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.
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.”
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.
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.
This 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.
There’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?
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.