Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Quote or Not to Quote--Invented Dialogue!

This July, we are all re-posting one of our favorite old posts. This post is something I continue to feel strongly about, and the comments I received the first time around were only from those who agree with me. This time, I hope to hear from both pro and con folks to further debate the issue:

(Originally posted April 2008)

My goal this morning is to investigate what others think about one of my nonfiction pet peeves and hear your thoughts on the matter. This past weekend I co-taught a two-part workshop called Noteworthy Nonfiction with Charlesbridge editor Yolanda LeRoy. One of the issues that came up was invented dialogue. I happen to feel strongly that invented dialogue—by which I mean conversations based on research, however brief—has no place in nonfiction for kids, but there were those who disagreed.

Arguments in favor of invented dialogue included the idea that rooting something in conversation makes it come alive for the reader. After all, isn’t that what we’re trying to do? Make nonfiction more stimulating so kids will be enticed and excited to read it? With that, I could agree. And if the essence of what happened is based on careful research, and the words a writer puts in someone else’s mouth ring true, then what does it matter if the actual words were not actually spoken? Some nodded in agreement. I was not one of them.

It matters a tremendous amount if the words were not actually spoken. My first and gut reaction is that this is simply wrong. I wouldn’t want anyone putting posthumous words in my mouth, after all, even if they reflected the truth of something I might have said. But my indignation was not met with as much agreeable nodding as I expected. Or, as I had hoped. I was prodded to elaborate. Why does invented dialogue bother me so much?

The answer is this. If we’re talking about nonfiction for kids, it bothers me because they are amassing knowledge as they read. They are soaking things up, collecting information for the long haul, putting together the pieces of our world. The truths they read in their early years of nonfiction will be the truths upon which later insights and truths are built. And if some of those truths are indeed falsehoods, they will be planted right alongside the rest and become a permanent part of what they know to be true. How many adults have had to relearn incorrect pieces of history due to quoted material that was actually never spoken? Or have you still not yet been told that George Washington never did chop down that cherry tree?

And no, I am not against plays or movies that “bring history alive.” I am watching the John Adams series on HBO along with the rest of the country and am finding it quite fascinating. But the intention there is much different than slipping invented dialogue into otherwise factually accurate nonfiction for kids—and the intended audience is aware of those differences. So, challenge me; make me challenge myself. What are your thoughts, pro or con?


Peni R. Griffin said...

I think the important thing here is: "How clear is it that the dialog is invented?"

When I'm showing people around San Antonio and telling them the dramatic stories that crop up every five feet or so, I'm constantly using invented dialog to convey the essence of the situation before we reach the next landmark. "So Santa Anna says: 'What part of no quarter did you not understand?" And the doctor says: "But sir, this is Davy Crockett! Think of the PR!"

Nobody thinks that's real dialog. Similarly, most people reading Marguerite Henry's novelized biographies of horses realizes what the dialog is for, and learning to tell this sort of work from a real biography is part of the genre learning process.

But when I'm reading a popular work of non-fiction and I can't tell where something in quotation marks comes from, I get antsy. If it's inside quotes, it needs to have either a source or a disclaimer, such as: "Voltaire's attitude may be summed up as 'I disagree with everything you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'" That particular quote is something Voltaire never said himself, but it got into the collective consciousness that he did because his first biographer did the same thing I do and folks didn't catch on.

And that is just as problematic in adult non-fiction as it is in non-fiction for kids.

Unknown said...

In the biographies I've written, I never invented dialog but when my source material had a he said/she said quote I used it as if the characters were talking. The notes at the back cited the references.

Is this the same thing as invented dialog? Is it inadmissible hearsay in a court of law? Does it fall into your definition of invented dialog?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Peni, I absolutely agree that intention and clarity is paramount here, so the "Votaire's attitude may be summed up as" is key to how the reader will take it. Also, I think when you are giving an oral history walking tour in San Antonio (had one of the best meals of my life there, btw!), that is a different venue altogether. No one is expecting you to document or footnote the dialogue you are using, and they are also unable to refer to it later--it does not become a part of the written record. I think that matters.

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Vicki, I think your example does not fall under my pet peeve category precisely because you tell the reader what it is. Does that make sense?

Linda Zajac said...

As a nonfiction writer, I strive for accuracy and nothing less. Sometimes there is a need to modify a quote if the grammar is incorrect or the quote is too wordy, but I don't ever change the meaning of the quote. Currently, I have to fix a quote by an Austrian fellow because it doesn't make sense due to language issues.

I think it's perfectly fine to use quotes from the writing of historical figures except I've used "he wrote" versus "he said," but either works.

Creating quotes is not anything I would ever do unless I was writing fiction.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

I agree with those who say invented dialogue should not appear in nonfiction. However, even the alternatives are not technically historically accurate.

In "Boys of Steel," I used dialogue (upon the suggestion of an editor, actually, but not the one who ended up buying it), and it WAS all taken from interviews. In other words, my characters did "say" those things. However, they did NOT say them at the exact historical moment I placed them in the book. They said them in retrospect and I slotted them in my narrative "retroactively."

This is better than fabricated, in my opinion, but it does not have true historical integrity. In any event, I noted in the back matter the source of this dialogue, and more than a couple reviewers and observers commended that. (I was convinced to do this even more strongly when I found at least eight reviews of other nonfiction in which the lack of attribution was faulted. I should blog about that.)