Travels in the Scriptorium, Picador 2007

Having happened upon it at random in a bookshop, drawn to its brilliant but apparently uncredited cover design, I’ve started reading Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster (©2006 by Paul Auster, Picador paperback edition, 2007). It’s a slim little volume at 118 pages, and a day in, I’m halfway through—reading time is precious.

This is not a review of the book, which I find mesmerizing so far. You know me, I don’t write reviews. But the author has made a stylistic choice in the writing that I couldn’t help but comment on.

Like many a novel of the overtly literary sort, Travels in the Scriptorium is written in present tense. There’s a whole blog post or two on that to come, but what I’d like to cover today is Auster’s decision not to enclose dialog in quotation marks.

This isn’t the first novel I’ve read that’s also made that bold but confusing choice, but I’m struggling with it in this one and want to share my frustration.

I’m happy to forgive the Brits’ insistence on using single quotes—it’s one of those charming little differences that makes for at least two different Englishes: American English and, well, English English. They invented it, both of us bastardized it, no one has perfected it, and rules have shifted in and out of acceptance all along. It’s one of the things you either have to love about the English language or pack it in for Esperanto. Paul Auster was born in New Jersey and lives in Brooklyn, so it’s reasonable to expect him to lean toward American English, and in general that’s the case. But neither version of the language supports dropping quotation marks entirely—does it?

Here’s an example from Travels in the Scriptorium:

Why are you so kind to me? he asks.

Because I love you, Anna says. It’s that simple.

Now that the meal is finished, the time has come for excretions, ablutions, and the putting on of clothes. Anna pushes the cart away from the bed and then extends her hand to Mr. Blank to help him to his feet.

This is as it was rendered in the printed book. It’s not impossible to interpret and I’m about 99% sure this is what Auster means…


Read the rest in…

Editor and author Philip Athans offers hands on advice for authors of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and fiction in general in this collection of 58 revised and expanded essays from the first five years of his long-running weekly blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook.


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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