writer can communicate, and quotation marks are no exception. Good fiction writers do what they need to do without resorting to gimmicks. Gimmicks are the thick coat of makeup that show the plain girl’s desperation.

  3. Ross G
    at 12:59 pm on April 2, 2015

    Jack M: I’m not sure how anyone’s preference for or against quotation marks could make him a bad reader. That doesn’t even make sense.

  4. Bernie
    at 2:25 pm on April 2, 2015

    Over the years, I’ve come to basically the same feeling towards the dastardly quote. In direct opposition to Jack M’s comment, it is more of a mind workout for the reader as the author is not holding yr hand and guiding you through the prose. You develop a keener eye for what should be spoken and what shouldn’t be.

    I’m currently reading “J R” by Gaddis, which is both lacking quotation marks and made up of primarily dialogue. And it works.

  5. M Morgan
    at 3:28 pm on April 2, 2015

    I like when some writers don’t use quotes and dislike it when others don’t. It depends on the style. It works really well I think with someone like Cormac McCarthy, where the dialogue kind of moves dreamily with the style. But other writers with a less ornate way of writing, it comes off as annoying and precious. I don’t think it’s a one-way only type of thing.

  6. J. Nelson Leith
    at 3:30 pm on April 2, 2015

    And, hey, let’s write a book without “a” while we’re at it.

    Oh. I mean, write a book without a while we’re at it. No, wait…

    Or, how about spaces between words? Theyaresoarbitraryandtheancientsdidnotneedthem!

  7. Jack M
    at 7:37 am on April 3, 2015

    To say that quotation marks are not necessary, and that they should be done away with completely, is certainly someone else’s opinon, However, if a reader thinks they are distracting and useless, then yes, I would call that type of person a “bad reader,” meaning one who can’t concentrate on what they are reading to the point where the quotation marks are unnoticed.

  8. R Dufrain
    at 6:35 pm on April 3, 2015

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m in a novel writing program at Stanford. I’ve been working without quote marks and getting mixed response in workshop for the past year.

    I had seen it done in the past by Saramago and Doctorow, and I just felt it was right for this project. The narrator is first-person, with what I hope is a distinctive voice, and I want the reader to always be in touch on some level with that voice, even when he is relating the dialog of others. I feel quote marks undermine the effect I’m seeking on a subconscious level. I also think they can interfere with the rhythm of the sounds of the language in our mind’s ear.

    I understand that some readers aren’t seeking a high level of artistry in their prose, and I think that’s fine too. Sometimes I can enjoy a straight forward page turner just like anyone else. But I think there is plenty of room for ambition and experimentation as well.

  9. Esoteric Bob Parsons
    at 4:33 pm on April 7, 2015

    Hmm, I’m occasionally open to quoteless dialog–the Cormac McCarthy example is a pretty good one. I don’t see it with the Miranda July example, though. It would read better with quotes and furthermore, I think not using them looks more or less like what it is: a quick and cheap way of making a piece of conventional exposition and dialog look arty.

    Any thoughts on using the em-dash to set off dialog, a la James Salter? I really like it with his stories, not sure why.

  10. priskill
    at 1:07 pm on April 8, 2015

    Very interesting — the examples you gave actually do work differently — But have to agree with M Morgan — imagine no one rule can fit all prose. Eradicating quotation marks could easily become just as reflexive as using them. Surely it depends on the writer.

    But — don’t the dashes or em-dashes (Moe Murph, where are you to explain the diff??) used by Joyce function in lieu of quotes? How are they really different? Don’t they function as flashing neon signs that someone is talking, albeit minus the end mark?

  11. Esoteric Bob Parsons
    at 4:51 pm on April 8, 2015

    Priskill,

    Em dashes do work that way, but the lack of a second closed dash creates a kind of ambiguity that makes dialog blend in with action. It’s a limiting technique in the sense that it’s difficult to vary placement of dialog–to embed it within a paragraph, for example–but when used well it seems to strike a balance between quotes and no quotes.

  12. priskill
    at 1:56 pm on April 9, 2015

    Esoteric Bob Parsons:

    Thank you, that really does make sense. It is both limiting and yet somewhat open-ended in its, well, open-endedness. Merging dialog into subsequent action with no clear delineation so the reader is standing on fishes much of the time. Nice clarification thank you!

  13. heather curran
    at 4:16 pm on April 9, 2015

    I am late to this conversation but wanted to say that while I am perfectly fine without quotation marks, I cannot abide dialogue written in italics. What is up with that??

  14. heather curran
    at 4:20 pm on April 9, 2015

    I should give an example: Elisa Albert’s novel Afterbirth which was just released. I was going to buy it until I saw the dialogue was written in italics. It looks really good otherwise!

  15. Joe
    at 11:20 am on April 11, 2015

    “Some writers, no matter how well it’s done, will never jump on the quote-less train. They just hate it. When asked, other, less annoyed writers say they’ll continue to use quotes for the sake of clarity and convenience. Why risk confusing the reader unnecessarily? But is this their only reason for the continued usage of something plenty of writers have shown is not vital? Is convention the only thing keeping it going?”

    I am not sure the case has been definitively made that quotes are NOT vital. that’s just YOUR opinion.

    Until then, yes, they do provide clarity and pander to the hoi polloi who expect spaces between words, caps on the first words of sentences, and periods at the end. We can’t all be ee cummings or William Gaddis. Thank fucking god.

  16. Esoteric Bob Parsons
    at 12:38 pm on April 11, 2015

    Joe,

    re: the quoted paragraph, the value of quotes is precisely how conventional they are. It’s like using the word “said” to denote a character speaking–it’s so conventional as to be invisible, and invisibility is usually a desirable feature in narrative where mechanical elements like speech attribution are concerned. Now, this is not to say that there can’t be good reasons to not use quotes, but that’s just it–since quotes are such an invisible formal convention, a writer needs to have a technical/structural/aesthetic reason for dispensing with them. Again, to my mind, the Miranda July example fails that test, as it doesn’t seem to be doing anything very unconventional or structurally adventurous (though maybe that’s just not a great example, and there’s a reason she’s going quoteless).

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