Titles: Italics And Quotation Marks

While I'm on the topic of the different uses of quotation marks ...

Style Guides For Formatting Titles

In non-fiction, it's common to use a system which evolved out of the need for referencing in academic essays. In those, italics are generally used for the titles of larger and longer whole items (books, albums etc); quotation marks for parts of a longer item (chapters, songs etc). Many style guides are written for an academic audience, and advise following this system. See APA, MLA, and Chicago style manuals as examples.

Since many authors try to follow common styles, they pick up and follow one of these guides, or they learnt a style while doing some educational course, then stuck to it. Or they just copy what they see other authors doing. But it doesn't necessarily mean these academic styles are appropriate in novels, since these are mostly intended for non-fiction purposes. A novel is not an academic essay, where these conventions arose.

Note that not even all non-fiction sources use this style for titles. For example, The Guardian style guide no longer bothers with italics and quote marks at all for titles, saying they follow "the generally sound advice of George Bernard Shaw":

1. I was reading The Merchant of Venice.
2. I was reading "The Merchant of Venice".
3. I was reading The Merchant of Venice.

"The man who cannot see that No 1 is the best-looking, as well as the sufficient and sensible form, should print or write nothing but advertisements for lost dogs or ironmongers’ catalogues: literature is not for him to meddle with." [GBS]

What is appropriate, is to be clear and consistent. Good authors strive to use the minimum punctuation required for clear and unambiguous communication, so that the punctuation itself is unobtrusive.

These Styles Are Not Always Appropriate For Fiction

I have an academic background (first class honours in a couple of subjects, MSc in another, and I worked in further and higher education for years). I'm familiar with these styles. But I have found myself increasingly asking if special formatting to indicate some types for names/titles was necessary in fiction nowadays.

Let me list a few of the things that popped into my head in relation to this. Hear me out.
  • Essay are a form closely tied to unambiguously indicating sources. That doesn't apply to novels, which are a much more free-form means of communication, more focussed on going inward into minds, thoughts and perceptions.
  • When we engage in normal communication with other humans, we don't mentally add italics to the titles of some things. We don't do air quotes for titles of songs. It just isn't part of everyday communication, it's an artificial addition for a certain type if communication. Since novels are representing the dialogue and thoughts of people, the way things are written should match the way the dialogue and thoughts are experienced.
  • If an author follows the styles above, then a song name (for example) would appear in quotation marks. But, because in fiction we use quotation marks for other purposes, including catching the nuance of sneer quotes (where things put into quotation marks can imply "so-called"), seeing them around words in fiction can be momentarily confusing as we wonder if it is a sneer quote, calling the word into question. What does the author mean? Are they implying something? Or are they using formal citation? Compare:
    - I think she is a "feminist".
    - I listened to "Happiness" last night.
    - It's "Welsh for beginners".
    - Oh great, "ABC" is so complicated.
    If we did away with quotation marks to indicate songs, poems, chapters, articles etc, the punctuation that remains would be less ambiguous.
  • We're meant to be consistent. But since this system was developed for referencing, it is focussed on that in a way which makes little sense in real life. They're all just names for things. Why italicise the name of an album but not the name of the band? Why put a song name in quotation marks, but not the name of my house, or a pub? Why do ship names go in italics, but not tank names?
  • The system of the names for some things appearing in italics or quotation marks can be rather arbitrary and bogged down in rules and sub-rules and exceptions. Something could be a standalone whole work (e.g. a novella) but also part of a longer work (a collection), so falls into both categories, in the same way as The Lord of The Rings can be divided into separate books (and often is). Songs can be on albums but also standalone works. Poems flip between being in italics or quotation marks based on arbitrary (and often unclear) lengths.
  • It's totally unnecessary in fiction. Even if I don't use italics or quotation marks with some names, is the end result suddenly ambiguous?
    - I like watching Star Wars.
    - Have a look in the Styles For Fiction chapter.
    - In the background, The Bends was playing on the jukebox.
    - Every time I hear Creep, I want to cry.
    Would adding italics and quotation marks to those actually add anything? Would it prevent confusion? If not, then it is unnecessary punctuation.
  • If you apply these referencing styles (which is what they are) to fiction, doesn't it look clunky?
    "I was listening to The Bends with John, we were in The Dougie Arms - you know, that pub on the USS Enterprise - I think it was 'Creep' that was playing when she 'danced', if that's what you want to call it."
    "I was listening to The Bends with John, we were in The Dougie Arms - you know, that pub on the USS Enterprise - I think it was Creep that was playing when she 'danced', if that's what you want to call it."

That's my thinking, anyway. I favour simplicity over fussiness, so I am tempted to drop this hangover of referencing styles from my fiction in future.

Am I a heretic, or sensible? If you use these styles, is it just out of habit and copying what other people do, or are there advantages to fiction which aren't obvious to me? Feel free to let me know your thoughts!

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!

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