Quotation Marks and Literature
Literature is not very popular these days, to put it mildly. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half of Americans do not read books at all, and those who do average a mere six a year. You’d think literary writers would be bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves to readers — to make their work maximally accessible, straightforward and inviting. But no.
Perhaps no single emblem better epitomizes the perversity of my colleagues than the lowly quotation mark. Some rogue must have issued a memo, “Psst! Cool writers don’t use quotes in dialogue anymore” to authors as disparate as Junot Díaz, James Frey, Evan S. Connell, J.M. Coetzee, Ward Just, Kent Haruf, Nadine Gordimer, José Saramago, Dale Peck, James Salter, Louis Begley and William Vollmann. To the degree that this device contributes to the broader popular perception that “literature” is pretentious, faddish, vague, eventless, effortful, and suffocatingly interior, quotation marks may not be quite as tiny as they appear on the page.
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. Surely what should distinguish literature isn’t that it’s hard but that it’s good. The text should be as easy to process as possible, saving the readers’ effort for exercising imagination and keeping track of the plot.
Like with Franzen’s attack on “experimental” writers from a few years back, I simply can’t fathom what motivates people to write things like this.