Putting Words in People’s Mouths; Or, Thoughts about Dialogue

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately, since I dinged The Hangman’s Secret for putting anachronistic and American-flavored English into its British characters’ mouths. Dialogue is such a critical part of a work of fiction that it really can ruin a story if the author gets it wrong. But if the author gets it right, well, great dialogue can make a book a joy to read. In text, a wrong word or two isn’t such a big deal; it tends to get drowned out by the rest of the text unless it’s a real howler. In dialogue, however, every word has to be the perfect word. It’s almost like poetry. Dialogue has to convey meaning, express character, keep things moving in the book, and support the overall plausibility of the book. See how much can go wrong?

Marguerite Gérard

Here are some of the danger zones I’ve thought of, reflecting on the books I’ve read:

  • Dialect. Obviously, this one is first on the list for me. I know that authors agonize over dialect. Should they recreate dialect phonetically? What if it sounds racist, as can happen when authors don’t use African-American Vernacular English with sensitivity? This is part of the reason why a lot of authors these days hire sensitivity readers. 
  • Too much explication. When a knowledgeable character launches into a history of something another character (and the reader) needs to understand, I tense up. Am I going to get a lecture? Am I going to get an undigestible helping of jargon? Is this long speech going to go on so long I forget what’s going on with the plot? 
  • Class. Related to dialect, if an author doesn’t nail how people of various classes speak, then characters can end up sounding either completely bland or as caricatures. How often have we run across criminals who sound like Prison Mike?
  • Too much banter. It pains me a bit to write this because I love banter. Most of my own dialogue in real life is an attempt at banter, to my boss’s occasional annoyance. But if the characters fall to bantering for too long, it can derail a plot almost as badly as having a character launch into a lecture. Also, too much and too funny banter starts to sound stage-y. Only people in Oscar Wilde’s plays are that witty all the time.
  • Too much meandering.  Meandering dialogue has subtext, sometimes so much that it sinks the dialogue under its own weight. I think of this type of dialogue when I see long conversations, usually in literary novels, when two characters just blether on about the weather or something seemingly innocuous. If you’re clued in to the subtext, all is well. If not, it’s like hanging out with a relative you don’t know very well at a family reunion and there’s no escape in sight. 
  • Unnatural dialogue. All of us readers have come across dialogue that makes us think, “No one actually talks like that!” It might be because of something I’ve already mentioned. It might also be because the dialogue is too concise, too erudite, too full of curse words, too something. I’m sure authors agonize over this, because they have to make characters sound natural for their age, gender, class, background, and so many other things that I’m surprised any of them managed to write a word at all, considering how easy it would be to fall into research rabbit holes. 

What about you out there, bookish internet people? Are there other things that annoy you in dialogue? Things that can go wrong that I didn’t mention here? 

opinions · reading life

Uncollected Thoughts on Eleven Years of the Kindle

It’s not a special anniversary, but LitHub recently posted in one of their daily news round ups that the kindle had launched in 2007. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. In my life, I don’t know that anything else has caused as much hysteria about reading and the state of readership as the kindle has, at least in my lifetime. 

Oszkár Glatz
  1. I wish people would stop giving readers crap for reading anything other than a printed book. I can understand the attractions of a print book, but I am bothered by the way print-only readers fetishize the codex. Perhaps it’s because being a librarian has desensitized me—I see far too many old, worn out, distinctly not rare books for that—but I have long felt that the content is more important than the container. (Unless, of course, we’re talking about beautifully bound books or books with a special provenance.) And, for pity’s sake, leave the audiobook readers alone. 
  2. Although the kindle has made it easier for me personally to get my hands on books that I can’t get from my local libraries or bookstores immediately, I really wish it was easier for libraries and library patrons to easily access ebooks. There are too many hurdles—so many that I steer students at my library away from them because it’s a pain in the ass.
  3. The kindle and other ereaders don’t make it easy enough (for me at least) to do deep reading of texts. I see so many students in literature classes squinting at their phones in an effort to find passages they needed to reference, even though their professor and I have told them that it’s better to use print for this kind of reading. 
  4. I don’t blame the convenience of the kindle for no. 3. We educators just need to make a better effort at teaching students how to do different kinds of reading. The kindle is great for reading for fun. For literary criticism and textual explication? Not so much.
  5. When it comes to my reading, I really like reading on a kindle. I read so much faster with an ebook than with a print book. I joked that I was wasting a lot of time turning the pages, but maybe those seconds really do add up. Not only that, but I really like being able to instantly look things up by touching the words. This more than anything has slightly ruined me for print books. I have to look things up the old-fashioned way when I read print books. ::dramatic sigh::
  6. I’m not sure if it’s the kindle or ebooks in general or something else, but I’ve noticed a lot more typos in books in the last couple of years. At least with a print book, I’d be able to have the satisfaction of writing in a correction.
  7. I worry that I won’t be able to access my kindle library if I take my iPad to anther country and I’m not eager to test this. If I ever do travel abroad, I plan to take a nice thick print book for back up. Perhaps being stranded in a foreign country without reading material might be enough to prompt me to finish War and Peace.

