THE FOUL? Should We stick to convention?
Updated: Oct 7
Any fool can know. The point is to understand. — Einstein
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. — Socrates
If watching 'House' has taught me anything, it's that you should always be on the lookout for blood in your stool. — Alex Ganon
Warning: This post is a hearty meal.
I'm going to start this post talking about a western novel: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
Why am I talking about a western novel for our fantasy/sci-fi/horror blog? This book could easily be classified as a horror, and it is by many people. I found it nearly fantasy the way it all seemed like a lucid nightmare.
At first, I thought this book was a series of graphic events with the purpose of making the reader sick to their stomach, but boy, was I wrong (...and right. I was still sick to my stomach)
There is a LOT I can say about Blood Meridian (Amazon affiliate link) regarding this series, and I touch on it briefly in the latest Fair post here. But for this one, I want to focus on something I didn't like about it. Actually, I'm not sure I didn't like it. It worked for what it was, and I see what McCarthy was doing. It worked in his favour...I think.
But it took me for a loop at first and made the book an asshole to read until I got used to it.
So, what IS this thing I speak of?
Drumroll.....No quotation marks!!
None. Thankfully, there were still dialogue tags every once in a while to let you know someone was speaking at all, sometimes part way through the conversation that you didn't notice was happening.
It was rough. I eventually stopped caring to figure it out. Reflecting on it now, I think that was maybe McCarthy's intention. Adding to the nightmarish, disjointed feel of the whole thing. Like it didn't matter who was talking. Hell, he didn't even give the main character a name (just referring to him as "the Kid").
But struggling through this book got me thinking about something else that has been on my mind quite a bit lately: that is, convention.
How important is following standardized writing conventions anyway?
Us writers are also artists, after all. If anyone can push the boundaries of the expected or acceptable, it should be us.
But maybe you don't subscribe to the idea of Author as Artist. Perhaps you think of yourself more as a service provider. It's your job to write what readers want in a way they expect and consistently give it to them over and over like any other product producer?
Maybe you are somewhere in between and consider yourself a craftsman and an architect tasked with creating something beautiful and unique but solid and built on tested foundational principles.
Most of us probably think somewhere along the lines of the latter. Norms are there for a reason, aren't they? Readers expect certain conventions when they read (like me, expecting quotation marks around dialogue). They create clarity and ease.
Unlike in many Foul posts, I'm not going to make an argument here one way or another. Mostly because I don't know which side of the argument I land on. Today is more of a question for all of you. And I think it is a question of why we write in the first place.
To make money? You better learn the conventions of your genre and stick to them.
To make art? Then who gives a shit? Throw it all out the window.
Somewhere in between? Figure out what you're comfortable with, and decide when you have gone too far. Just maybe, don't be surprised if some readers feel some sorta way about it.
Perhaps the issue I had with Blood Meridian was that it was too much too fast (although in the end, I was on board, so perhaps not), but maybe when pushing boundaries, writers need to inch the reader into it to not shock the system....like boiling frogs. It is also a matter of your particular goals for your specific book or scene.
Blood Meridian was written almost entirely to convey a specific tone and pace; everything not contributing to that be damned, including punctuation.
If you were writing a book that needed clarity to be understood because your goal is to move the plot, convention might be your friend.
If editing has taught me anything, it's that there are NO RULES when it comes to writing.
Surprising, perhaps for an editor to say, but it is true. Sure, there are style guides which will keep your writing consistent, but there are by no means definite universal rules for writing (other than getting something on the page!) It is up to writers to make these decisions for themselves—whatever they feel their writing warrants.
Now we enter the history lesson portion of this post. Do you know where your precious grammar and punctuation rules come from? Did you know in the not-so-distant past, there really weren't any?
I mention this not only because the English etymology and history fascinate me but because I think it's an essential perspective on language that modern writers are missing. Language is a tool used for self-expression at its core. And what writers like Cormac McCarthy can teach us is that while rules are great for creating clarity, they leave little room for art.
Every rule can be broken. We put too much emphasis on being grammatically perfect, this convention and that. And worse, we look down our noses at anyone who would dare break such rules as if they are time-honoured traditions. But in fact, they are quite a new phenomenon.
Tudor England and the Grandpappy of Modern English, Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is credited with inventing or introducing around 1700 words into the English language. And too many for me to bother counting idioms and phrases like "As luck would have it," waiting with "Bated breath," or speaking of something as the "Be-all end-all."
Granted, we can assume that many of these words or phrases were probably already used in the spoken language, and Shakespeare's works are only the first written down instances. On the other hand, we also know that Shakespeare had a knack for creating words by adding suffixes or prefixes to existing terms or just plain inventing words that still would have made sense to contemporary audiences.
Something like how calling someone a "Karen" nowadays makes complete sense to a modern internet-savvy audience, needing almost no formal explanation for the term. The first time I heard Karen used in its current context, I went, "yup. That makes sense."
I have an immediate image in my head of "Karens" I've known (not Karens but … "KARENS"), and even almost felt a sense of relief for being able to finally put a word to something that I couldn't really explain before but felt. (Ok, I could explain it but not to polite company.)
That might just be my feelings. Who knows, maybe all of you out there needed a full definition of Karen before being able to understand it, but I doubt that.
Shakespeare was also great at giving terms to things that his audience felt/understood almost intuitively, which is why he was able to invent words successfully. In my never humble opinion.
The fantastic thing is that we still use the words and phrases attributed to Shakespeare even today; frankly, the English Language would not be the same without him. He was a genius by every definition of the word, and his legacy is unlike any other.
I'm sure Shakespeare was hardly the first or last to use language liberally. But I bring him up as an example because he is a remnant of a time before Style Guides, a time before editors and modern publishing houses and English grammar, punctuation and other language standards we have today.
The Standardization of English.
Interestingly, around the time Shakespeare was living large, experimenting with the English language, movements and governments were beginning to standardize English into accepted norms.
These norms were based on the English used by the high society of London and the East Midlands. But of course, there was never one decided standard that ever became universally used. And today, we have British English, American English, Australian English, South African English, Irish English, Canadian English, Scottish English, New Zealand English, and Caribbean English, just to name the ones I have the energy to name.
And inside those standards, we have the ever holy style manuals that keep grammar and punctuation and word usage consistent for writers...more or less. We have style manuals for general writing, legal writing, academic, journalistic, and so much more.
There are different style manuals within those categories for each English standard and country. That is broken down even more with house styles inside individual publishing houses and organizations.
It is no wonder things can get a little confusing for the average writer about what is right and wrong. What is a rule, and what is merely a suggestion.
It's almost funny to me that considering this, people still have the gall to email me and tell me that this is wrong, this is misused, you cannot have a capital after a colon, you can't spell color with a 'u'.... :/
And even if they are correct for one writing style, they are often not valid for the standard we are using. For instance, Canadian English, the Chicago Manual of Style, and our own house style that dictates specific usage concerns in our books...
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers. — (2 Henry VI, 4.2.59), Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade.
Actually, the first thing we do is kill all the grammarians. As an editor by trade, perhaps I should shut my mouth and thank the universe that authors are still convinced that they need us...jk they do.
I will never advocate the abolishment of standardization and style manuals. Still, I also think that we are doing writers a great disservice by convincing them that they are hacks if they do not have every comma in the technically exact spot.
....If they use "however" in the middle of the sentence rather than the beginning or the beginning rather than the end, they are the devil.
...If they capitalize the wrong word...
And we have been increasingly tyrannical in our views of grammar and usage. I bet if you were to ask a vast sample of western English fiction writers how important being technically accurate (according to the accepted style manuals) is to their published works, they would all say "pretty damn."