Rant, Reading, Writing

Kent Haruf and Punctuation

During one of my first blog posts, I complained about punctuation–either the lack thereof or punctuation mistakes. Now nobody is perfect, and I make a TON of punctuation errors. I am the very first to admit that, but I do know good punctuation when I see it and I miss it when it isn’t there. Why am I bringing this up? Well, I am currently reading Benediction by Kent Haruf for the Portland Book Review. I am about halfway through, and it has taken me just that long to get used to Kent Haruf’s punctuation style.

Or lack thereof.

I did a little research, because I had a hard time understanding how a writer could be published without using punctuation. Turns out he is an award-winning writer: Whiting Foundation Award, Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation, Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, Maria Thomas Award in Fiction, and he was a National Book Award finalist for fiction.

Color me confused because I do not think the man knows what an appositive is, or how to use commas with one.

It’s not that his writing is bad. The story, centering around a dying patriarch of the small town of Holt, Colorado, is well written, engaging, and heartfelt–if you like Foursquare literature.

But he makes interesting choices when it comes to punctuation–choices I can’t agree with. He doesn’t punctuate dialogue. At all. Period. It isn’t that I am not intelligent enough to figure out who is speaking when, but punctuation has developed for a reason. It is there for the reader–like directions. It is a common courtesy on the part of the writer to make sure that the reader is comfortable that the reader isn’t confused. Some writers have used punctuation as a tool, as a way to be groundbreaking. I can respect this up to a point. Messing with, or deleting, dialogue punctuation isn’t groundbreaking; it is inconsiderate.

I am a huge fan of using a fragment. Now and then. I am a huge fan of the mdash–clearly. But I respect the rules and I break them because I know them and respect them. I make a conscious choice to break the rules to make a point–to make a statement. I cannot detect a pattern to Kent Haruf’s breaking of the rules. I can’t be sure he isn’t punctuating an appositive out of choice, or because he doesn’t know how. That is how many times the rule is broken and how many times it is broken.

But he has an MFA in writing, and he is an award-winning writer. What gives? If I would have turned in work like that during my undergraduate career, I would have been taken aside by the professor and explained in very simple English what a comma is. In fact that did happen–more than once. I have had a lot of issues with comma splices and verb tense, but I am learning and growing as a writer. I am figuring out the rules, and as I have figured them out I have greater respect for them. They make my writing better, and I have learned that I have a choice when it comes to the rules, but I need to respect that  fact. I need to respect the power of the rules and break them only when I think it should be done.

Reading Kent Haruf’s work is like trying to read underneath a flickering, fluorescent light. The punctuation turns on and off incessantly  without any pattern or structure. I have to ask myself if he has a reason for writing the way he has. Is he trying to teach me something? Is he trying to reach the lowest common-denominator, and if that is the case then wouldn’t more, correct punctuation help? Is he trying to piss me off? Does he even care?

I do not have any answers. I have been left stranded and bewildered, in the middle of a dusty highway, with my hand raised in the air, and no one around to see me. If anyone has any answers, please let me know.


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