Monday, 31 January 2011


Plaintive email from a blog follower the other day. (The bit she quotes from me is from a post I did about dialogue). She says:

Please help me get my head around this hugely difficult problem. I’m copying your example of awful dialogue below:

“Gosh, Sally, I hardly recognized you. You used to have dark hair with a fringe and now it’s a blonde bob. Did I tell you I recently saw Samantha, your younger daughter, the one who went round Australia? Lovely girl. She’s married now, of course, and they have a baby on the way.” Bleurgh.

Okay, fair enough. However, I’m now studying a creative writing unit with Oxford Uni and we have been asked to read James Joyce’s The Dead. I couldn’t believe how dreadful it was. There were great tracts of dialogue, 95% of which was pointless and frustrating to the point of me wanting to murder the author/lecturer etc!

As a side issue, not helped by the dialogue issue, just when there was a hint that something interesting might happen, it didn’t. Right, so personal preference for literature and what constitutes a good read aside, how did this story get published! The story seems to contain all your dialogue no-nos. I’m so confused.
 Well, two things:
  1. I can't stand James Joyce. Can't read it.  find it twaddle. That's my personal opinion. Luckily, I don't have to write an essay on it.
  2. However, I don't think Joyce makes the dialogue error that I was highlighting above.
Let me explain the dialogue error that I was talking about. It wasn't that it was boring and trite - both of which things it was. The point was that the author was using false dialogue to fill in bits of back-plot. False in the sense that there's no way on earth that character would have said those things. Think about it. She would not say to Sally, "Samantha, your younger daughter," because Sally knows fine that her own daughter is called Samantha and went to Australia. No, this is the author telling us those facts and it's Just Not OK.


Joyce on the other hand...

Luckily, I've run far, far away and am not here to deal with the flak from all the Joyce fans amongst you. Come on, then, DEFEND HIM! (Dan, surely, you can leap to his defence?)

I'm off!


catdownunder said...

I do not know if I can defend Joyce but I can remember my father (who was also my teacher) reading a passage from Ulysses to us when I was in year six of the primary school. (Help me out here Dan - I have memories of a stream of consciousness and washerwomen!) What most of the children in the little country school got out of it I do not know. My father only read a very short piece and then tried to get us to write something similar. The lesson has stuck with me. I do not know whether that says more about Joyce or more about my father's ability to teach.
What I do know is that, like Patrick White, I cannot read Joyce. I suspect you have to be Irish to truly understand him.

Dan Holloway said...

Can I? Well, I'm sure I *can* but I'm not sure I have any inclination to *waves hands to summon Marc, who may be better disposed*

I studied Dubliners (I believe The Dead is the last piece in the collection) for A-level. It was one of the set texts for 20th Century Literature. Sadly for Joyce, the other texts I did on the paper were T S Eliot's collected poems (life changing); Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (everything changing); and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (best play since Euripides hung up his boots), so Joyce's rather, er, turgid short stories didn't stand a chance by comparison.

I *can* see Joyce's importance (though Dubliners doesn't really illustrate it - it just happens to be the only work short enough to be convenient for study purposes) - Modernism is the last great artistic movement, and we are still playing catch-up with its implications today. Just because Joyce is "the man", though, is no excuse to inflict his writing on people when To The Lighthouse is available.

On the dialogue question, I'm struggling a little. One of the main problems writers have is not differentiating what their characters say from what their narrators say - so you get things said for the reader's benefit that characters just wouldn't say.

*But* of course many of the great masters of dialogue fail to distinguish their characters' speech from the general narration. And usually they are Modernists. I refuse to go back to Joyce for examples, so I'll make do with Nobel Laureate and the best writer of dialogue I've read, Elfriede Jelinek. All her charcaters souond the same, and all of them sound like her narrators. But the dialogue in these cases forms part of the stream of consciousness - by and large it is reported, and the effect of this is that every conversation is filtered through her narrator, so we know we are getting it in edited form - it adds to the claustrophobia of the writing.

