Here's a good question from the comments. Tinlizzie says,
Off topic here but I had a question. I recently came across a book (reasonably well reviewed and published by a reputable house) that drove me nuts because the author substituted dashes for quotation marks.
Uhm, excuse me? Although the book did have pretensions to being more, it was basically a mystery/thriller and I was rather surprised that this was allowed to get through the editing process.
What are your thoughts on the apparent trend in *inventive* punctuation and structure that seems to be rising in publishing today? I, for one, can't stand it.
After all, if you think you're Faulkner, chances are you aren't Faulkner and should abide by the rules.
Well, yes. I'm no fan of bling -- my pet term for punctuation gimmicks that stand out on the page like sequins on a dust rag -- and this kind of punctuation definitely falls into the bling category. (Unless you're writing in French for the French market, in which case, allez-y.) (Past rants on bling: ellipses, colons v. em dashes, hyphens, and Alicia's open discussion of the punctuation in Cold Mountain.)
But your question hints at something else, and maybe it's worth mentioning here. You hint that Faulkner wannabes and other literary types might be able to get away with this, and it's worth examining why this would be the case. If we're all operating with a basic set of punctuation rules, why would litfic writers ignore those rules?
One of the fundamental differences between litfic and its commercial siblings is that litfic expects its readers to be sensitive to the manner of presentation. Things like word choice, diction, punctuation, sentence rhythm, paragraphing, and so on are all manipulated to achieve certain effects. And it's anticipated that the reader will expect these kinds of things in the text, much the same way a murder mystery reader expects a dead body or a romance reader expects a happily-ever-after ending. Litfic readers don't just remain awake to the possibility that form will be manipulated to achieve effects. We delight in it. (Or, at least, I do when I read litfic. And my fellow litfic fans appear to read it much the same way. Extrapolate from there.)
With books on the commercial end of the spectrum, however, it's expected that story will take supreme importance over anything that might distract from story. We routinely cut long passages of thematic description, for example, that would survive the knife in a more literary book. We are ruthless about pruning bling and other distractions so that the reader will never blink while turning the pages. We want them to be so caught up in and breathless with anticipation over the story that they might not hear a ringing phone.
In between these two ends of the spectrum is a middle ground where writers aim to incorporate some of the effect-generating flourishes of the literary crowd with the mass-pleasing story emphasis of the genre crowd. The book you describe might have been hoping for a shot at this middle ground. It's interesting terrain, and there's plenty of room for books to succeed in both commercial and critical terms. Past books of this ilk which we've discussed on this blog include An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (brilliant manipulation of first person unreliable narrators), Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (footnotes, intrusive narrator), Mr. B Gone by Clive Barker (incredible meta) -- I'm sure there are more, but I'm too lazy to look in the archives to remember what else we might have discussed.
In any case, as Alicia did when she questioned the dialogue punctuation in Cold Mountain, the important thing for all of us is to remain hyper-aware of the effect these kinds of things can have on the narrative. Litfic writers incorporate them because of those effects, and genre fic writers avoid them because of those effects, and middle grounders try to walk the tightrope between those two positions.
But for me, regardless of the type of book, my preference is still to avoid this kind of bling dialogue punctuation because it's a distraction without a purpose. Some find this kind of dialogue (without quotation marks, that is) to read more softly, as if it's incorporated seamlessly into the rest of the narrative. I don't. I take that beginning dash as a speech signal no different from an opening quotation mark. And I find the lack of a close-quote extremely distracting because I will find myself looking for the moment the dialogue ends and some other narrative element begins. There might be signals, such as verb tense shifts or paragraph breaks, but sometimes it's not clear. If I don't consciously stop to find those signals, then I'm likely to read everything as if it's being spoken by a character. Like this:
--But nobody wants to walk to school in the rain. Heavy rain, too, likely to break daffodil stalks. And it would ruin her hair, and she didn't want Jason to see her with a disgusting rain-do.
So the first (present tense, dashed) sentence is dialogue, that's pretty clear. And the last (past tense) sentence is interior monologue, also evident. But is the second fragmented sentence part of the dialogue or part of the character's interior monologue? It could be either. It takes me out of the story, and for me, at least, the dashed dialogue doesn't lull me into blending the dialogue into the narrative. It just confuses me because I no longer know what I'm reading.
All of which is to say, there are rules, and there are ways to break the rules, and there are those of us who will wish you would find other rules to break instead. Not sure that really answers your question, but that's my take on it.