GWS Mini: John Lennon and Omitting Quotation Marks in Dialogue

So I’m working on a The GWS 10 essay about The Beatles.  It’s a ton of fun, primarily because I have no excuse but to listen to a ton of Fab Four songs over and over again.  I’ve come up with an interesting idea that won’t bear the weight of a full essay, but is perfect for a shorter post.

I’m thinking of the 1965 Lennon/McCartney song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”  The song was primarily written by John and was a conscious effort to ventriloquize Bob Dylan.  Here’s the charming music video the boys made for the song:

A cool piece and a cool performance, right?  So the song is pretty straightforward.  The narrator laments that his or her relationship is being judged by others.  The narrator must therefore hide his love away and the choice of pronoun in the chorus and title seems to indicate that he is giving you advice based upon his experience.  What is society judging about the relationship?  That’s up to you.  Perhaps this is a gay relationship, perhaps the lovers came together after joint infidelity…you decide.

Check out some of the lyrics in the second verse (punctuation mine; John Lennon won’t answer my calls):

How can I even try? I can never win.

Hearing them, seeing them in the state I’m in.

How could she say to me love will find a way?

Gather ’round, all you clowns.  Let me hear you say…

(chorus)

It seems that many writers of fiction are making the stylistic choice to omit quotation marks in dialogue.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with any stylistic choice, of course; it’s a writer’s job to try and figure out which combinations of letters, words, symbols and white space will communicate the feeling in his or her head.  Now, this is a song, so we can’t really be sure where John would put the quotation marks in the dialogue in Verse 2.  The lines do, however, offer a good example of the risks and rewards of breaking convention.  So consider the snippet of lyric as I’ve typed it out; pretend it’s a poem or a bit of a short story.  What’s the effect of the omitted quotation marks?

Reward – The artist wrote whatever he darn well pleased in the way he intended.

Look, if you want to leave out the quotes, go for it.  It’s your work and you can do anything you like.

Reward – The prose ends up looking a little more like a “wall of text” and seems more stream-of-consciousness.

If a character is supposed to have disconnected thoughts or is trapped in an illogical situation, omitting the quotation marks can communicate some of that feeling to the reader.

Risk – Your reader may be alienated because your dialogue doesn’t look like dialogue.

As the great Lee K. Abbott says, it’s the writer’s job to do all of the work so the reader can have all of the fun.  In general, we don’t want our readers wondering what the heck we’re trying to say.  Instead of being confused about the literal fundamentals of the work, we want them to grapple with our big themes or to empathize with the plights of our characters.

Risk – It may be impossible to distinguish dialogue from narration. 

The end quotation serves an important purpose: it tells the reader when the speaker is done speaking.  Any prose outside of the quotation marks counts as narration and isn’t literally spoken aloud by a character.

Here’s my point.  What are the literal words spoken by the character who is talking to the narrator?  Without the quotation marks, all we have are educated guesses that are born out of meta-level thought that is disconnected to some extent from the song’s actual story.  So which is it?

How could she say to me…

  • “Love will find a way?” – Aw, poor narrator.  Either she’s challenging him or she’s blowing him off.  Sad.
  • “Love will find a way?  Gather ’round, all you clowns.” – Whoa, there are clowns around, too?  Did “she” invite them?  It seems a bit cold to interrupt a discussion that is meaningful to the narrator by inviting clowns in.
  • “Love will find a way?  Gather ’round, all you clowns.  Let me hear you say…” – What do you want the clowns to say?!?!?!
  • “Love will find a way?  Gather ’round, all you clowns.  Let me hear you say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.'” – Okay, now that’s just straight-up cruel.  This guy pours his heart out to a woman and she calls over a bunch of clowns and enjoins them to chant that he shouldn’t have said how he felt.

So what’s the diagnosis in the end?  I guess there isn’t one.  Asking writers not to play with words and how they appear on the page is a fool’s errand.  It seems to me as though leaving out the quotation marks is a tool in the writer’s toolbox; he or she must use it as judiciously as any other.

What do you think?  Leave a comment or discuss the issue on the Great Writers Steal Facebook page.

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