Quotation Marks—Why Bother?


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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I recently started reading novels again, after a three-year break during which I returned to creative writing. Instead, I've read poetry, self-help books (I need it!), writing handbooks and authors' memoirs. I avoided fiction, partly because of wariness about my own writing style being affected, but also because I read a novel a day for four years while keeping company with the black dog of depression—I was suffering novel overload.

The novel that gained my attention was recommended in a Guardian article about top 10 chases in literature. William Gay was a writer new to me and Twilight was the only title I hadn't read. I like picaresque Southern Gothic thrillers, by such authors as Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah and Flannery O'Connor, so bought a copy of Twilight on eBay for £2.


It's everything I hoped it would be, and I was 20 pages into it before I realised that there were no quotation marks to delineate speech. It read OK without them, though I've seen the advice from writing gurus that readers like seeing quotation marks on the page ahead of them, as conversation is easier to digest than blocks of text. Cormac McCarthy despises most punctuation, especially quotation marks, so perhaps William Gay was influenced by him.

Here's an extract from Twilight, to show you what I mean:

Coming into Ackerman's Field the wagon and its curious freight accrued to itself a motley of children and barking dogs and a few dusty turtlebacked automobiles and such early risers as were stirring and possessed of enough curiosity to join the macabre parade to its ultimate end on the courthouse lawn.
Before he even stepped down from the wagon the man said, Get Sherriff Bellwether out here.
A fat man in overalls had approached the wagon. Bellwether's done been sent for, he said. Who all is it Sandy?
The man pulled back the quilt covering with the faintest flourish, not unlike a nightmare magician offering up for consideration some sleightof-hand.
Goddamn it, Sandy, that girl's half naked. Did you not have enough respect to cover her up?
The man they'd called Sandy spat. I ain't Fenton Breece, Hooper. All I undertook to do was bring em in. That's all the undertakin I aim to do. You want to handle them then you cover em up.

I'm not planning on eradicating quotation marks from my writing, but do any of you get by without them?

As a reader, that would drive me batshit. I'd stop reading after the first page of that shit.

Someone will always come along and try a trendy new thing. And that's fine. Good for them. But we're used to seeing quote marks around dialogue, and we don't want our readers to become so frustrated trying to figure out our book that they toss it aside and never return to us an an author. So doing stuff like this is always a risk.
Lack of quotation marks always feels a bit... James Joyce-y. I suppose he at least had the decency to chuck in a few line breaks, but Ulysses is difficult to navigate enough without having speech marks taken away from you too, I mean goddammit Joyce you don't always have to be SO BLOODY BOHEMIAN, THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH STANDARD PUNCTUATION.

Seriously, Joyce. Get your shit together.

I told him.
I've seen it done before, and it doesn't necessarily stop me from reading a book if the book is worth the extra effort. But punctuation is there to make your text easier to read--why would you put up a barrier (in the form of no punctuation) to your reader's understanding and enjoyment of your work?

I suppose the difference is whether you view your writing as art or communication. If it's art, sure--do whatever the hell makes you happy. If you're trying to communicate, you've got to take the reader into account. Both viewpoints are completely valid, and I enjoy writing that is clearly written as 'art' as well as writing designed to communicate.
I've read a couple of novels in recent months that haven't used them. I got used to it, but didn't see what their omission added. 'Edgier' ?
Robinne I agree with your arguments, though I have to ask, given the wonderful tools at our disposal as writers, why overcomplicate for over complication's sake? Feels very much like an ego-trip to me.
I am super late to this thread, but I do have something to sa in this subject (sure Bluma, when don't you :p)

Perhaps "one novel per day" would be an overstatement, but I do read a lot of non-fiction and I can tell ou I've seen it all. Quotation marks, inverted commas, these things >> << (whatever they are called) or, indeed, nothing at all. I don't mind, as long as it's consistent. I just accept that this was the way the author wanted it and it doesn't bother me any more. Things get bad when it changes throughout the book- then I go mad. For me it's a sign of sloppiness and bad editing, which is just plain disrespect for the reader.

Interestingly, in Polish literature thre used to be simple and quite solid rules of dialogue formatting. One would use a dash for things said out loud , for thoughts/internal monologue quotation marks and inverted commas for quotations within a dialogue, as in:

- I'm telling you, this is what happened- X said.

"What kind of the game is he plaing with me" thought Y, but he answered:

- No way.

- No, really- X sighted heavily- 'I have the money', these were her words.

Nowadays I observe a westernization in that area, meaning that noone gives a fuck an more and uses any of the options that I listed above ;)
I recently finished reading Twilight, greatly enjoying it and I'll look for more of William Gay's novels. I quickly adapted to his style of not using quotation/speech marks, and though I paused and went back a few times to clarify the meaning of what he was saying, I'm not sure it was any more than I'd normally do if an author followed conventional practice.

One thing I'm sure of—if we tried querying a literary agent with a writing sample devoid of punctuation to show when someone was talking, it would be immediately rejected!
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Urgent information for KU authors

The End of Big Publishing