I have just finished reading my third novel by Sally Rooney, followed by Cormac McCarthy’s latest, Stella Maris and I’d like to report the speech marks are missing! Punctuation goes in and out of fashion, and the marking of text with inverted commas to signify direct speech seems, in the current moment, is decidedly going out of fashion.
Cormac McCarthy called punctuation, “Weird little marks. I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” Since this was his first novel after a 16-year hiatus, I started reading it because I was intrigued by the subject matter, dedicated solely to a dialogue between two people, a woman who self-committed to a mental institution and a psychiatrist. It was a disaster. After twelve pages I’d had enough and just couldn’t handle page after page with no italics. However, I was sufficiently intrigued to purchase the audio book. And oh, my goodness, what a difference. I didn’t want to stop listening. I was totally enthralled by the female and male voices that gave color and texture to a dynamic, intriguing, and labyrinthine script.
But with Sally Rooney, not so. Why she has chosen to use this technique in her novels, only she can say? I found it gimmicky at best since her lack of italics didn’t enhance the flow of the story or blend with the rest of the text. But a greater irritant for me was her use in all three novels of another technique, the way she attributes the spoken word. No writer wants their characters to become disembodied, but attribution, clarifying for the reader who’s saying what, is key to maintaining good order in dialogue. It sustains the novel’s pace and orients and relieves the reader from unnecessary guesswork. As writers we shouldn’t have to send the reader window-shopping in search of a speaker to “assign” the script to! Distractions of that sort break the spell of the interactive flow, and are really an earmark of the inexperienced writer.
I’m speaking here, of course, of “she said” and “he said” the most common attributions, and their host of variants. When it’s evident who’s talking, the reader can readily do without them. Often enough, in a brisk exchange between two people once the talk gets rolling, it takes nothing more than a paragraph change, the customary tool for differentiating speakers, to make clear to the reader who’s saying what. Repeated attributions can serve to heighten the intent of the exchange two people are having. Beginning writers in particular are prone to suppose that “she said” and “he said” become too humdrum, are used too frequently, and need to be replaced by such alternatives as “she replied,” “he explained,” “he responded,” “she murmured,” “she protested,” and so on… all of which, when used judiciously, are useful.
Repeated indications as to who’s doing the talking can also be used for dramatic effect. And this is where Sally Rooney drives me crazy. A creative writing teacher advised, not to labor too much about attributions, “Go ahead and use “she said” and “he said” with little fear of over-use! They soon enough become mere transparencies for the reader, barely noted in passing as the reading proceeds.” If this is the case, why does it irritate and distract me from the story line making me want to stop reading? In Rooney’s Normal People on just one page I counted thirteen times her use of “he said, she said.”
An additional curiosity is Rooney’s point of view as she described her characters. In Beautiful World Where Are You much of its tension comes from the disconnect between the spare prose of the third-person sections, (I can’t remember seeing a semi colon in any of her books) with sometimes one paragraph filling an entire page, and the rambling soliloquies of the emails. Once they have been named, she ghosts her characters through page after page by simply referring to them as ‘she’ and ‘he,’ and given that she rarely fully develops them, I found it annoying and my attention flagging.
But there is a reason her books are bestsellers. In addition to her famous sex scenes, described as “the best in modern literary fiction,” she captures with unembellished, often plaintive prose, the angst of her millennium audience, albeit, her sometimes meandering chapters while reflecting the time and milieu, can be perplexing to those of us north of 40. And whatever happened to my italics?