Sunday, September 23, 2012

Thur Aiyes Were Watchin’ Gawd – Dialect Writing: Impressive or Irritating?

Currently Reading: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

First, I feel the need to apologize for my long blog absence. I’m not sure how many people actually care or follow this or whatever, but I’m still sorry. If only because I never intended to have such a long break or to start a blog without writing in it for months. My main excuse involves an insane couple of months! Ordinarily, I would say this in a hyperbolic fashion, but this time, I really mean it. July, August, and September included several family hospital visits, a car accident (and post accident-accident) that caused a massive concussion – making both reading and writing rather impossible – and, happily, landing my dream job at the Folger Shakespeare Library. In all that craziness, my blog sort of got lost.

Also, a side note: I never actually finished An Invisible Man. I have every intention of finishing it, but it turns out that it was a fairly miserable metro book… or perhaps I’ve just lost my ability to read on the metro due to the crazy early hours I’ve been riding it since Jane Eyre is proving challenging as well.

Anyways, I’m back! And given my unanticipated blog sabbatical, I’m rather behind in blogging about the books I’ve read. After the fabulously funny and clever Hitchhiker’s Guide, I took on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Honestly, this is one of those novels that I really wish I had read in a class because I felt I needed guidance. I’ve heard so many good reviews of this novel and I even found it in the summer reading section of the bookstore so clearly it’s widely agreed that it’s a book worth forcing mostly uninterested high school students to read during their breaks. Yet, the whole time I read this book, I found myself stumped as to why that was the popular opinion.

I believe the root of this confusion comes from a literary issue I’ve had for some time:

I don’t understand the concept of using dialect writing.

From my first encounter with the troubling writing style in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dialect writing has baffled me. As a bit of a stickler for grammar, I find sentences like, “Lawd a’mussy! Mist’ Starks, you ain’t gointuh gimme dat lil tee-ninchy piece fuh me and all mah chillun, is yuh? Lawd, we’se so hungry” (pg. 74) somewhat horrifying. 

Why do authors choose to write grammatically incorrect sentences with misspelled words? Seriously? Every word has to be misspelled? Every word? I always thought that a solid use of grammar and spelling were the cardinal signs of whether or not someone was a good writer...

It’s especially frustrating to find sentences like this following or preceding gorgeously written passages like this one:

“She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.” Pg. 10-11

Gorgeous! Just beautiful imagery! Rich symbolism and a smooth way of turning a phrase! This is the kind of writing I read and want to cry because I know I will never manage to capture such an illusive, complicated feeling so beautifully. So, for me, having this drool-worthy passage abruptly broken by the following piece of dialogue:

“Janie, youse uh ‘oman, now, so – ” (pg. 12)

… is tear provoking in a different way. It’s just so jarring. And it happened again and again throughout the whole novel.

To make matters worse, I found that I would FINALLY get adjusted to the dialogue, which would often go on for pages and pages, and then Hurston would launch into another lovely narrative passage. Without fail, I would lose the knack for reading the dialogue and have to start readjusting all over again. It’s like switching in and out of different languages and the second language is one you haven’t studied in years so you really have to focus when translating.

I want to understand dialect writing, I really do! As an anthropology major, I understand that dialect is closely tied to one’s culture and thus becomes part of one’s identity. So I guess I understand that it’s admirable for authors to make the effort to write true-to-life dialogue. But it doesn't seem like quality writing to me. Does this mean I’m just limited because it’s not my language or culture so I feel no connection to it? Or is it possible that maybe I wouldn’t be so bothered if it weren’t so thorough? Maybe if the syntax was accurate to the dialect, but the spelling wasn’t so constantly misspelled I wouldn’t be as bothered?

Maybe I just need more practice with this foreign language.

What do you think? Do you like dialect writing? Do you find it irritating?