This week, let’s talk about dialogue. As with any facet of writing, there are “rules.” Don’t be too formal—real people don’t talk like the dictionary. Don’t be so informal—all that slang is distracting. Use dialogue tags sparingly. Use more dialogue tags to clarify who is speaking. Always use quotation marks! Throw out the quotation marks! But then, you know what they say about rules.
Cue this week’s story from Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, “The Rape Essay (Or Mutilated Pages)” by Suzanne Scanlon. The story is complex and non-linear: part interrogation of feminism, part recounting of an abusive relationship between a student, Esther, and her college professor, Harold. It’s complicated and raw and sometimes confusing as Esther tries to reason out why she was with Harold, if she loved him, if she is to blame. The experience of reading it feels almost voyeuristic, like you’re tuning in to someone else’s internal reckoning, watching her shift around the pieces of something unknown to you, trying to figure out how to feel.
One of the ways the Scanlon gives this disoriented impression is through her use of dialogue. The story begins with a long section of it, unattributed, in which not just the speakers, but also the subject matter, are unknown:
“Well yes of course I’d read it, but you know it’s hard—”
“You dated him anyway!”
“I mean how could I—”
“There’s a blog about that—”
“Something so cartoonish could not have been real, you know?”
“A Twitter maybe, something.”
“Or very real.”
It continues like this for another twenty-one lines, both voices talking over and under each other, finishing each other’s sentences, before it abruptly shifts to another scene. The dialogue feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers in another room, a conversation that you know is important but you can’t quite parse through yet. The whole story is like that: fragments of conversations mostly without dialogue tags, a memory here or there, quotations from essays that are only attributed in the endnotes, segments from Esther’s journal, a short Q&A about a t-shirt, an interrogation from a nameless, bolded voice. The form is messy and confusing and perfect for this story.
Here’s another short section of unattributed dialogue (which we know is Harold because of the mansplaining):
“It reminds me of, like, Bill Cosby.” She tells him later, by phone.
“Didn’t he like blame black people for not being, you know—”
“If you think you can compare what it is to be a privileged white woman to what it is to be black in this country, under the hold of systemic racism.”
“That’s not what I—”
“The juggernaut of 20th-century feminism.”
And a section from Esther’s journal:
I said fuck you but not out loud and only in retrospect. I wanted to be back in bed. You could see that and yet. You needed it. Something about your father. I said I will give you something. And I got your book, a big book, which I never wanted, with an essay you insisted I read, an essay I of course read, an essay about rape, an essay written by one of my favorite writers ever, a writer you would only call “weird” which fine so what or was it “scary”? No “scary” was how the other prof, my default-prof, described Kathy Acker: “Scary.”
And a memory:
The beginning might be later, too, like the time Harold took a pair of sweatpants that had been given to her by a boyfriend she’d had when they met.
“I fed them to my dogs,” he told her, of the sweatpants, and it seemed to be a joke, hyperbolic.
Combined, these snippets form a collage of control and condescension, misogyny and feminism, desire and derision. “The Rape Essay” turns out to be more than the story of a relationship; it’s the story of a culture’s problematic relationship with feminism, and feminism’s problematic relationship with itself. Because the feminism represented herein is far from perfect—it’s flawed and evolving. It doesn’t know what it is yet, but, just like Esther, it’s trying to figure it out.