Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Don't Quote Me on This

As Lionel Shriver notes in the Wall Street Journal, "Literature is not very popular these days. Anyone who writes literary fiction is happy to tell you it's a bitch to get literary fiction published. The reason it's a bitch is because much of it doesn't sell, and, in fairness to publishers, there's only so altruistic even the most high-minded editor can afford to be before they start turning out the lights and repossessing office furniture.

There are several reasons for this lack of sales potential. It's most often laid at the feet of the unwashed masses who refuse to look beyond American Idol and 24 for entertainment, and who think enlightenment is what happens when the sun comes up. This is, not surprisingly, the literary community's preferred view. Ignored is that community's tendency to turn its collective nose up at any novel that dares to become too popular. The pathology of this condition can easily be guessed at, and could keep a trained psychologist busy for several thousand words.

A key reason for this relegation of literary fiction to the fringes of public consciousness may be that literary writers seem less interested every year in writing for the public they would have buy their books. Please feel free to comment below and call me a block headed, undereducated dilettante, but the literary fiction of the past few decades seems more interested in receiving good reviews from Michiko Kakutani and authors' acknowledged peers than in actually being read. Story is passé; the sentence beautiful is all that matters. ("The sentence beautiful" can alternate with "the sentence indecipherable" to weed out lowbrows as necessary.)

Shriver picks up on this in his discussion of quotation marks. The timing is fortuitous for me, as I recently waded my way through the bramble-laden thickets of arcane prose Cormac McCarthy titled Blood Meridian. Like No Country for Old Men as cited by Shriver, Blood Meridian uses no quotation marks. It's up to you to figure out who is speaking, or if anyone is speaking at all. Given the weight of McCarthy's prose—much of which is, admittedly, beautiful in its nihilistic way—this can be a burden.

I read somewhere that a writer's first responsibility is to give the reader a fighting chance. (That's a paraphrase; I’d cite it properly if I could find it.) Conventional rules of punctuation evolved to do just that. Readers expect it, and use those little non-spoken marks to know where to pause, how long to pause, organize thoughts, and not insignificantly, who is speaking. And when. Readers see those marks and the mind responds accordingly. When missing, the reader's attention is diverted from the story while he figures out what's going on. Writers trifle with this at their peril.

Some may argue that readers fully equipped to appreciate McCarthy or others who dispense with quotation marks will have no trouble navigating the literary landscape without so many signs to clutter the scenery. To borrow the quote from Julie Myerson, "In my experience of the world, there are no marks separating out what I think and what I say, or what other people do." I don't have any trouble separating what I think from what I say, either, because I'm there when it happens. Leaving out quotations marks, or any other accepted punctuation, places the reader in a position where he must read the author's mind to know what’s going on.

Classical music has gone through the same evolution. Orchestras audiences are still primarily attracted to what’s referred to as the “standard repertoire.” Twentieth Century composers became increasingly less interested in appealing to the public than to the critics and other composers who might be able to adequately “understand” the depth and breadth of their musical vision. That’s their privilege, just as it’s okay for a writer to use, not use, or alter the meaning of punctuation—even words—if he wants to. Just don't be surprised when the lines don’t form at your signings.

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