3 dialogue tips I picked up from reading Hottentot Venus

Hottentot Venus: A NovelHottentot Venus: A Novel 
By Barbara Chase-Riboud
Anchor, 2004

I picked this book up a very long time ago at a bookstore that is now defunct. Chase-Riboud’s novel tells the story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in London and Paris in the early 1800s. I knew going in that this book was not going to be a fun read, and my expectations were fulfilled.

Sarah’s story is every bit as painful, horrifying, and gut wrenching as I feared it would be. But it also comes with a surprisingly hefty side dish of dull. I found myself skipping entire passages not because they were too gruesome to read, but because they were simply boring.

Other reviewers have commented that it was difficult to follow the dialogue in this book. In fact, as I reflect on my experience reading the book, much of the trouble I had with this book can be traced to the dialogue. It was the weakest aspect of the narrative.

I’m not judging: dialogue is hard for me too. Which is probably why I paid so much attention to it while reading this book.

Here’s what I learned.

1. Punctuation matters. 

Next time you open a book, notice how the quotation marks around the dialogue break up the text on the page. It makes things just a little bit more interesting. Makes me, as a reader, a little bit more likely to finish just one more page.

It’s a subtle visual cue, but until I read this book, I had forgotten how helpful it was.

19th C illustration of Sarah "Saartjie" Baartman (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

19th C illustration of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

Instead of using quotation marks to set off her dialogue, Chase-Riboud starts off the dialogue paragraphs with a long dash. Turns out, punctuation matters.

I got used to seeing the dashes instead of the quotation marks, but it still made the appearance of the story seem a little dull. Oh, look, here’s another paragraph that looks just like all the other paragraphs that came before it. And look, it’s followed by still more really dense paragraphs.

Faulkner does that, and I put up with it, because he’s Faulkner. Chase-Riboud does that, and I put up with it, because she’s Chase-Riboud. My readers, however, will not put up with it.

2. Speech tags can be boring. Turns out, they can also be necessary.

Setting the trivial issue of punctuation conventions aside, a more serious concern is that Chase-Riboud only occasionally identifies the speakers. I sympathize. It’s oddly mind-numbing coming up with thousands of creative alternatives to “he said,” “she said.”

Like many writers, Chase-Riboud partially solves this problem by not identifying every speaker every time. This would have been fine, except that she often presented one long-dashed paragraph of dialogue after another when there were more than two or three potential speakers in the scene.

Complicating matters further, Chase-Riboud often had the same speaker speak multiple paragraphs of dialogue in a row. Without attribution. Several times I found myself assuming that the speaker had changed because it was a new paragraph, only to realize on reading further that the person I had assumed was speaking couldn’t possibly have just said that. So I’d have to start over.

I stopped reading entirely several times just so I could figure out who was talking. They weren’t long interruptions, but they took me out of the story. And anything that takes me out of the story gives me a chance to put the book down. Which I did. A lot.

Because the story itself is so painful and emotionally challenging, each time I put the book down I seriously thought about simply reading something else.

3. Academic writing makes for bad dialogue.

Poster advertising the Hottentot Venus. (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

Poster advertising the Hottentot Venus. (Image via Wikipedia Commons)

Perhaps the most important issue, however, is the fact that Chase-Riboud frequently uses verbatim quotes from scientific writers of the time as if they were dialogue. This occurs most notably in Chapter 18, where the entire scientific debate during Baron Culvier’s lecture on Sarah Baartman consists of verbatim quotes from Jefferson, Lincoln, Hegel, Darwin and other 19th C writers. Chase-Riboud admits to doing this in her Acknowledgements. (I suspect she did the same thing during the trial in the London section of the book.)

The quotes she uses do present a wide range of horrifying thoughts on race that were prevalent in society at the time. That is likely Chase-Riboud’s intent, and I understand the temptation.

While writing my own work-in-progress, several times I have been tempted to simply transcribe the shocking views doctors had about about women’s mental health in the late 1880s. I can hardly wrap my head around some of them, and so it seems easiest to simply put those words in my doctor’s mouth when he diagnoses and commits my protagonist to the asylum.

But the tangled verbiage that flourishes in academic writing simply doesn’t work as dialogue. By burying the arguments of what was supposed to be an impassioned debate on the nature of race and humanity in the tangled English of Victorian scientific writing, Chase-Riboud limits the power of her narrative.

Her story would have been better served if she had taken the same quotes and edited them slightly to make them more readable as dialogue.

Dialogue issues aside, I’m really glad I read this book. It tells an important story about a woman I would otherwise have never heard of. The first and final chapters were extremely well-written. I just wish that the dialogue had allowed the middle to keep up with the high standard Chase-Riboud sets at the start.

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About Shala Howell

Writer of things ranging from optical network switching white papers to genetic testing patient education materials to historical fiction set in an 1880s asylum. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write than the current one), my writerly self can be found blogging about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, or musing about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.wordpress.com.
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