As I was finalizing my thirteenth book, a compilation of book reviews and essays called “Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing”, I found myself with a curious dilemma. Look carefully at the preceding sentence. Note that the title of the book is within quotation marks, and the comma follows after. I’ve been doing that for a long time now, and recently I was corrected for it by an editor checking some of the Internet articles I write to help pay the bills. But is it right or not? At first I thought that I didn’t give a damn; it seemed reasonable usage to me and who cares what anyone else thinks? Then I thought, well, if it really is wrong I should do something about it. So I did some research.
I already knew from my article-writing jobs that rules on style are not always consistent. For one company, I studied the AP Style Guide. There are a lot of nit-picking rules on every aspect of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and so on. In my own writing I do not always follow all the same rules, so I had to memorize it all, or at least memorize where I could look up the details, so I didn’t slip up while writing the articles. Then came another batch of article assignments in which the client insisted on the guidelines of the Chicago Manuel of Style, in which are key differences. I had enough work, and I refused these assignments, as the man-hours necessary to learn a whole new style guide and then constantly look up discrepancies until I got used to the differences was too much trouble. So I am aware that rules, guidelines, and styles do not always mesh. It gets even more confusing and complicated when you consider American, British, and Australian English, and regional variations within these broad categories. What is a writer to do?
But back to the comma/title dilemma. I was willing to go through the lengthy manuscript and change it all if I had indeed made a genuine error, so I did some research. What I found out was that only in America is it accepted form to put the comma within the quotation marks when you are listing titles; in Great Britain and the rest of the world, you always put nothing except the title within the quotation marks, and all other punctuation outside. Hmm. So I thought about it a while, and I decided to leave things as they were – and are. After all, I lived overseas for thirty-five years; that’s probably why I picked up the habit. Why be ashamed of my internationalism? Why not flout it? And again, as I said before, who really gives a damn? Communication is the main thing, not nitpicking. Then you might say that I should be consistent and use all the rules and spelling of British English. And I would answer, why should I if it does not please me to do so?
I’m not saying a writer should lapse into total language anarchy, although some, even some of the most revered, have done so. I believe basic rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, story structure, tense, point of view, and so on should generally be followed, but there are always exceptions. Consider, for example, what I consider one of the greatest short stories of all time, “Sundance” by Robert Silverberg. He breaks all the rules of tense and person in that story. He switches around from present to past tense and from first, second, and third person. But it works. It’s brilliant. If he told the story in the conventional way, sticking entirely to first or third person and past tense, the story would be okay but not extraordinary. As it is, it is a work of genius. Many other departures have been made by poets, novelists, and short story writers. Some variegations have worked and some have not, but a reader has to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, and the leeway to experiment with all the tools in the toolbox in any way necessary.
So in my latest book, I left the titles pure within the quotation marks. If you don’t agree, in your next book or essay or review or whatever, you can do it a different way. I’d do it a different way too if an editor who was paying me good money for a piece asked me to, and I don’t think I’d be compromising my artistic integrity to make the change. In this case, since I was self-publishing the book, the decision was entirely up to me. So if you are reading the book, be assured that the peculiar (to you) punctuation is not a mistake due to the fact that I do not know the rules. It is a deliberate choice based upon my international background. Please don’t get hung up on it or allow it to diminish your enjoyment of the book. And if you, as a writer, feel the need to make adjustments to particular rules of grammar or spelling or punctuation for the sake of your art, I will extend the same consideration to you.
There are people who get fancy literary degrees who feel they need to correct everyone elses language usage in order to justify their degrees. This is all well and good when we are talking about official documents, maybe business papers, or scientific journals. But when it comes to telling a story the rules may exist but like the rules for piracy, they are more guidelines really.
Now certain things are immutable, like standardized paragraph structure. And spelling, you can’t say cat but spell it dog. That is anarchy. But our words and punctuation are tools to convey the information in the way we intend. A simple coma controls where the reader pauses while reading and can change emphasis and pacing.