We live in a time of talk, on the page, in the air, on the TV screen, on the computer screen, chatter and blogs and email and messages and therapy and Q & A and the person on the telephone and in the seat next to us on the airplane, on the bus, in the street, talk at table, at work, in bed, questions in song and quizzes, do you love me? Do you love me?
Question, what is the capital of Beenhereandgone? Answer, Whatsittoya? Or was it Carver invented dialogue? Or was it Hemingway? Will you please please please please please be quiet?
All of us who write fiction pay attention to all of these musics we hear pouring from the lips of those with whom we speak ourselves or those we overhear.
Speech derives from the lips of the people, is our motto as demotic and democratic writers. "What is USA?" Dos Passos asks at the beginning of his trilogy? "It is the speech of the people...."
It seems an authentic modern motto with respect to dialogue. John Updike, in a brilliant essay on the late English novelist Henry Green, writes of how fidelity to reality in dialogue is often mistaken as a "mere passive gift," the product of what we call a "good ear." But, as Updike points out, "to write how people talk one must know how they think...."
What is USA? It is the speech in Huck Finn, in Sherwood Anderson, it is Hemingway's dialogue, it is Carver's talk, Roth's talk. Grace Paley's talk.
Lend me your ears.
"Dere's no guy livin' dat knows Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo (only the dead know Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo) because it'd take a lifetime just to find his way aroun'duh goddamn town (--only the dead know Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo, even the dead will quarrel an' bicker over the sprawl and web of jungle desolation that is Brookyn t'roo and t'roo).
"So like I say, I'm waitin' for my train t' come when I see dis big guy standing deh--dis is duh foist I eveh see of him. Well, he's lookin' wild, y'know, an' I can see dat he's had plenty, but still he's holdin' it; he talks good an' he's walking straight enough. So den dis big guy steps up to a little guy dat's standin' deh, an' says, 'How d'yuh get t' Eighteent' Avenoo an' Sixty-sevent' Street?'..."
The speech of the people here in the USA is so vivid, so engaging, so distinct, as the opening of Thomas Wolfe's story "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" makes clear, that we can celebrate it and enjoy the recognition that our modern story writers and novelists have found in the minds and workshops of writers from around the world, from Cesare Pavese to Jean-Paul Sartre to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Martin Amis and numerous others. Our writers possess an acute ability to create skeins of seemingly natural language that make up a world out of human speech, as in, say, Sherwood Anderson's masterly coming of age story "I Want to Know Why" and our writers' genius for employing dialogue in particular to make worlds, as in Hemingway's little masterwork "Hills Like White Elephants" or Elizabeth Tallent's two-and-a-half page "No One's a Mystery" or Amy Hempel's one-and-a-half page "San Francisco."
On the face of it, the power and impact of such dialogue seems to be directly tied to the rise of a relatively recent literary mode. Raw and realistic-sounding speech emerged as one of the essential elements of literary naturalism. Naturalism, the view that characters are determined by their heredity and environment, grows out of the theories and methods of early-nineteenth-century (and, some will argue, earlier) practitioners of social science. Literary naturalism seems to derive its truth and force from a similarly held belief.
But literature in its essence is more than a fellow-traveler of social science, however much present-day educators might use it in that fashion, as a way of illustrating such widely shared views as bind liberal society together or arguing on behalf of positions they would like us to take as truth. …