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Keep it real. Please.

This week's New York Times Book Review assesses Karl Taro Greenfeld's new novel, Triburbia. I was chagrined, nay, appalled to read these dialogue excerpts:

“We are a prosperous community...Our lofts and apartments are worth millions. Our wives vestigially beautiful. Our renovations as vast and grand in scale as the construction of ocean liners, yet we regularly assure ourselves that our affluence does not define us. We are better than that. Measure us by the books on our shelves, the paintings on our walls, the songs on our iTunes playlists, our children in their secure little school. We live in smug certainty that our taste is impeccable, our politics correct, our sense of outrage at the current regime totally warranted.”


“It seems like when I meet a man in his 20s or 30s, he does something in advertising or marketing, but is more defined by his hobby of riding fixed-gear bicycles or some intense and very particular food enthusiasm.”


“They could live the latest version of the American dream...some mixture of drinking in bottle-­service nightclubs and pursuing a creative career as a video producer or painter or performance artist.”

Mind you, each of these examples is spoken dialogue. But who, exactly, talks like this? Even in upper-crust Manhattan? "Vestigially beautiful"? "Very particular food enthusiasm"? "Bottle-service nightclubs"? To me, phrases like this are generally acceptable in third-person narration, marginally acceptable in first-person narration, but never, ever in dialogue. These aren't characters speaking. Talking like this, they are nothing more than megaphones for the author's brainy thoughts. Yes, it's true that all fiction channels the author to some degree, but good authors veil their pronouncements in vivid characterization and realistic dialogue. But the prose in these examples is so blatantly artificial that I doubt I would believe these characters for even a minute, if I actually read the book. Which now I certainly won't be doing.

August 5, 2012 in Books | Permalink


That's hilariously bad dialogue, and it reminds me of how little NYTBR tastemaking has to do with what I value in writing.

Posted by: Michael Leddy at Aug 5, 2012 12:16:07 PM

And the reviewer (Jay McInerney) didn't even call out the author on it.

Posted by: Pete at Aug 5, 2012 5:39:36 PM

Yeah, that's one of my pet peeves--when dialogue is completely unrealistic. Did you read "NowTrends"? It was pretty good.

Posted by: Jason Jordan at Aug 9, 2012 11:17:25 PM

none of those examples are spoken dialogue.

Posted by: karl taro greenfeld at Aug 11, 2012 4:39:09 PM

Karl, good to hear from you, though obviously the circumstances aren't exactly ideal. For two of those examples, the reviewer uses the word "says" ("...says one character, a sound engineer married to an heiress..." and "...the wife of the sound engineer says...") which clearly indicates spoken dialogue, though admittedly I only presumed the other example to be dialogue (the reviewer writes "One parent contemplates their future"). But even if these examples aren't actual dialogue, they're first person narration, which is in itself a form of dialogue. Either way, I don't think this is an accurate representation of the way people actually talk.

Posted by: Pete at Aug 13, 2012 1:29:57 PM