I'd say the difference is that non-naturalistic dialogue when carried superbly is consciously done, is highly stylised, is consistent, and adds to the story (it's done for a reason that has to do with the overall structure). When dialogue just "sounds wrong" it tends to be done unconsciously, be just like the author's normal writing (not stylised), inconsistent, and for no discernable purpose.


Dan Holloway said...

I use stream of conscious dialogue quite a lot, and I've been digging around to find something that's, er, *clean* enough for your blog to illustrate, I hope, what I *think* is its correct use - when you want to say what people say but without leaving the voice of the narration, because you need to keep firmly "inside" the story (which leads to another point about it, that it's often reported rather than just presented - so the tags "he said" etc. function not to illustrate who said what but rather like those conversations you hear on the bus "she said she'd never snog him and he said why not and she said not until he got rid of the gum and he was like, but I gotta have gum"

The following is from the short story "Solid", and the dialogue is hardly naturalistic, and it's not really separated from the surrounding narration - the purpose being to maintain a sense of claustrophobia:

I answer the phone. It’s Sean and he’s crying and making noises like he’s blowing bubbles and he’s trying to say stuff that just sounds like vowels, so I say where are you, man? and he’s gasping and wailing and gasping again but I think I hear him say square. Richardson Square used to be grass and trees and swings that had some of their original paint but now it’s just grey s**t of one kind or another piled on other grey s**t, and Sean’s there, just sitting, and it’s impossible to miss him in his red sneakers and yellow top. His head’s bowed and he doesn’t move when I approach and at first I think he might be dead but I figure if he’s dead in Richardson someone would’ve taken his sneakers by now so I guess he’s just in his own bit of time that’s going more slow than everything around him.

I say whassup, man, and he doesn’t look up, but his body shakes, once, and there’s a sound from somewhere, S’Bobbi. I say, Bobbi? and then there’s nothing and we sit so long if anyone saw us they’d just see a film of that grey s**t by now.

Mo’f***er’s dead, he says at last. I say, Bobbi’s dead?

He says I’m so scared, don’t leave me man, and I say, it’s OK man we’re solid, and we sit for so long and still the sun won’t come up and my eyes are sticky and my throat’s dry and I think maybe we’re gonna spend our lives in Richardson wrapped in some grey s**t cocoon.

DOT said...

I am no expert on Joyce but would suggest it is not so much the detail of one individual work but the whole that differentiates him. He is, of course, a major influence on Modernism, a break from the past where the author imagined himself in total control of all his characters to the extent he could see inside heads and read their thoughts. Post-Freud, post WWI, writers began to see it was practically impossible to read their own thoughts. So dialogue is fractured, events fragmented; the totality is open to individual readings.

If I were to write an essay it is these issues I would examine, particularly in light of a new book, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris, to see to what extent Joyce achieved his ends.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank you, Dan. That was a stunning example of one kind of literary dialogue. It was, as some might say, awesome. Clever. Stylish. A writer who knows exactly what he's doing. However, as much as we might want it, most of us will never ever attain that level of artistry--assuming we might ever wish to. Clever though it is, I don't want to write like that. It's not my style.It wouldn't suit the kind of writing I do.

And isn't that the point of this whole discussion Nicola has opened up? James Joyce was a particular type of writer writing at one particular place and time in the development of literary fiction. When I first picked up 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' to study for Eng Lit A level in 1969, I couldn't understand a word of it and would have easily called it twaddle. But I had an exceptional teacher who showed me HOW to read it, where it fitted in history and geography, and in the end I thought it was stunning, both poetically and politically. Sometimes we have to teach ourselves how to appreciate certain books. Having said that, I couldn't get on with 'Ulysses'--probably because I needed help and patience to get to grips with it. But then there is the other argument that would ask why literature needs work and study to be appreciated. (Incidentally I read and still love 'Dubliners' without any help.)

