Monday, April 07, 2008

Not So Standard English

Spending a week with my Brooklynite family and reading Richard Marinick and June Hampson's latest novels has left me thinking a lot about dialect. Anyone who has heard Brooklyn Jews talk knows that there’s not only a specific accent, but specific lingo and sentence structure as well. The subject comes at the end of the sentence, such as, “A saint is what he is!” or “So beautiful, her face!” Of course, if the speaker was from an older generation, they would say “A mentsh is what he is!” or “Sheyn punim!” All week, I was immersed in this dialect to the point where I began inserting bits of Yiddish into my sentences and shaking my hand as I spoke.

I’m currently reading June Hampson’s Damaged Goods, a thriller set in 1960’s Britain, and the dialect the characters use is far different from what I’m used to. My brain has had to translate the various British sayings and reread the words phonetically spelled out to convey the English accent. It brings authenticity and easily pulls the reader into the world of the novel, but at times, my need to translate interrupts the flow of the storytelling.

So when is it too much? When accents and dialects are true to the setting it can add an interesting facet to a story. But when does it become too overbearing? When does the need to translate and think about certain words take away from the suspense and flow of the storytelling?

When I was writing Thou Shall Not, I was constantly questioning when to insert the Yiddish or Hebrew I knew the characters would use and when to hold back and give the English translation. Fortunately, I live with a shikse who went through the manuscript and told me which words she couldn’t translate through the context of the sentence, but for most writers, it’s a judgment call. In the case of Hampson’s novel, I think she could have held back some of the phonetic spelling and left it up to the reader to hear the characters’ accents, but I am still able to follow the story. In the case of Marinick, I found the dialect too complicated to follow and I ended up putting the novel down. It was too hard to get into the story or be drawn to the characters when I had to read each paragraph twice and translate it in my head. Authors like Dennis Lehane and Russell James know how to strike a balance between dialect and standard English, knowing that it is sometimes necessary to hold back slang for the sake of readability.

A good trick I’ve learned is to read things aloud. If your tongue trips on words or stumbles through certain paragraphs, you should revise. I also sometimes like to write two different versions of the sentence. If you take away the slang or the accents, is anything lost? What do you gain by including vernacular? Is one sentence clearer than the other? Easier to read?

Though there are plenty of books I’ve enjoyed with highly stylized writing or that were heavy on slang, they tend to be exceptions to the rule. Authors such as Irvine Welsh and Zora Neale Hurston have made careers on writing in dialect, but their novels are far from easy reads.

I’d love for others to weigh in on this. Is dialect a turn off or turn on? Should authors only worry about staying true to their characters or should they hold back for the sake of readability? And lastly, is writing in dialect the same as creating a series character? Are you branding your writing as highly stylized or heavy on slang?

1 comment:

Quinn said...

It's interesting you mention Zora Neale Hurston, because the dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God was a huge turn-off for me. I think the problem is that I give characters accents or dialects as I think appropriate when I picture written scenes in my head, and she tries to do that for the reader; for me, this amplified the image in my mind into a cartoonish caricature, and I stopped taking the story seriously. I wonder if other people have that reaction.

In my own novels, I've struggled a bit with dialect, since the story is set in a fantastic version of more-or-less medieval Europe. I suspect that unabridged medieval English would be nearly incomprehensible to a modern reader (even if I wanted to do the research to portray it accurately), so instead I just try to make it seem medieval, which can be surprisingly tough. I have to remember not to let characters say "okay," for example, since that phrase came about in the U.S. in the 1800s. But I don't want it to go too far, into "thee" and "thou" territory, because then it sounds alien and harder to relate to. I'm basically just trying not to break the suspension of disbelief.