Is there anything that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about the kindle and ereading in general.


Sins of Omission; Or, I Have a Very Controversial Opinion

Years and years ago, when I was very young, I read Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. The book destroyed me. Anyone who’s read it will understand why. To this day, whenever someone tells me that they’re going to read it, I warn them. I remember when I read it that there were pages towards the end that I couldn’t read because I just couldn’t handle the sadness of it anymore. Since that time, I’ve always been pretty good completely reading books I decide to finish; DNF titles don’t count. But two reading experiences since Where the Red Fern Grows make me wonder if it might be okay to tell readers that there are parts of a book they can safely skip so that they can enjoy an otherwise great read.

Albert Moore

Exhibit A: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

When I was a young English major, my American Literature professor ambitiously included Moby-Dick at the end of an already full syllabus. The closer we got to the end of the novel, the more the professor reduced what we had to read of the leviathan. We still had to read some of the whaling essay chapters. (I’ve heard of some readers who claim to enjoy these). We ended up reading more of the plot chapters and, my dear bookish types, I loved those. Captain Ahab is a fantastically frightening character, who elevates an already ripping yarn into the legendary. The whaling essays killed all the wonderful tension created by the plot chapters—something that is very important to me as a reader. I know full well that the novel as a whole is an attempt to capture whalers’ experiences as a whole, but I just wanted a story about an obsessive man and a wily whale. This experience is probably what set me to thinking that, in some cases, it’s okay to skip bits.

Exhibit B: Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

I liked this book a lot, but I hated the epilogue. Without revealing too much, I think that the major event contained in that chapter ruins the poignancy of the penultimate chapter. I might have been able to grudgingly accept the epilogue if I thought the characters had behaved consistently. Instead, I had to think about what happened for a long time before I could kind-of-sort-of think of a plausible explanation. I really wish the novel had ended with that next-to-last chapter. I don’t know if I would have followed advice and skipped it if someone had mentioned it, but I do know that I would have liked the book better over all if I had.

I realize that what I’m attempting to argue is controversial. Authors put a lot of thought and effort into creating stories for us. There are reasons for what they chose to put in the story. But I’ve long thought that, once a book gets into my hands, it’s my story to finish. My imagination does the rest of the work. I know full well that some books I read will go in directions that I wouldn’t have guessed or are interested in. Very rarely, as in the evidence cited above, does a book ruin itself by including too much material that kills any joy in reading the story and/or has something that just doesn’t fit and/or just undercuts the entire book and/or is just so emotionally harrowing that it will mess readers up for years (or decades, in the case of Where the Red Fern Grows). In these rare circumstances, I think it’s entirely fair to give readers a heads up so that they’re not disappointed in a book the way I was. After all, if they can have a better reading experience and like 95% of a book, that’s better than having two people who hate a book because of that last 5%. Right?

Have any of you out there read a book that you liked for the most part but hated because of something that could easily have been left out?

opinions · reading life

Angry Books in an Angry Time

Like a lot of other Americans, I am angry. Like a lot of liberal Americans, I am regularly furious. I’ve gotten so angry that on bad news days, I stay away from Twitter and Facebook because I know that I risk having an aneurysm. I stay far away from political non-fiction because I know that my blood pressure can’t handle it. So why, then, do I read angry books like How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, or The Power, by Naomi Alderman? Why would I want to read something that I know will probably make me angry?

Gotthard Kühl

I suspect that I read these books because so many of them are angry about the things I’m angry about. I live in a conservative state and it’s not hard to end up on deep red internet, so sometimes it feels good to be angry with like-minded characters. They help me feel less alone that way. They let me know that I’m not the only one who has a similar perspective to me and they’re angry, too.

Reading angry books can backfire. Years ago, I read Dan Simmons’s Flashback and ended up hating it. The publisher blurbs led me to think it was an interesting alternate history novel. I liked the other books I had read by Simmons, so I snagged a copy from the bookstore. I don’t want to speculate about Simmons’ politics, but the novel struck me as something from the conservative point of view. I ended up angry at the book rather than with the book. 

There are some topics I stay away from, even if I might feel some solidarity with the angry characters. When a friend asked me to read Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, I asked her if it would piss me off. I read the book (and liked a lot of it) because she needed someone to talk to about it. What worries me most about reading books about topics that I know will enrage me is that the book will fail to treat these topics (bodily autonomy, rape culture, etc.) with the respect and thoughtfulness they deserve. Or that they will turn out to present a conservative point of view. This is a species of confirmation bias, but I freely admit that I’ve a strong, pink-tinged liberal bias. 

How do you feel about books that wear their anger on their dust jackets?

opinions · reading life

Shut Up and Listen; Or, Having Bookish Guts

There are books that I describe as “deserve to be widely read.” I hate to do this. It just reminds me that these books will most likely be read by the people who are already kind on board with their message and ignored or denigrated by people who need to shut up and listen. That last bit of wisdom comes from a faculty member I was talking books with earlier today. This professor was talking about reading I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi, with her reading group, who focus on books about social issues.