It's horses for courses. There are different ways of writing full stop. Some appeal. Some don't. Fasions and tastes change. But that (she dares to rap Ms Morgan over the knuckles) doesn't make it twaddle. Twaddle cannot be analysed. It's a matter of opinion. So, no, I couldn't get on with 'Ulysses'. But that doesn't make it twaddle.

All this is a long way from the original point- effective dialogue. And in all things, it all depends on what a writer wants to do, the style and the genre of the book. The bad example Nicola gives us is bad for many reasons other than the one she mentions. It's unnatural. It's stiff. It's pedestrian. It's boring. It does nothing. Dialogue in fiction must depend on the type of fiction one is writing. But never forget that dialogue in fiction does not have the same purpose as 'real' dialogue. It is an artifice made to sound natural within its context.

Alan said...

I've always understood that written dialogue hardly ever appears realistic to anyone who thinks about what actual conversations sound like. Fiction smoothes out all the messiness and translates the speech into something essentially contrived. In Nicola's example it's possible the writer was trying to convey the essence of a character.

Mary Hoffman said...

Well, well. I'm a HUGE fan of James Joyce but would not dream of defending him. He doesn't need me. Ulysses is one of my Desert Island books.

And one thing we all need to learn is the difference between "I don't like this" and "This is no good." And indeed "I like this" and "this is a good book."

That's what the study of literature is all about.But that is not what this blog is about. I would say to all writers and especially those not yet published, "choose models with whom you are in sympathy" and also "forget rules."

(Except those 2 of course!)

Dan Holloway said...

Cripes, yes, Sally, I wasn't suggesting for a moment that everyone should write stream of consciousness dialogue (It rarely works over anything like a sustained period anyway - just too sickly rich. Jelinek only gets away with it because she has so little). I was trying to say (I think) that dialogue that doesn't sound right for the character can nonetheless sometimes be OK (not in the example Nicola gives - as you say there are many reasons that doesn't work), but usually this is because it conveys the narrator's gloss on the conversation.

Nicola Morgan said...

Mary, you're quite right - it's not what this blog is about! And i did stress that it was my personal opinion - I just can't get on with Joyce. THEN I remembered (hits forehead) about Portrait of the Artist. Which I did like (though can't remember enough to say why.)

Anyway, I threw the Joyce thing in as a silly provocation but as many have pointed out my point wasn't about Joyce but about the dialogue example I'd given in a previous post and I just wanted to clear up what I meant.

It was a very small and discrete point, not about any other aspects of dialogue (including stream of consc writing). I just wanted quickly to explain to the reader who emailed me what i'd meant.

My Joyce opinions are irrelevant, brought on by the original commenter / emailer.

David John Griffin said...

Dialogue, Joyce and Clarity: I went to college with them; or was it the firm of solicitors I used once? ;-)

Interesting and pertinent dialogue is what's wanted, so true. I haven't read any Joyce for many years. As for clarity, this has become a major keyword for me to try to apply to my writing; so important, I agree.


Carolb said...

I too had to read 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' and like Sally Z had a good teacher for it. At times Joyce's dialogue is frustrating and in other moments enjoyable.
Writers seem to have got away with a lot in those days...

Ebony McKenna. said...

I've never read Joyce and it probably shows :-D

adele said...

I'm with Nicola on James Joyce rather than with Mary Hoffman, I fear but Nicola's dialogue point is highlighting something slightly different, I reckon. It's what my daughter calls "Bean canning factory" which is common in soaps on know, conveying factual info about a character by having another character fill in their biography. As in: "Oh, you remember Zelda. She used to work in the bean canning factory till her husband got made redundant and then they all had to move to ...etc etc."
Actually, having said all that about Joyce, Dubliners is the one book I did manage to read and as I recall, I loved THE DEAD. Must try it again.

Frances Garrood said...

Could it be that (some of) Joyce is a bit like the emperor's new clothes? And your blog-follower won't need to murder him as I believe he's already beaten him/her to it.