Tom Sutcliffe: In literature it's not what you say, it's the way you say 'he said' that matters

A critical view

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The Independent Culture

One of the questions asked by several of the critics who went to see Gatz – Elevator Repair Services' marathon staging of The Great Gatsby – was what the theatrical presentation had added to F Scott Fitzgerald's novel.

The answers to that question varied, according to the degree to which people had succumbed to the odd fever of the event. But I found myself asking a slightly different question over the course of the eight hours the production takes.

What did this way of presenting the novel disclose about it? And curiously, given that I emerged from the theatre with an enlarged admiration for the book, not all the revelations were flattering. I'd forgotten, for example, that there can be something a little florid and overheated about Scott Fitzgerald's prose, which occasionally strains for mythic resonance. On the page you can glide over this relatively easily, but when the narrator is personified and reads the words aloud you can't avoid confronting them. More pointedly though there was the question of Scott Fitzgerald's dialogue scaffolding.

What I mean is "he said, she said", all those boilerplate bits of prose which, again, tend to fade into the background in a normal reading of the book. The eye flicks across the words, perhaps checking that we're still properly aligned with who's saying what, but not even really doing that if there are only two speakers.

On stage though – and particularly later in the production when the narrator's co-workers have started to act out individual parts – the "he saids" are unavoidably conspicuous, quickly tacked on by a different speaker altogether. Most pointedly, they sometimes come with adverbs or adjectives attached. Like this: "she cried ecstatically", "he remarked derisively", "I answered shortly", or "she remarked contemptuously", (all from just two pages of the novel). And if you've just watched someone being derisive or contemptuous that's redundant.

Some would argue that it's redundant anyway, that it's a kind of confession of failure to have to add instructions to a line that should have done the work by itself. There's something a little slapdash about this way of adding inflection to your dialogue, a sense of tugging on a limited range of vox humana stops. And once you've noticed it, it can be a little hard to stop. You suddenly find yourself hearing a thesaurus in action, as writers struggle to avoid the plodding repetition of the word "said", drafting in "demanded", "inquired", "requested" and "interrupted" instead. Even worse, you notice those moments (Scott Fitzgerald himself isn't often guilty) when the verb is roped in to do double duty, as in "he laughed" or "she whined". In a play such details would be concealed in the invisible text of the stage directions. And in a novel they always carry the faint suggestion of stage machinery.

You can do without it, of course – leaving it to the reader to do the work of identifying who and to whom. Did that start with Joyce? Possibly, though Joyce doesn't entirely dispense with "he said" and "she said", even if he often drops the helpful box-hedging of quotation marks. But what Joyce also does is offer a model of how to do it better. Any of the more talkative chapters of Ulysses will offer an example. Take this lovely phrase from the "Lestrygonians" episode: "a voice replied groping for a foothold", which identifies a response from a character advancing cautiously in the dark. Or, a few pages on, this, which follows on from a "he muttered": "He strode on for Clare Street, grinding his fierce word". Perhaps that's the test a writer should apply. Not, "is it really necessary?" but, "would you want to hear it read aloud?"

Don't move on. Nothing to see

You need pretty good eyesight to see what isn't there. I learned this last week after the novelist Linda Grant revealed that she'd forgotten to take her reading glasses to the Hayward's new Invisible show, which devotes itself to art about the unseen. Since the art of many of the exhibits consists of an interplay between the exhibit label and the absence nearby, Grant found herself in some difficulty. The room containing two air-conditioners cooled with water used to wash Mexican murder victims was, for her, just an air-conditioned room. Other pieces vanished entirely, since without the rubric as an initiator of thought they literally cannot exist. I would recommend a visit. But be warned – there isn't a blurry version.

Praise where praise is due

It's hard to believe that any adult reader takes at face value the sort of glowing affidavits you find on the cover of a new novel. Author A's publisher sends the proof out to Author B and C and asks for something helpful. Author B and C understand that what goes around comes around and oblige. Even though you know how the system works, it's hard to remain entirely immune to the earnest recommendation of an author you admire. But I did encounter a recommendation the other day which was so wildly effusive that I wondered for a moment whether it might be a subversive gesture. "Could any book be better? Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?" says Sebastian Barry on the cover of John Banville's Ancient Light. Do the two men have a bet going on? Or was Barry showing Banville how it should be done? I don't know, but I'd love to see Banville try to top it.