This month I read two memoirs that I would be giving glowing reviews to, if only they had employed quotation marks. Is anyone else fed up with the idea that quotation marks in dialogue are unnecessary? Basic rules of grammar and punctuation exist for a reason (to help readers understand what’s happening) and should never be disregarded; this stupid trend leads to complete reader confusion.
I think this trend dates back to the 1996 publication of Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. I love that book. Perhaps it’s proof that in the hands of an exceptional writer, and in certain cases depending on the content, it’s possible for a lack of quotation marks to not be too much of a hindrance. Or, more likely, perhaps it’s just that twelve years ago, not using quote marks was not yet an annoying habit—it was new and different. Now it’s old and very aggravating. Publishers and authors, let’s stop now. Please?
The memoir Girls of a Tender Age, by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, is exceedingly well paced—chapters about growing up in the 1950s are interspersed with short chapters about what Bob Malm is doing. Who is Bob Malm? We don’t know, but he’s clearly a psychopath, and he’s about to cross paths with the author. And the author’s older brother is severely autistic, chewing his arm to the bone if there are any loud noises in the house. It’s captivating and wonderful…but lacks quotation marks. Which leads to confusion, and, ultimately, makes fully enjoying the book impossible.
The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn, is a memoir that would have been wonderful, were it not for the fact that I had to keep rereading much of what I had just read, in hopes of untangling who was saying what.
The author is searching for information about his six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. He travels to Poland, Australia, and Sweden to interview elderly Holocaust survivors. It’s utterly engrossing…until he begins relating the interviews he conducted. Did he say that aloud? No, wait, that was in his head. Did he actually say the next thing? Oops, no, he’s providing background information. Aaargh, I’m completely out of the story now! I’ve lost my way in the book! For example:
Klara said, I do not know much about him, just that he wanted to save her. And he died because of it. So why doesn’t she want to talk about it? She paused for a moment, and then said, Meg is very careful with every word.
My first pass through, I thought the author was asking in his head, about Klara, Why doesn’t she want to talk about it? My second pass through, I thought the author said this out loud to Klara, about Meg. Finally, I realized that Klara actually said that out loud to the author. But did she also say, “She paused for a moment,” speaking of Meg? No, wait, that’s the author saying that Klara paused.
But what were people expecting from the Germans? I asked. How much did they know at that point?
My brain absorbs “But what were people expecting from the Germans” before realizing that he spoke it aloud; I don’t find that out until the end of the sentence. So what I thought he said in his head, I have to reconfigure and picture him saying out loud. But what about the next sentence? That could go either way. Did he ask that aloud too? We don’t know.
What in the world is the point of this? If you spend years researching and writing and spending money completing a book, and then undergo the extreme stress of finding a publisher and dealing with the publishing process, wouldn’t you want the finished product to be as clear and problem-free as possible? Don’t you want people to understand your book as easily as possible? Stop the nonsense! Replace the quotation marks!
This opinion first appeared in July 2008
By Donna Long