Let's take "being writerly" off the table. Of course, people who want to be fancy or edgy or literary are going to use these tools indiscriminately. I think that happens way more often than some people will admit, but there's a difference between using it poorly, using it unnecessarily, and using it carelessly. Carelessly is someone whose book seems more writerly without punctuation, or more literary in the first person present tense. Whether they use it well or poorly, that's kind of an inane reason and I don't have much to say about it.
When we read The Red House for book club (I was going to let that pass without pointing out the similar title, and then I realized that you might think it was a typo--I'm talking about Mark Haddon's book about British people on vacation), one of the things I wanted to talk about was why the author chose not to use quotation marks, and to put all the dialog in italics instead. I think the effect was to make all those speeches feel like thoughts; since one of the big things that was going on in that book was contrasting all the characters' internal lives, and many of the other tools he used were tricky about blending one person's thoughts into another, this seemed like a fitting tool.
My question this month is about why Erdrich doesn't use quotation marks. She doesn't italicize dialog--it looks just as it would look otherwise, but without the quotation marks. My theory here is that the book is clearly written from the position of the narrator looking back from a period of years. The entire story takes place when he's 13, but he talks about what happens many years later, how he came to understand certain things as an adult, how his relationships changed once he was grown. I think the lack of quotation marks makes it seem more like a story someone is recounting--he's telling you what was said, but he's not quoting--you're not there in the moment, but being told the story. I think it's a tie to an oral tradition.
(I'll have more to say about this book later, I'm sure; I hope no one's disappointed that this post isn't a full review, but I'm not quite there yet.)
Now, Will Self, in the article I linked above, talks about why his new 400 page book has no chapter breaks and almost no paragraph breaks. He says this:
"Lives don't divide up into chapters," he continues. "People don't just talk, while nothing's going on in their head, and then respond. You know, none of these things actually happen. But it is enormously reassuring, and a good ordering principle for the kind of ghastly incoherent and largely inchoate mess that human consciousness is. And I'm inclined to think that all we actually have is experience."I have to admit, his explanation didn't thrill me. He talked in the interview about modernism, and how this narrative technique is a tool of modernism that is used because it more accurately reflects the human experience of your thoughts and sensations and feelings swirling and overlapping and happening in an unbroken torrent.
My very first thought when he said that was that recreating the human experience is different from telling a story. I've vented embarrassingly about the importance of plot, but this is separate--this isn't about whether it's an exciting story, or whether it's realistic or moving. Telling a story is different from trying to pour experience into someone, and I think the structure of telling a story isn't an artificial crutch to bypass this search for verisimilitude. Rather, it's a language of its own that gives us a shared vocabulary, allowing stories to communicate so much more than they contain.
I'm still thinking about how I feel about his comments. I know that his book sounds incredibly ponderous to me and I don't want to read it (I'd go so far as to say I want to not read it). But in thinking about what result he's going for by using these literary tools, I'm trying to decide if I just don't have any particular interest in that result, or if I disagree that this strategy will work.
I had the same idea about the book reviewed in the blog post I linked to at the top of the page. When the author sat down to write this book, did she start with the unusual, tricky narrator? Or did she start telling the story and realize that this opened so many more doors?
I suppose you could say that anything that makes me more aware of the writer than the book is a risk, in my mind, and maybe a failure. But if a writer can pull something like this off--do it gracefully, appropriately, and write such a compelling novel that I'm not tripped up by the unfamiliar bits--then she's added something wonderful to the world, and to my skills as a reader. I'm going to be thinking a lot more about this as I come across more writerly tricks.