Monday, August 22, 2011

Too much dialogue

When I wrote, or did not write, about Middlemarch last month, I offhandedly complained that the novel had too much dialogue.  I am in an explainin’ kind of mood, so I will spend some time baring my prejudices.  Or – what is a more positive way to say that? – explicating my critical principles.  Better stick with prejudices.

Many readers rejoice to come across an unexpected patch of dialogue in a complex novel, like hikers in a dense forest emerging into a meadow full of wildflowers, butterflies, and a clearly marked trail.  Look at all of that white space!  The pages suddenly turn so quickly, as if the ink of the extra words had actually been weighing down the page.  I am not above this feeling, but the vagaries of my mental state while reclining with a book is about as far from a critical principle as I can get.  Reading Middlemarch, or any great book, writing about it, I want to be able to push back as hard as I can.  The novel can handle the pressure.

The problem with certain passages of dialogue in Middlemarch is not that they are bad, or even mediocre, or even merely good.  The dialogue is consistently quite good.  The voices of the characters are distinguishable, the conversations further both the action and themes of the novel, and the dross of ordinary conversation has been artfully trimmed.

My prejudice is not that an author should not solve the problems of her novel with dialogue, but rather that good, even very good dialogue, is a common virtue of fiction writers.  Not universal, but easy to find.  Writers with a fifth of the talent of Eliot write dialogue of similar quality all the time.  Dialogue is a problem that most professional writers solve quickly.  Imagery and structure take longer, or are always problems.  Genuine human insight is rare; genuine ideas almost endangered.  Valuing what is unique, or at least rare, I grow restless when a writer of Eliot’s power solves the problems of her novels with a device or a passage that I can find all over the place.  “Good” is not a high enough standard.

I do not know why I keep talking about Middlemarch, since it is Anthony Trollope’s lesser Framley Parsonage (1860-1) that I have in front of me.  A sample of Trollope, from what is, I have read, the greatest novel in the English language:

‘Do you remember that day, Lucy?’ he said again.

‘Yes, I remember it,’ she said.

‘Why did you say it was impossible?’

‘Did I say impossible?’  She knew that she had said so.  (Ch. 48)

And then another page or so in this vein.  In context, we are a few pages from the end of the novel, and are likely racing forward in order to finish the book, not putting too much pressure on any particular word or sentence or phrase, so this ordinarily good dialogue writing, which lets us eavesdrop on the central romantic couple, for whom we presumably, at this point, have significant sympathy and interest, works just how it ought to work.  Trollope has to do something to let the lovebirds spend some time together under our invisible gaze, and his standard solution (discuss and resolve an earlier courtship difficulty) is effective.  It is just not as artful or surprising as the non-standard solution, whatever that might be.

All of this is just a backwards preface to some further writing I want to do about Framley Parsonage.  The single most surprising chapter, the one that impressed me the most, is almost entirely in dialogue.

I make strong claims only in order to prove myself wrong.


  1. I wonder how true it is that good dialogue is common. So often dialogue disappoints. Much as I enjoy Trollope, and fluent as much of his dialogue is, does he really distinguish his characters strongly by the way the speak? (Well, there's Archdeacon Grantly with his trademark "Good Heavens!" but that's a trick, not a virtue. And it makes me smile every time.) In Middlemarch the (main) characters have almost entirely distinctive ways of speaking, so that you can tell who they are by the metaphors or vocabulary or punctuation they use. That doesn't necessarily make it "good" dialogue, I suppose, but I think it is artful to a degree that is rarer than all that.

    But you know which way my prejudices lie!

  2. Great points.

    1) What arbitrary cutoff am I making when I say that passable-to-good dialogue is "common"? I shudder to think about the horrors I might be omitting. But: I am considering TV and movie writing - a huge amount of what writers write these days is dialogue. I think they mostly know how to write competent, "realistic" dialogue. Boy, that's a low standard.

    2) Trollope's dialogue characterization was pretty strong in Framley Parsonage - Miss Dunstable or Rev. Crawley, for example, are bell-clear - but where I have more doubts - just as you say - is how this works across novels. Are his romantic young gentlemen or heroines, for example, particularly distinguishable in their speech? Probably not, although Lucy Robarts in FP is the clear exception I want to write about.

    3) I should rummage through Middlemarch and find the examples I vaguely have in mind, where the individuality of the dialogue thins out, and a more Modernist compression would have done a good turn. I certainly don't mean all or most of Eliot's dialogue writing!

    And then Middlemarch has those fascinating "choral" sections, which are largely dialogue, and might not look like much if I pulled them out by themselves, but shape the novel in all sorts of interesting ways.

  3. Middlemarch, Book V, Ch. 43, starting at "Thank you very much for allowing me to interrupt you" and ending with "I am very much obliged to you" is a good example of the kind of passage that I feel would be improved by compression.

    Charming Ch. 86 has the same function and some of the same problems as Trollope's last chapter, and not because Mary's voice is not distinctive.

