Unpunctuated Equilibrium

Dear Jess Row,               

This week a continuing education class I teach in contemporary American short stories at the local community college read your story “The Call of Blood” from the 2011 BASS anthology. We thought it was a very fine story, rich in many ways, and it generated much discussion. A student raised one question that I couldn’t answer, and hesitated to speculate about. The question: why no quotation marks?

I’ve read several other of your stories online, and this no-quotes policy seems to be a consistent stylistic choice you’re made. Can you explain why? Is there a thematic connection to your stories?


George __________

Dear George,

Thanks for posing this question. I’m glad that you “hesitated to speculate” about this issue, because that gives me a window to speculate myself. I’ve been writing fiction without quotation marks for a long time—so long that it’s become entirely natural to me, to the degree that any part of the writing process is natural. I never look at my own work and notice a lack of quotation marks, and I never have any difficulty reading dialogue in my stories because the dialogue is unpunctuated, though I understand other people sometimes do. So it’s about time I returned to this issue and tried to understand it without giving a reflexive answer.

But first, to get it out of the way, here is my reflexive answer, the answer I would give if someone cornered me at a cocktail party and I had to sum it all up in thirty seconds. I started writing without quotation marks in 1998, as a result of what I would call a creative nervous breakdown—not one that put me in the hospital, but it was a close call. I was living in Hong Kong and having a very difficult time adjusting to that environment; I was writing a kind of very imitative and self-consciously traditional fiction based on my literary heroes at the time—Andre Dubus, Charles Baxter, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Richard Yates, John Cheever. None of my work had anything to do with my present circumstances. I imagined myself to be a kind of Hemingway-esque expatriate writer, living a bohemian life overseas while my mind inhabited an American landscape (like the landscape of the Nick Adams stories). But I’d reached a dead end writing in the voice of bitter divorced white American men in their forties. I couldn’t summon that language anymore.

So I made an abrupt turn—the writer that signaled the way for me, more than anyone else, was Michael Ondaatje, the Ondaatje of In the Skin of a Lion, Coming Through Slaughter, The English Patient. If you look at those books you’ll notice that Ondaatje uses punctuation marks very selectively, and omits them when he’s creating a dreamlike, detached atmosphere. That’s the atmosphere I wanted to create when I wrote my first story set in Hong Kong, called “Revolutions.” At the same time I was reading Peter Matthiessen’s novel Far Tortuga, which takes place among a group of sailors on a small boat in the Caribbean, and which strews lines across the page almost at random, as if the novel itself is so dazzled by the sunlight that it can’t utter more than a few words at a time. I loved that effect, and I wanted to reproduce it in some way. (I was disappointed later to learn that Far Tortuga was kind of a one-off for Matthiessen, and none of his other fiction has ever been nearly as satisfying or interesting for me).

That’s the account I usually give, and if asked why I’m still sticking with it, fourteen years later, though I’m no longer writing about Hong Kong, and though my “voice” has changed considerably—well, I don’t really have an answer for that one. I sometimes wonder if I should have gone back to using quotation marks when writing my second book of stories (Nobody Ever Gets Lost) but I haven’t been able to. Certainly it seems to me that the lack of “” works better in some places than others. (I happen to think it works pretty well in “The Call of Blood,” but maybe you’ll correct me).

I think the reason I’ve stayed with the non-quotation policy, other than sheer inertia, is that for me it represents a fundamental dividing line between fiction and other kinds of prose. I never omit quotation marks when writing nonfiction, because I think that would be dishonest. Quoting someone in a work of nonfiction, to me, means that this is what they actually said. It’s a way of indicating that this part of the work is not within my control, that I didn’t write it, I recorded it (and selected it and perhaps edited it or excerpted it). Conversely, not using quotation marks in fiction is for me a way of saying that this is not quoted speech, that this is just as much a tissue of fictional creation as any other words in the text. It’s a way of departing from the realist assumption that when we create fictional characters we create “round” or “whole” human beings other than ourselves. In the same sense, it embraces (perhaps more than was originally intended) John Gardner’s argument that fiction should be experienced by the reader as a “vivid and continuous dream.” If we are creating dream-experiences for our readers, that is, the illusion that one is dreaming, then the question of whether fiction should be “real” or “realist” is always beside the point. Omitting quotation marks, then, is a way of marking, or materializing, the dream experience.

This is a tricky business, and I don’t think there’s any point to making a definite, 100%-foolproof claim about one’s practices as a writer. My favorite text on this subject is a short essay by Theodor Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” published in English in the book Notes on Literature I. I apologize for the length of this quotation, but I think it’s worth reading in full:

The writer is in a permanent predicament when it comes to punctuation marks; if one were fully aware while writing, one would sense the impossibility of ever using a mark of punctuation correctly and would give up writing altogether. For the requirements of the rules of punctuation and those of the subjective need for logic and expression are not compatible: in punctuation marks the check the writer draws on language is refused payment. The writer cannot trust in the rules, which are often rigid and crude; nor can he ignore them without indulging in a kind of eccentricity and doing harm to their nature by calling attention to what is inconspicuous—and inconspicuousness is what punctuation lives by. But if, on the other hand, he is serious, he may not sacrifice any part of his aim to a universal, for no writer today can completely identify with anything universal; he does so only at the price of affecting the archaic. The conflict must be endured each time, and one needs either a lot of strength or a lot of stupidity not to lose heart. At best one can advise that punctuation marks be handled the way musicians handle forbidden chord progressions and incorrect voice-leading. With every act of punctuation, like every such musical cadence, one can tell whether there is an intention or whether it is pure sloppiness. To put it more subtly, one can sense the difference between a subjective will that brutally demolishes the rules and a tactful sensitivity that allows the rules to echo in the background even where it suspends them.

The same problem Adorno identifies here really applies to any instance where a writer chooses to play with, or defy, “the rules”—whether these are rules of punctuation, formatting, syntax, usage, or larger constraints such as chronological narration or the coherent first person “I” in a lyric poem. Because we live in a post-experimental era, almost any stylistic choice is theoretically acceptable; the only way you can get expelled from a creative writing class is to plagiarize (if you’re caught) or threaten bodily harm to your classmates or the instructor (and sometimes even that doesn’t do it). But acceptability isn’t the same thing as “freedom.” The idea that we are “free to write whatever we want,” like the idea that what we write comes entirely from our own individual imaginative wellspring, is a Romantic myth. Our writing is always constrained by internal and external, conscious and unconscious forces, and the best we can do, I think, is to strive for what Adorno calls “a tactful sensitivity that allows the rules to echo in the background even where it suspends them.”

Hope this answers your question.


2 responses to “Unpunctuated Equilibrium”

  1. I loved “The Call of Blood.” I lived in Toronto for 13 years and knew many multi-cultural couples and it rang so true to me. I keep thinking about those two and hoping they are finding a way to pull together as so much pulls them apart. The lack of quotations made the whole piece even seem a bit more seemless. I am a huge Ondaatje fan and I definitely see his influence in your work.

  2. The absence of quotation marks lets me further into the story, without anything present which structures it aside from it, itself. I was never confused about who was speaking, and after a while (and on other pages in other places) I found quotes the mark of an imperial power reminding me that they have a stake in the proceedings. But they don’t.

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