Writing dialogue without quotation marks?

QuestionMarkWoman1922

I just finished the novel Benediction by Kent Haruf. This was only the second book that I’ve read from the modern era that did not use quotes to set off dialogue. It wasn’t totally foreign to me but, to be honest, I wasn’t aware that there were a number of authors doing this.

The only other book that I’ve read, written in modern times, that used this quoteless dialogue was Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I loved. It was a work of speculative fiction so I assumed that her lack of quotes to delineate dialogue was part of her intention to create a certain atmosphere. I accepted it and really enjoyed the story. I thought the lack of quotes gave it a very internal feeling.

I thought the lack of quotation marks in Benediction was difficult to follow at first but I was soon okay with it.  Again, I thought it gave the novel an internal feeling or perhaps even a timeless feel.  It was as if I were looking at events that happened through frosted glass.

I wondered why someone would choose not to use quote marks to delineate dialogue. I did a quick search online that led me to an article from Lionel Shriver on the Wall Street Journal site where I learned that a number of modern authors, including James Frey, Kent Heruf and Cormac McCarthy, are popularizing the trend.

Shriver contends that “By putting the onus on the reader to determine which lines are spoken and which not, the quoteless fad feeds the widespread conviction that popular fiction is fun while literature is arduous.”

Here’s one of my prime problems with it. I have no problem reading dialect and dialogue without quotation marks. I’m a very fast reader and can adapt. However, I know people who simply cannot read dialect, such as Mark Twain. Their brains simply don’t translate the written word into sound in their head. I believe that writing is about communicating. Anything that gets between the reader and the story inhibits that communication. Now, I know that not every book is for every reader but, as writers, shouldn’t we be trying to communicate in the most clear manner possible?

I also came upon a an interview Cormac McCarthy had done with Oprah some years ago in which he says that the intent is to make the reading easier, not harder. “If you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”

He does concede that “You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks to guide people and write in such a way that it is not confusing who is speaking.”

I think that is a rather large challenge and whether writers who write without quotation marks live up to it is another matter altogether.

I took this issue to my writer’s group last night. One of my group contended that a good story will not be brought down by poor grammar or punctuation. Another member said she wouldn’t be able to get past the first few pages. Yet another threw something on the floor in disgust and said that it was sheer laziness on the author’s part.

I think I will personally continue to use quotation marks in my writing, but I won’t reject a book just because the author does not use them.

What do you think? Were you aware of modern authors writing books without quotation marks to set the dialogue apart? Do you enjoy it? Do you do it yourself? I’d love to hear some more perspectives.

7 Comments

  1. umashankar said,

    January 18, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    I may be an old school dunce apart from being a speck of dust but I hate this egregious omission of quotes. As you said, I can also adapt fast but I’d rather read text written much more gracefully.

    • melorajohnson said,

      January 18, 2014 at 5:49 pm

      Agreed. Quotes are helpful and have been widely adapted for a reason, I’d say.

  2. January 21, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Great post. I read Lemon Cake a few weeks ago. I enjoyed her style, but I think quoteless dialogue is one of those “don’ts” unless you understand and can own the writing rules you’re breaking.

    • melorajohnson said,

      January 22, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      Agreed! We must master the rules before we start breaking them.

    • James Marble said,

      January 1, 2017 at 9:58 pm

      I have always written fiction with the usual quotes around dialog. Recently I started a novel that is almost all dialog and to save time in drafting it, I left out the quotes. Then realized how “clean” it looks and is somehow more immediate….so I think I will do some things so the reader will know who is talking and forget quotes.

  3. Bood said,

    December 11, 2020 at 1:38 am

    I recently read two modern novels that were “quoteless.” Both of these novels were digital, and I honestly thought that the quoted dialect had somehow escaped the notice of whoever had entered the material into its digitized format. Imagine my surprise when I found that this omission was not some kind of cyber miscalculation.

    Interestingly, I have also been seeing dialect void of double quotes but ripe with single quotes. What’s with that? Also, I have read several works of prose that incorporates a single quote at the beginning of a dialogue with no end quote to complete it.

    It appears to me that there is no end to this “inventiveness” that charades as style.

    All of this is reminiscent of some of the lyrics in Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”

    Just walk in, say “Shrink
    You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant”
    And walk out
    You know if one person, just one person does it
    They may think he’s really sick and they won’t take him
    And if two people, two people do it
    In harmony
    They may think they’re both faggots
    And they won’t take either of them
    And if three people do it
    Three, can you imagine three people walking in?
    Singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out
    They may think it’s an organization
    And can you, can you imagine 50 people a day
    I said 50 people a day
    Walking in, singin’ a bar of Alice’s Restaurant, and walking out
    And friends, they may think it’s a movement

    • melorajohnson said,

      December 11, 2020 at 9:23 pm

      Yes! I’ve seen the single quotes too. It just struck me as odd, to be honest. I guess I’m a bit of a traditionalist in this respect and I’ll stick with the standard. Now, when it comes to poetry, I may play around a bit more.


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