Friday, June 11, 2010

What's wrong with quotation marks?

We didn't learn much formal grammar at school, but we did learn a few simple rules that have stayed with me for life. One of these was the use of quotation marks (" or ') to indicate speech. You know how it works - you bung one set of marks at the start of a character's speech, and a matching set at the end, and hey presto - you have a simple, instantly-recognisable shorthand or code that shows when a character is talking.

Just lately, though, I'm coming across an increasing number of books where this rule has changed. I've seen three in recent months, including 'Haweswater' by Sarah Hall which was nominated for the Booker Prize, and 'Accidents in the Home' by Tessa Hadley.

In each of these books the quotation marks had been eradicated, and the only indicator for speech was a long dash at the beginning of the dialogue. There was no corresponding mark at the end, and there were absolutely no speech 'tags' of the 'he said', 'she shouted' variety. As a brief example, a piece of dialogue would look like this:

-- Nice weather we're having.

-- Aye, not bad for the time of year.

-- How's your garden doing?

Straight away I found several problems with this system. One, I'm not used to it, so every time it was used, it dragged me out of the story. That might change, of course, if the system becomes common and I get more familiar with it, but at the moment it's a problem.

Second, as you'll see from the example above, it's very difficult to work out who's saying what. Is that conversation between two people, or three? There's no obvious way to tell if the garden question is character one again, or somebody else chiming in. In long sections of dialogue between more than two people, it's impossible to keep track and you find yourself guessing, or having to go back and count the lines to see if the seventh line is character one, two, or five.

Lastly, without a mark at the end of the dialogue, it's hard to tell when a character has finished speaking and the book has returned to narrative. In Hall's case this was handled by always starting a new paragraph after each piece of dialogue, which sort of works. But Hadley's 'Accidents in the Home' doesn't even follow this logical pattern. You get mad paragraphs like this cropping up:

-- Well, that's what I'm picking up. That's what we're all imagining... It's like a sign, a sign of cruelty and abuse. I don't even want it in the house. Seizing the tea towel again she turned her back on them all and started opening another bottle of wine.

My initial reaction to this was 'WTF? What is going on?' It jerked me right out of the story and the overall effect was so silly I was tempted to giggle, in the middle of a supposedly fraught emotional scene. Hmm. Not, I suspect, what the author or the publisher intended.

So what is this sudden thing with dashes rather than quote marks? Is it purely a fad? Is it an attempt to do away with tagging, which has fallen out of favour in some literary circles? Whatever it is, I have to say to the authors, editors, and publishers concerned, IT AIN'T WORKING, GUYS. Please find something else, or stick to what you know. The quotation mark system has been with us for a long time for a very good reason - it works. Why change that if you don't have to?


Bill Kirton said...

I've nothing to add except to say I have the same reaction when I see it. And you're right, it's proliferating. Anything which drags you out of the story and/or leaves you confused about whether you're reading dialogue or narrative is obviously a bad idea. It's like Patricia Cornwell and her baffling way of putting adverbs before the verb. It stops you dead and you're aware of the tools rather than what they're supposed to be doing.

fiona glass said...

"'re aware of the tools..." Interestingly, in both the books I mentioned, I was aware of lots of tools, not just this one. The writing was self-consciously Literary.

I couldn't finish either book and everyone I've mentioned this to has had a similar reaction. You'd think the publishers would wise up to losing sales, wouldn't you?