QUOTES IN THE SCRIPTORIUM

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, had he chose to respect the quotation mark:

“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.

But then the present tense adds a second layer of confusion, as does a clearly unreliable narrator previously established in the narrative. The book is written very much as though it’s a report on the activities of Mr. Blank, who has found himself in what might be a hospital room, or might be a prison cell, with a fractured and unreliable memory. That being the case, could it be that Auster intended the following?

“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.

Though I know I’m playing devil’s advocate here, this is a fair interpretation within the context of the narrative. Either or both acts of removing the quotation marks from around It’s that simple. and adding them to the first sentence in the next paragraph, which I believe would be spoken by Anna but could be Mr. Blank, significantly changes the tenor of the exchange.

Further, Mr. Blank is confronted with a manuscript that reads like a sort of science fiction take on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Dialog within that manuscript begins with an em-dash, but still suffers from similar ambiguity. The em-dash provides a signal that a line of dialog that is part of the manuscript begins, and helps differentiate between which character has begun speaking, but no similar indicator is made for pauses, interruptions, or for when the character stops speaking.

Ultimately this demonstrates the necessity that led to the introduction of the quotation mark in the first place. The question remains as to the source of Auster’s feeling that it was unnecessary—a stylistic choice made to deliberately blur the line between dialog and narration?

As a reader, though, I don’t see the advantage in either style or substance. It doesn’t make the book smarter, more rewarding to read for having sorted it out as you go, and the occasional attribution (note he asks in the example above) tends to contradict the feeling that we’re being asked to be uncertain as to what is spoken, what is thought, and where that line exists in Mr. Blank’s scattered consciousness.

Honestly, I don’t think punctuation is something you play with without a clear objective. If you’ve come here for advice, here it is: Render your manuscript in English, all rules in force, bent as necessary to the demands of your story, but broken with extraordinary caution and with a clear and relevant statement in mind.

—Philip Athans

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 the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. 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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3 Responses to QUOTES IN THE SCRIPTORIUM

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