(c) South Ayrshire Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
A.C.W. Duncan

I wish that my university would pick something like I Can’t Breathe as its freshman read. I think up until now, they’ve chosen books that cover important issues but that are about something that it’s possible for American readers to distance themselves from. These books, like Three Cups of Tea, end up reminding students that they’re lucky to be born in American. I would like to read gutsy books along with these students. I know it won’t be fun. It will be downright uncomfortable. We’ll get angry. We’ll get upset. But that’s what a great book about injustice should do. (And there’s a lot of injustice out there.)

I’m generally against required reading of books that aren’t enjoyable. And I understand why schools don’t pick uncomfortable. Three years ago, Duke University got in hot water when they picked Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. But I think the occasional uncomfortable, angering book is good for us. It’s even better when we have people to talk about it with. Reading books like I Can’t Breathe alone can make us feel helpless as well as angry. If we read it with a bunch of other angry people, after we all shut up and listen to people who aren’t being heard, we can make some changes. We can vote and make a difference.

And it can all start with an uncomfortable book we have to read. Someone just has to be brave enough to assign the book. After all, these books deserve it.


The Unquantifiable Canon; Or, Thoughts About the Collective Literary Conscious

A few of the book bloggers I follow have written posts about which books they’d add or remove from the Western canon. Reading those posts (linked in the most recent week on the bookish internet post) has set me to thinking about which books we add and which ones we leave out. This isn’t the most original post; scholars more experienced and better than mean have tackled the question of what ought to be in the canon. Harold Bloom made an entire career out of that.

Poul Friis Nybo

There are two ways to define a canon. On the one hand, a canon is the collective “best” work of a culture (or a species, for the people who very persuasively argue for a global canon). Best is obviously up for debate because it’s entirely subjective. On the other hand, a canon can be all of the works that readers ought to read in order to be considered well-read. There’s a lot of overlap between the two groups, but there are some distinctions—mostly because of readers’ and scholars’ subjectivity.

It would be nice to try for a global canon. Unfortunately, no library has the shelf room or the budget. Additionally, there would still be the problem of deciding what the cutoff is between “best” or ought to read and ordinary reading fodder that doesn’t stick with us for very long. For example, I think James Joyce’s Ulyssesis either a prank or just a mess. But almost everyone will argue against me.

The only thing I can say definitively about the canon is that it is a moving target. Any list will be obsolete a year after it’s published. I might think this because I’m a librarian, and I see books come in and go out of the library constantly. There are a lot of books that stay on the shelves, of course. We can’t throw out Shakespeare, Atwood, Rumi, L’Engle, Dickens, Ferdowsi, Austen, Lady Murasaki, etc. etc. But Horatio Alger is mostly gone. Melville was out and then in. Booth Tarkington appears on century old lists of books people will read in the future. Most readers now would struggle to name even one of his books. And at what point can we add N.K. Jemisin or Colson Whitehead to the canon?

Whether or not it’s necessary to have a definitive canon, it’s certainly a lot of fun to think about if you’re a bookworm. I love arguing with other readers about what’s “best,” what other’s ought to read, and where the cutoff should be. I’ve never written down a personal canon. It would probably snowball out of control within minutes because I just know I would try to come up with something that was both the “best” literature, challenging but meaningful literature, and inclusivity so that as many groups of people are represented as possible.

What would be in your personal canons?

• My money is on prank.


Start at the Beginning. Or the Middle. Or the End.

Since I finished The Witch Elm by Tana French last week, I’ve been thinking about a critical authorial decision: where to start the story. It doesn’t seem like it should be a hard decision. The story should start at the beginning. The question, though, is, where is the beginning?

On reflection, most of the books I read start in medias res. This means that they start right in the middle of the action. A catalytic event has already happened and the characters are scrabbling to put things right. Starting the story after the beginning is a winning formula because there’s no need for the author to ramp things up; there’s already narrative tension from the off. Some of the best mysteries I’ve seen, like Memento, or read actually start at the end and work their way backwards. 

Emily Bobovnikov

Literary novels, I’ve noticed tend to take their time about narrative tension, but they usually start close to whatever development launches the plot. Romance novels are similar because the meet-cute is part of the fun of the genre. Fantasy novels tend to cheat a bit. So many of them have prologues that take readers back years (or more) to provide information that probably won’t make sense until the end. 

Tana French’s The Witch Elm is the only book I can think of that starts before the big catalytic event. It started so far before that event that I was initially frustrated because I wanted the story to just get on with it. It was only later that I realized what French was up to and that I needed all that background to understand the emotional depth of the rest of the story.

But that’s why this question is so important. If the novel starts too “early,” you risk wearing out your readers’ patience. Too “late,” and you risk loosing your readers completely because they won’t understand what’s going on and/or what’s at stake. When it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. When it goes right, we hardly notice and the story just feels right. I’m glad I read The Witch Elm. Not only was the story brilliant overall, but it got me to pause and reflect on a terrifically different job for an author.