Quotate

I don’t really care for quotations, but I know why a reader would miss them. Words not chosen for their precision, directness and clarity—even those which are spoken—need a little bit of help. Or as was recently pointed out to me from an avid believer of the inverted comma: a book without quotations would be like a book without periods.

That doesn’t make much sense to me as it’s literally quite possible (and been proven by Pulitzer Prize winning novelists) to follow along perfectly well with a story without the author providing a “clue” as to when and when not a character is speaking but trying to read something without periods would serve not only to disrupt the story’s flow but probably lead me screaming from the house as if my own mental ramblings weren’t enough now I have to be privy to someone else’s and so I would have to say that comparison just doesn’t work for me, but that’s just me (also I cheated on this paragraph as I had intended but just couldn’t bring myself to write a complete sentence and not end it with a period, so I wrote it the way I did and now having read back over it I think it reads pretty well…) but back to the point. Apparently, the majority of readers—or at least the majority of the commenters on the thread I posted on a popular book forum—I’m the rare reader who thinks it’s time to kill the quotes.

Here are a few more of the 44 responses from the 472 readers who viewed my suggestion in the past couple of days (paraphrased to avoid quotes, of course):

  • I’d have to work harder to decode the breaks in narration
  • the book would go back on the shelf immediately
  • I’d find it annoying
  • I LOATHE books printed without quotations
  • It’s gimmicky and would get in the way of the story
  • writers trying to be cutesy or smarter than the reader…. go into the pile of never again to be read, and never again to be recommend to another living person.

On and on, commenters have been weighing in on the notion I presented that writing might actually be better without the use of the little tick marks and, as I said, the larger percentage of them say No Way.

Here is my argument: Our job as writers is to make clear what happened in the story, or as Hemingway wrote: to tell the truth. If we are choosing our words correctly, with the idea that they should be accurate, concrete and applied to our fiction with bare-bones realism, then it should be clear to a reader when someone is performing an action that involves speech and when they are not. Take this scene for example. It comes from The Child of God, an early work by Cormac McCarthy:

The auctioneer was squatting on the tailboard of the truck. He looked down at his shoes, plucked idly at a piece of dried mud on the welt. When he looked back up at the the man with the rifle he was smiling. He said: Lester, you don’t get a grip on yourself they going to put you in a rubber room.

The man took a step backward, the rifle in one hand. He was almost crouching and he held his free hand out with the fingers spread toward the crowd as if to hold them back. Get down off that truck, he hissed.

The man on the truck spat and squinted at him. What you aim to do, Lester, shoot me? I didn’t take your place off ye. County done that. I was just hired as auctioneer.

Get off that truck.

Behind him the musicians looked like compositions in porcelain from an old country fair shooting gallery.

He’s crazy, C B.

C B said: You want to shoot me, Lester, you can shoot me where I’m at. I ain’t going nowheres for you.

 

To be sure, McCarthy is one of our greatest contemporary writers, if not the best. His grasp and use of language is superb. In fact, it’s surprising to me that many of the commenters on the thread are suggesting—and sounding a bit like an English teacher I once had—when you’re as famous as <fill in the blank here> you can break usage rules, too.

But I’m a believer that practice makes perfect and if you want to write better you have to challenge yourself to chose words that are more clear, more vivid, more accurate, layering them into language that is sober, forceful and focused on the emotion and not the adherence of some silly rule that exists for no other reason than just because (or worse, those listed above). Only then can we be assured ourselves that the story is shared and received in a way that is real and without question.

I’m not suggesting you can’t do both, or even that you shouldn’t. But the decision to do so or not should rest with the author, not the reader (or high school English teacher).

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