I took a three-year break from reading novels after I returned to creative writing. Instead, I read poetry, self-help books (I need it!), writing handbooks and authors’ memoirs. I avoided fiction, partly because of wariness about my own writing style being affected, but also because I read a novel a day for four years while keeping company with the black dog of depression—I was suffering novel overload.
The novel that regained my attention was recommended in a Guardian article about top 10 chases in literature. William Gay was a writer new to me and Twilight was the only title on the list which I hadn’t read. I like picaresque Southern Gothic thrillers, by such authors as Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor, so bought a copy of Twilight on eBay for £2.
It’s everything I hoped it would be, and I was 20 pages into it before I realised that there were no quotation marks to delineate speech. It read OK without them, though I’ve seen the advice from writing gurus that readers like seeing quotation marks on the page ahead of them, as conversation is easier to digest than blocks of text. Cormac McCarthy despises most punctuation, especially quotation marks, so perhaps William Gay was influenced by him.
Here’s an extract from Twilight, to show you what I mean:
Coming into Ackerman’s Field the wagon and its curious freight accrued to itself a motley of children and barking dogs and a few dusty turtlebacked automobiles and such early risers as were stirring and possessed of enough curiosity to join the macabre parade to its ultimate end on the courthouse lawn.
Before he even stepped down from the wagon the man said, Get Sherriff Bellwether out here.
A fat man in overalls had approached the wagon. Bellwether’s done been sent for, he said. Who all is it Sandy?
The man pulled back the quilt covering with the faintest flourish, not unlike a nightmare magician offering up for consideration some sleightof-hand.
Goddamn it, Sandy, that girl’s half naked. Did you not have enough respect to cover her up?
The man they’d called Sandy spat. I ain’t Fenton Breece, Hooper. All I undertook to do was bring em in. That’s all the undertakin I aim to do. You want to handle them then you cover em up.
I quickly adapted to his style of not using quotation/speech marks, and though I paused and went back a few times to clarify the meaning of what he was saying, I’m not sure it was any more than I’d normally do if an author followed conventional practice.
One thing I’m sure of—if I tried querying a literary agent with a writing sample devoid of punctuation to show when someone was talking, it would be immediately rejected!
I’m not planning on eradicating quotation marks from my writing, but do any of you get by without them?