I’ve been thinking a lot about the absence of quotation marks in recent literature. Our current generation of fiction writers is not the first to cast off traditional dialogue punctuation. James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and E.L. Doctorow were among the early pioneers in that regard.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, published in 1992, was the first quotation mark free novel I read. Readers complained about the difficulty to distinguish dialogue from narration. I remember my own concentration being pulled from the story. Oh wait, someone just spoke? Who said that? After a few chapters, persistence paid off. The story’s current pulled me forward.
Today’s reader has grown accustomed (haven’t we?) to the removal of quotation marks. Readability is sustained when artfully composed dialogue is paired with their absence. I enjoyed half of Linda Spalding’s novel, A Reckoning, before realizing her dialogue was punctuation free. If not masterfully written, however, readers won’t turn the page.
I’m considering the use of quotation marks in my own work which leads me to question what dictates the choice of whether or not to use this traditional punctuation. If I choose to write a novel or story quotation mark free, must all my future writings follow suit? Is this a true creative choice for me or my ego pressing me to be on trend?
In Fates and Furies, author Lauren Groff used quotation marks, yet in her literary historical novel Matrix, she omitted them. In a Twitter thread she wrote, “as a person who (generally but not always) eschews quotation mark— for deeply thought-out reasons! (…) It’s always textural, a question of intimacy. (…) Quotes feel declaratory, as though the speaker steps onto a pedestal before they speak. Useful for some texts, but for others (…) You want a closer texture, a feeling as though the dialogue is integrated into the flow of the text, or as though the text is being held close to the reader’s face.”
The process of writing this piece has evoked ‘deeply thought-out reasons’ why my short story in-progress is best served by excluding quotation marks. Dilemma resolved.
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March 24, 2022 at 6:40 pm
To quote or not to quote… that is the question.
I’m all for good writing to make a story/novel flow. I just picked up the last 3 novels I read and looked. One used “. One used a single quote. One used none. So obviously I am oblivious ….unless I was reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders.
March 25, 2022 at 2:00 pm
It would appear that an engaging story delivered with polished craft carries a novel. If the dialogue is delivered with or without tradtional dialogue punctuation isn’t a deal breaker in those circumstances. My novels require quotation marks, but in certain short stories I’m working on, I will consider dropping them.
I’ve been interested to read that title of Saunders. Although I may start with his short story collection, Ten.
Thanks for writing, Pat!
March 24, 2022 at 7:06 pm
That’s an interesting thought, because I myself don’t really enjoy the no-quotation-mark style of writing. Didn’t really enjoy The Road either. But hey, writing is subjective, and we all should do what we feel like to best express ourselves, no? Anyway, thanks for this post, Gwen!
March 25, 2022 at 2:05 pm
Hi Stuart, thanks so much for commenting. I do agree with you, that writing is subjective. And that extends to reader also. We naturally have our tastes and preference when it comes to how a story is delivered. Language is fluid and artists will always experiment with form, bend the ‘rules’. And thank goodness for that or there’d be no such form as the novel (or quotation marks, for that matter) and we wouldn’t be enjoying this fine exchange of ideas.
Cheers to creative self-expression!
March 24, 2022 at 9:18 pm
I see the last commenter mentions The Road. It’s been a while since I read it, but I don’t think I even noticed the lack of quotation marks. My writing is all CNF on my blog, and I go both ways, although mostly with rather than without. The piece seems to dictate whether they belong. Their presence never detracts from my reading enjoyment.
March 25, 2022 at 2:17 pm
Yes, you’re speaking my language! I can see how CNF lends itself to dropping dialogue punctuation. Of the novels I’ve so far read that drop quotation marks, most are light in dialogue and it isn’t ovewhelming to see dialogue tags on each exchange between characters.
I’m not distracted either by the inclusion of quotation marks. But I’m enjoying the idea of rebelling against them in some pieces where, as you mention, it’s complementary to the work.
Thanks for writing, Jeff.
September 4, 2022 at 4:15 pm
I like McCarthy’s daring omission of punctuation in All the Pretty Horses. It’s edgy and works for his characters and setting. And the equine world is so “nonverbal.” For the rest of us, it seems like the single quotation mark is a British thing and the double mark an American convention. Great post – thank you.
September 5, 2022 at 12:01 pm
Thank you, Lisa! I really enjoyed reading what you wrote about the equine world being nonverbal. You’ve given me another facet to consider and I really appreciate that.