OK, I'm going to admit something: I'm a spy. When I recently photographed this pub scene in Ireland, I was actually on a secret mission, the people chattering around me none the wiser. That's right, I sneak around foreign places and eavesdrop. I make mental notes. I try to remember everything I hear.
What I'm trying to do is avoid the dangers of distinct dialogue. My current project is set in Dublin and I want to make sure that my Irish characters speak in a credible way, just like the average Bill and Bonny in a Dublin street. I would hate to think that the work is slammed later for having dodgy dialogue: words, phrases and expressions that nobody in Ireland would ever utter. This is actually part of the process I enjoy, so I don't see it as hard work. I look forward to getting together a little "dialogue group" in Dublin at some point in the future. I will call on Irish family and friends to read my work and highlight anything that doesn't ring true. I wouldn't dream of putting the work out there until this has been done.
I bring all of this up because of some recent reviews I've seen of Lionel Shriver's latest book The Post-Birthday World. Rachel Cooke in The Guardian tears the book apart for many reasons, including the speech of one of the characters:
"I read The Post-Birthday World with a mounting sense of incredulity. Why did no editor step in to save Shriver from herself? It isn't only the broad strokes of her dual narratives that are silly; it's the detail that really lets her down (good writing can render almost any plot convincing, even, I suppose, one in which an American illustrator chats with Mrs John Parrot as their respective men toddle out to the baize). Ramsey Acton, for instance, speaks like no snooker player - no human being! - that you've heard before; one minute, he's a cockney of the Dick Van Dyke school ('It's queer how the thing what attracted you to someone is the same as what you come to despise about them'); the next he sounds vaguely - confusingly - northern (he uses 'you were' rather than 'you was' and calls women 'pet')."
Now, I don't need to tell you that Rachel Cooke's opinion is just one of many out there and she is not necessarily right. Yes, I often strongly disagree with reviews I read in the mainstream press. However, another review of the book brought up the same issue, although the overall verdict was a lot more favourable. Melissa Katsoulis had this to say in The Times:
"This is a compulsive, clever, wise and witty novel. There is, however, a fly in the ointment. And it’s a biggie. It is Ramsey’s bizarre Cockney patter. We eventually learn that he is actually rather middle-class, but having spent his whole life in snooker halls, among snooker people, he has adopted their way of speaking. Only nobody English speaks like wot he done. He starts almost every sentence with “Oi”, even romantic ones. Although South London born and bred, he calls women pets, fools, gobshites, and “hasn't a baldy” when he has no idea. Shite is confused with shit, tosser with wanker and, most alarmingly, not giving a monkey’s with not having one. These criticisms might sound petty – Shriver, who is based in London and New York, hasn’t been here long enough to gain an instinctive command of our English, and at least she has the guts to try, and to enjoy herself – but it is rare to be stopped in your tracks during the cleverest book you’ve read in years, by the stupidest thing you’ve heard in your life."
It has to be pointed out that the book has received much better reviews in the US, where the issue of the dodgy dialogue wasn't brought up. The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who is renowned for her harsh reviews, described Shriver's novel as "engaging" and generally painted it in a good light.
When it comes to the whole thorny subject of detail in novels, some would say that a fiction writer shouldn't be bound by the constraints of reality. Why shouldn't they slightly deform the way a Londoner or a Dubliner speaks? It's fiction for goodness sake and lots of detail in the novel is imagined. Who really cares that distinct dialogue is not strictly portrayed? They have a point and I think the issue is not clear cut.
Oh, by the way, Shriver is the "chief fiction critic" at The Daily Telegraph, which means she often writes reviews about the work of her peers. She has written a wonderful article about the dangers she has opened herself up to with this new job. I also wonder whether reviewers at other papers might be tempted to give her a hard time because she is working for the "opposition", the "competitor". A novelist who was relatively unknown before the success of We Need To Talk About Kevin has suddenly become the chief fiction critic on a major newspaper. Her name and face is everywhere. That may irk some, make others a little bit jealous, no? Food for thought.