  4. I agree with Rohan that good dialogue is not as easy to find as you've suggested, and, to change tack a little, it's a problem I often find in translated work (take a bow Michael Emmerich, translator of Banana Yoshimoto). Of course, then you're not quite sure whose fault it actually is...

  5. Who are the sinners here? I clearly don't know. Is the dialogue of the typical Edgar-nominated mystery really that bad? I know we could go lower than that, but Edgar-nominated mysteries are common, not rare.

    The dialogue in Banana Yoshimoto novels is bad? Not mannered, but incompetent? I haven't read her.

    How I Met Your Mother has good dialogue. House has good dialogue. We are a long, long ways from George Eliot here, on the talent scale.

    I will concede immediately that I am reading the wrong - by which I mean right - books in translation. I don't read many translated books with much dialogue. Modernists were, roughly speaking, suspicious of dialogue, of these dead patches in a novel, and worked to suppress and compress them. And the older books I read are well-filtered by time, so the dialogue is only as bad as Trollope, meaning at least ordinarily good.

  6. Erle Stanley Gardner said he was able to write so many Perry Mason novels because it's easy to dictate dialogue. That, I suppose, is dialogue at its laziest. I'm surprised at how many of my favorite novelists didn't use that much -- not only 20th century (Roussel, Perec, Beckett), but 18th (Defoe, Swift). There's more to life than conversation!

  7. That's my sense, Doug, that competent if facile dialogue is a relatively easy skill to pick up. One wonders what excuse the bad dialogue writers have, why they cannot just follow their own ear and speech.

    I agree, too, that there was a real Modernist turn against scenes of conversation and character development via dialogue, probably for many reasons. The exploration of first person narration, for example, or of interior monologues, or of the Flaubertian idea that the main work of the novel is visual. A lot of the dialogues they do use are parodies - political talk, work talk, party chatter. Some of that exploration was a return to those earlier examples, like Defoe's brilliantly imagined narrators.

  8. I have a very similar less-than-love of dialogue. But it does surprise me a bit that you see good dialogue as relatively common. More common than good something-else, I can grant. But boy, I've been watching a lot of Star Trek lately (The Next Generation and Voyager), and I cannot believe how bad a lot of the writing is. I feel like with TV shows you often don't notice how unnatural it can seem--you're distracted, I mean, who's really listening to what Riker has to say? But then you do, and I find myself saying to Lloyd at least once/episode, "That just made no sense."

    I guess the upshot is, there's a lot of bad writing around, and some of it is bad dialogue, but good dialogue still doesn't really get me going because you're right, it still doesn't seem that special.

    Then again, some TV shows are known for their good dialogue. The West Wing, for example. And it holds up--that is some really good dialogue. I think this kind of really-good is harder to do in a book, what with not having the voices and the acting and all to help out, because that's a big part of it.

    Okay now I'm just rambling. I was going to say something about Philip Marlowe but I obviously don't know what yet.

  9. More common than other elements of good writing, that's all I really mean. Relatively common. So I am not going to praise a genius for writing good dialogue. Non-geniuses write good dialogue.

    Great dialogue - now that's rare! And the difference is obviously so vague and subjective that I concede the argument to anyone who wants to challenge it.

  10. "I grow restless when a writer of Eliot’s power solves the problems of her novels with a device or a passage that I can find all over the place."

    What's the central problem of Middlemarch that Eliot's trying to solve?


  11. The dialogue passages are not trying to solve central problems. The scale is much smaller - what problem is the scene supposed to solve? What problem is the sentence supposed to solve?

    John Crowley, in his introduction to In Hazard mentions an anecdote about Virginia Woolf in which she apologetically confesses here exhaustion to her guests - she had spent the entire morning getting her characters from the drawing room to the dining room.

    I do not have the book in front of me, so my memory could be off. But those are the kinds of problems I am talking about. Those are almost always the kind I talk about.

  12. Yes, I was thinking of monologue and description o- but there's also fiction as chronicle, based in narrative and exposition, where dialogue is less important. That was probably a more popular technique in earlier fiction, but is certainly one way to tell a story.

    There are some writers who do seem particularly enamored with conversation in itself: Flann O'Brien, Gertrude Stein, or, earlier, Diderot, for example. I suspect that's because they were not only writers, but people who just loved to talk.

  13. That "o" is a typo, not some eccentric emoticon; please overlook it...

  14. "It's reported that Virginia Woolf, greeting luncheon guests, told them she was exhausted, having spent the whole morning moving her characters from the drawing room into the dining room."

    I must thank you for telling me where to find that--I was just paraphrasing it the other day myself, in "real life," and couldn't remember who the writer in question was (let alone where I'd read it).

  15. Is that Crowley's line? Was I really that close? All right!

    Yeah, some writers are just chatty, and some have such original spoken voices - Wilde, O'Brien, etc. - that one hardly begrudges their dialogue. Then again, the conversation of Diderot and Stein was hardly ordinary.

    And there are rare birds like Henry Green, who was a superb writer of conversation or speech. He's kind of a mystery to me.