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.



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Hello, Best American visitors…

Welcome to anyone who stumbled across “The Call of Blood” in The Best American Short Stories 2o11 and then found your way here. You may be interested to know that the version of the story in Best American is somewhat shorter (about a thousand words shorter) than the original, which is included in Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Click on “Buy” above to find out how to get the book, if you like.

The title of the story comes from the “Elizabeth Childers” entry in Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The full poem can be found here. Another wonderful version comes from Richard Buckner’s The Hill, which consists of selections from Spoon River set to music.


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Joyce, meet Joyce

From Donald Barthelme’s “After Joyce”:

Satisfied with neither the existing world nor the existing literature, Joyce and Stein modify the world by adding to its store of objects the literary object—which is then encountered in the same way as other objects in the world…Interrogating older works, the question is: what do they say about the world and being in the world? But the literary object is itself “world” and the theoretical advantage is that in asking it questions you are asking questions of the world directly. [The writer] has in fact removed himself from the work, as Joyce instructed him to do. The reader is not listening to an authoritative account of the world delivered by an expert but bumping into something that is there, like a rock or a refrigerator…

It has been argued that the ontological status of the literary work has always been just this, that Pilgrim’s Progress is an “object” in this sense just as Finnegans Wake is. But such arguments ignore the changed situation that ensues when the writer is aware of and exploits the possibilities of this special placement. Joyce and Stein’s creations modify the beholder. I do not think it is fanciful, for instance, to say that Governor Rockefeller, standing among his Mirós and de Koonings, is worked upon by them, and if they do not make a Democrat or Socialist of him they at least alter the character of his Republicanism.

From John Berger’s “The First and Last Recipe: Ulysses“:

The ‘illegality’ of the book was for me, the fourteen-year-old, a telling literary quality. I was convinced that legality was an arbitrary pretense. Necessary for the social contract, indispensable for society’s survival, but turning its back on most lived experience. I knew this by instinct and when I read the book for the first time, I came to appreciate with mounting excitement that its supposed illegality as an object was more than matched by the illegitimacy of the lives and souls in its epic…

I was about to write: there were many parts, during this first reading, which I didn’t understand. Yet this would be false. There were no parts that I understood. And there was no part that did not make the same promise t me: the promise that deep down, beneath the words, beneath the pretenses, beneath the claims and everlasting moralistic judgment, beneath the opinions and lessons and boasts and cant of everyday life, the lives of adult women and men were made up of such stuff as this book was made of: offal with flecks in it of the divine. The first and last recipe!…

And he did not stop there—this man who was telling me about the life I might never know, this man who never spoke down to anybody, and who remains for me to this day an example of the true adult, which is to say a being who, because he has accepted life, is intimate with it—this man did not stop there, for his penchant for the lowly led him to keep the same kind of company within his single characters: he listened to their stomachs, their pains, their tumescences: he heard their first impressions, their uncensored thoughts, their ramblings, their prayers without words….And the more carefully he listened to what scarcely anyone had listened to before, the richer became life’s offering.

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Ownership and The Real

There’s an interesting (and unplanned) dovetail between my piece on the novel that came out in Boston Review this month (which I wrote, for the most part, last summer) and my review of Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, which I wrote in January but just appeared in The New Republic online yesterday. One is about questions of imagined ownership over the novel (in other words, who gets to set the rules and act as a gatekeeper?); the other is about questions of actual ownership in the realm of copyright. Which is to say that they are both about the relationship between our understanding of the real (which we might think, superficially, to exist purely in the realm of subjective experience) and the exercise of power—legal, moral, cultural, and economic (which is, obviously, public and communal).

It’s easy to treat the realm of fiction as wholly removed from questions of power, and we have to grant fiction, as an art form, a certain separate status, outside of the normative realm of argument entirely. But #1 does not necessarily follow from #2, as many critics seem to believe. Fiction and power: this is what I’ve got on the brain these days.

More to come.

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The Novel is [not] Dead

Here’s my recent Boston Review piece on Virginia Woolf, Mikhail Bakhtin, David Shields, James Wood, Benjamin Kunkel, Yvonne Vera, and other luminaries. My original title was, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But then I had a feeling that Edward Albee would ring my doorbell in the middle of the night.


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Some thoughts on where I went to college

“I think that the fetishization of elite schools in American culture, the way in which they cultivate an image as brands, as imprimaturs of some scarce resource called “excellence,” is sad and pathological, and profoundly anti-democratic. The truth (a truth I didn’t know, or at least didn’t want to admit, in college) is that an intellectual life is available to almost anyone, almost anywhere, if they work hard enough and are given some kind of access point.” (via Guernica)

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