Wednesday 26 February 2014

The Artist Unleashed: WHY WORRY ABOUT DIALECT? by Jim Murdoch

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  1. I generally avoid nonstandard written English in my writing, even in dialogue, which is a shame, because I think giving someone an accent or otherwise customizing their speech patterns is a great way to develop character. However, I find that I really struggle to read books that are written that way, and I figure if I have a hard time with that, other people do, too. I try to stick to some of the better known and more easily comprehensible types of accents or dialects; i.e., common slang, dropped g's, etc. In some ways I think it's nice that the internet is helping to standardize the hundreds of dialects that comprise what we know as "English." In an international community, everyone gets a say in how language develops. Even the voices of those who speak lesser-known dialects may be heard, and their words and phrases assimilated into the languages of the peoples around the world.

  2. I'm reading 'The Help' by Kathryn Stockett which features characters with strong Southern accents. At first I found it difficult to read but I think it's worth the struggle, because the accent gives an identity to the characters. I don't think standard accents to make the reading experience easier, as it's is good to be challenged and for characters to be believable, both in behaviour and accent.

  3. I imagine most people are like you, Lori, and aim to suggest rather than state. Perhaps it’s a Scottish thing. The next book I have to review is the latest by Anne Donovan, an award-winning author who writes in dialect. She says, it provides "a more direct line to the heart, you get closer." There’s a nice long interview with her here. She starts talking about why she chose to write in dialect about eight minutes into the first clip and continues through all of the second. She makes a good point in Part 2 about writers’ voices, how it takes time to get into any writer’s voice and that some readers have appreciated the fact that they need to slow down at the start to get used to dialect writing. Katharine Usher’s investigation into attitudes to language and dialect which references her writing is also an informative read. She is a Scot but after spending years living in London now struggles with a Glaswegian accent.

    Spangle, I recently read Pic by Jack Kerouac which is written in a voice that is stereotypically black. Took me a while to get into his rhythm but it grows on you. To my mind it would’ve been plain wrong not to write the spoken word in an eye dialect. That’s the way Pic spoke. That’s what we should hear on the page. It does require a little extra effort from the reader but who said reading has to be easy?

    1. Had the accent of the characters been standard, I wouldn't have believed in them. I also think that a writer should not 'dumb down' language. Readers like to be challenged!

  4. Jim, I recently read a collection of short stories by Tony Black, a Scottish crime fiction writer, and 2 of the stories in that book were written completely in Scottish - not just the dialogue but the whole story. While I applauded him for doing it, I gave up trying to read it after a two pages. Why?

    Quite simply, it was hard work to read - and not in a pleasurable way. I agree with all the points you raise about WHY it is important for a writer to identify his/her character in a certain way - but, for me, the Scottish was just far too hard and, when it is all said and done, isn't reading supposed to be enjoyable?

    1. When I was a kid, Paul, I hated cabbage. Every time my mother tried to get me to eat the stuff there was a battle royal: tears, snot, the lot. Now I love the stuff. I don’t think it’s a luxury—it’s only cabbage for Christ’s sake—but I’m always pleased when I hear my wife’s bought one. Tastes change. I’m not sure when exactly mine did any more than I could tell you the day I stopped being a boy and realised I was a man. There’s too much to read for any of us to worry too much about authors we don’t like or don’t get. Just move onto the next thing; we’ll be dead soon enough. That said some things are an acquired taste. My mate told me that Guinness was one and so he took me to a wee pub in Troon and we sat by a blazing fire in a secluded room at the back where I forced down three pints of the stuff, went home—on the back of his motorcycle (another story entirely)—and was violently sick. Some years later I cautiously ordered a half pint with lunch and still hated the stuff. I’ve pretty much given up on Guinness. But at least I gave it a go. The same goes for opera. Apart from the odd aria—seriously, who doesn’t like ‘Nessun dorma’?—I can’t stand it. I do not get how people can sit in their boxes sipping wine shedding tears over it and this is from a guy who loves anything remotely classical from Gregorian chant to Sprechstimme. It’s not that I’ve not tried. I have. I hate to be beaten. I really do want to see what other people see but that wavelength seems to be closed off to me. So I do get that you might not have been able to get into Tony Black’s stories and all credit to you for giving the guy a go. But that’s one guy’s approach to dialect writing. I personally find Irvine Welsh hard work—I think he goes too far—but I enjoy McIlvanney.

      Work can be fun. Work can be satisfying. Personally I work to relax. I can’t bear sitting around relaxing. Just don’t get it. I certainly don’t read to relax. I think books whose only goal is to entertain have missed an opportunity. Someone asked Faulkner what to do if someone didn’t understand his books after reading them two or three times. His answer was: Read them a fourth. I’ve started using a similar standard when it comes to judging books: Will I get anything out of the book if I read it a second time? Even if I don’t have the time to do that I like that I can. The first time you read a text in dialect it’s just a matter of getting through the text. The next time you might stand a chance of reading the thing. As Sontag said (and she’s not the only one although I am twisting her words slightly out of context), “No book is worth reading that isn't worth re-reading.”

      I don’t have much music in my house that you could classify as easy listening. I don’t have much easy reading either. The reason I have any is because you don’t know until you read something what it’s going to be like so some rubbish has slipped through. My advice to you is to try something else in… I dunno… ten years say. And not Tony Black. Me, maybe. Or maybe Tony Black. You’ll be a different person by then and perhaps you’ll connect with him.


“I'm using my art to comment on what I see. You don't have to agree with it.” ~John Mellencamp

“Allowing an unimportant mistake to pass without comment is a wonderful social grace” ~Judith S. Marin

“I don't ever try to make a serious social comment.” ~Paul McCartney

“I'd make a comment at a meeting and nobody would even acknowledge me. Then some man would say the same thing and they'd all nod.” ~Charlotte Bunch

“Probably what my comment meant was that I don't care about the circumstances if I can tell the truth.” ~Sally Kirkland

“We're not going to pay attention to the silliness and the petty comments. And quite frankly, women have joined me in this effort, and so it's not about appearances. It's about effectiveness.” ~Katherine Harris