Art or Device?

I just finished The Round House, by Louise Erdritch. The writing soared, the characters tugged me into their world, and the ending left me hanging and wanting so much more. This is the first time I’ve read anything by Ms. Erdritch, and it’s safe to say it won’t be the last book by her that I devour. Depending on dialog, that is.

The author’s lack of quotation marks around dialog stymied me. My eyes are so trained to catch those tiny mouse-turd cues, that I stumbled over their absence. I use ‘mouse-turds’ on purpose because once there were some in a book I read, and I thought they were quotation marks in a weird spot.

I found myself reading along, captured by beautiful writing, only to suddenly realize I was reading dialog. Then I’d have to back up to pick up where people started talking, and work my way back to where I was interrupted and pulled out of the story.

If the story had been less powerful, I would have stopped reading simply because I dislike being taken out of the story world. The book was very bumpy to read because of that.

I wondered why the author chose to not use quotation marks. A dislike of the shift key? Some sort of artistic point I’m too dense to pick up? A signal that I was reading literature rather than just a very good story? Those questions also pulled me away as a reader. Which made me then wonder, when is something artistic, and when is it simply a device to make someone stand out, or to prove you can break a rule and get away with it?

A while back I talked about reading books by Elly Griffiths, who writes in present tense, and how skilfully she handles that. So well, in fact, that her ‘device’ never once pulled me out of the stories. Present tense isn’t a style of writing one sees often, and it could easily have failed. I’m glad it didn’t because I really do love her series.

It’s the same with this book. Whatever the author’s reason for not using quotation marks, The Round House was still a very good story. Unlike with Elly Griffiths though, I’m not sure I’d read another book without quotation marks around dialog. It was simply too disjointed, having to continuously back up and re-read. Interestingly, when I read reviews of the book on Amazon, I didn’t see any mention of this. Well, I also didn’t read all of the thousand comments, so who knows. Someone else might have missed the mouse-turds, too.

What do you think makes a writing device succeed or fail? Why do you think authors choose to create a story that breaks the expected rules? And do you like to read books that step outside the traditional format?


4 thoughts on “Art or Device?

  1. Love Louise Erdrich. Started reading her just after High School, but haven’t read the Round House yet.
    I’m not troubled by her breaking with convention, I sometimes find it thrilling when an author drifts outside the boundaries of how things typically are written. If I have to stretch myself a little to get around their style I feel like the work out was worth it, if the writing is good that is.
    I am not a fan of the formulaic book and Louise has never really written that sort of thing..


    • I definitely need to read more of her books, because this one just would not let go of me, even minus quotation marks. I find it funny in a way, how our eyes are so trained to look for the familiar. I wonder who decided we needed quotation marks to begin with?


  2. Mouse turds!!! What a fantastic description, made even better by your explanation of it.

    I’m rather intrigued by the idea of dialogue without quote marks, but it does sound terribly confusing. There’s such a fine line between shaking things up and just being obscure. What is punctuation, anyway? It’s there for clarity… but it’s also arbitrary. How to mess with that arbitrariness without obscuring the clarity to the extent that the reader won’t tolerate it? Apparently Erdrich has done it, since you read the book and loved it, and the other reviews you skimmed didn’t mind either!


    • Punctuation can be such a strong tool in writing. As in not using commas to speed up the pace of a sentence, until the reader is breathless at the end of an action sequence. The reader might not even notice the subtle lack of pauses. Or the opposite, using commas in particular places to have the reader pause a moment. But I never really thought about removing some punctuation, like quotation marks, completely. Like you said, it’s a fine line between shaking up and being obscure. It was weird how it was confusing, and at the same time, didn’t stop me from wanting to find out what happened next.


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