Excellent Dialogue; A Dubious Seduction Strategy


Ask The Paris Review

I would love to read a book with really excellent dialogue (as in, clever but recognizable as spontaneous human speech). I feel that reading good dialogue will both make me a better conversationalist and save me a lot of head banging in my living room. (The most recent occasion for self-abuse: “‘I think I’ll go to the store now,’ she said, ‘I’d like some whole-wheat crackers.’”) —Anonymous

Good dialogue has never saved anyone from either head banging or self-abuse, as far as I know. If anything, I think, good dialogue tends to teach us how little it resembles real speech. Real speech deals with whole-wheat crackers. That’s what it’s for. Dialogue deals with whole-wheat crackers only if those crackers tell a secret—if they reveal something about the character speaking. In this sense, dialogue is closer to lyric poetry than it is to expository prose. It does more work in less space, and it tends to deal in repressed or unconscious knowledge. Since readers of “Ask The Paris Review” are probably tired of seeing me recommend the novels of Henry Green, I suggest Philip Roth’s Deception, anything by Richard Price or Virginia Woolf or the great pioneer of dialogue, Jane Austen (yes, she depresses me, but she uncovered the possibilities of the form), or Ivy Compton-Burnett or Don DeLillo or Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver or Elmore Leonard or Eudora Welty … The fact is, most great writers have great ears. We may not think of Henry James as a master of dialogue, but his novels nearly always turn on the ambiguities of invented speech. And this tends to be the case.

Are there any circumstances under which it might be a successful seduction strategy to quote poetry for a girl? —Anonymous

I once knew a man who claimed to have seduced several women by reciting Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Sapphics.” I never entirely believed him, and even he never pretended they were sober.

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