The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood (plus a rant about punctuation)

This was the first Margaret Attwood I ever read, and it’s the only one I tend to re-read. I find the society she envisages fascinating, and I love the way the story unfolds. I simultaneously enjoy and am frustrated by the open ending. However, I do find it a bit hard to believe that the society could undergo such a radical change in a relatively short period of time.

I have to admit, though, one of the things that annoys me about Attwood (and a number of other “serious” modern writers) is the attitude of “I can make up my own rules of punctuation”. This particularly applies to dialogue. What’s wrong with the generally accepted standards of opened and closed quote marks? I’m not a big fan of writing in the present tense, or idiosyncratic grammar, but I can see how these can have a real impact on how the story is being told, and the effect it has on the reader. But changing punctuation?

Some authors choose to replace quote marks with other dialogue signifiers: for example, in Everything Will Be All Right, Tessa Hadley puts a dash at the beginning of the paragraph, and immediately after (though not before) the “he said/she said” tag (if there is one). Attwood, however, dispenses with signifiers altogether – as in the following example:

I’ve learned to do without a lot of things. If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth. (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1996 Vintage edition, p. 74)

These authors may find quote marks aesthetically displeasing. However, standard punctuation, understood by readers, does actually make the reading process easier – particularly when it comes to separating the actual dialogue from the “he said/she said” tags. Of course, it’s not actually difficult to read these authors, but a higher level of concentration is required, and occasionally one needs to re-read a sentence after misinterpreting a tag as dialogue (or vice versa) the first time through. And personally, I’d prefer to be putting my cognitive processing power into dealing with the intricacies of plot, the subtleties of character or the beauties of language, rather than into coping with unfamiliar punctuation.

Maybe there is some subtle effect that is passing me by. But to be honest, what it actually feels like is that these authors are just looking for a gimmick that will set them apart from “ordinary” authors. I think Attwood’s writing is good enough to do this on its own, and I find that messing around with punctuation detracts from her book, rather than adds to it.

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