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capitalization as Stylistic Device

evening-is-the-whole-dayFWR contributor Preeta Samarasan is compiling a list of 19th-21st century authors who capitalize words for dramatic/comedic effect, as Dickens does. Recently, several novelists (including Raj Kamal Jha and Preeta herself) have been accused of imitating Arundati Roy’s style because they use capitalization for stylistic reasons, but as Preeta said earlier today, Roy “did not invent this technique, and her style involves a whole lot more than mere capitalization.” Dear readers, please comment with author names and specific examples.

Here are a few to start us off:

Lorrie Moore (from “People Like That Are the Only People Here”):

“Now, suddenly, alternative medicine seems the wacko maiden aunt to the Nice Big Daddy of Conventional Treatment…She tries for some noble abstractions, nothing too anthropomorphic, just some Higher Morality, though if this particular Highness looks something like the manager at Marshall Field’s, sucking a Frango mint, so be it…Ha! The Great Havoc that is the Puzzle of all Life!”

Virginia Woolf (from her diaries)

“But it is a serene, accomplished feeling, to write, even provisionally, the End, and we are off on Saturday, with my mind appeased.”

Amy Hempl (from “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is buried”)

“It seems to me Anger must be next. Then Bargaining, Depression, and so on and so forth. But I keep my guesses to myself…She is flirting with the Good Doctor, who has just appeared…”

Stuart Dybek (from “We Didn’t”)

“They did it because of the Bomb, because of pollution, because of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, because extinction might be just a blink away.”

Kelly Link (from “The Specialist’s Hat”)

“‘When you’re Dead,’ Samantha says, ‘you don’t have to brush your teeth…’ ‘When you’re Dead,’ Claire says, ‘you live in a box, and it’s always dark, but you’re not ever afraid.’ Claire and Samantha are identical twins. Their combined age is twenty years, four months, and six days. Claire is better at being Dead than Samantha.”

Julian Barnes (from A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters)

“Some creatures were simply Not Wanted on Voyage. That was the case with us; that’s why we had to stow away.”

I’m sure there are examples from Joyce, Beckett, Jim Shepard, Miranda July, Meg Wolitzer, Louise Erdrich, Lydia Davis, Jeanette Winterson, Don DeLillo, Richard Russo, Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Lauren Groff, Z.Z. Packer, Donald Barthelme…

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  • Jenni

    For a sec, I thought Lorrie Moore was the first commenter! Good examples so far … I will ponder.

  • Celeste

    A few examples by contemporary writers:

    Vladimir Nabokov (from Lolita):
    “…it was a very languid Lolita that moaned and coughed and shivered in my embrace. And as soon as she was well again, I threw a Party with Boys.”

    Helen Fielding (from Bridget Jones’s Diary)
    “‘Stupid, smug, arrogant, manipulative, self-indulgent bastards. They exist in a total Culture of Enlightenment. Pass me one of those mini-pizzas, will you?'”


    “Head is full of moony fantasies about living in flats with him and running along beaches together with tiny offspring in manner of Calvin Klein ad, being trendy Smug Married instead of sheepish Singleton.”

    Marissa Pessl (from Special Topics in Calamity Physics):
    “I watched the rest of the news, but there was no further mention of the camping trip. I found myself noticing all the Little Things about Cherry: her eyes scurrying across the teleprompter, the way her facial expressions morphed between the Look of Restrained Dismay (salon heist), the Look of Deep-seated Sorrow (infant dead in apartment fire, the Look of Quiet Community Consciousness (battle revs up between motocross riders and tralier owners in Marengo) with the ease of trying on slips in a dressing room.”

    Toni Morrison (from The Bluest Eye):
    “And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.”


    “In short, how to get rid of the funkiness. The dreadful funkiness of passion, the funkiness of nature, the funkiness of the wide range of human emotions. Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away; where it crusts, they dissolve it; wherever it drips, flowers, or clings, they find it and fight it until it dies.”

    It’s reductive, even insulting, to imply that Roy’s style is just capitalization. But it’s even more insulting that these charges of imitation are leveled only at writers of Indian descent. I’ve never heard such a thing said about non-Indian writers, and as is clear from all the examples so far, they Use Capitalization too. Great topic!

  • Hello all! This is a great list. This from a friend who shall soon be named if she wants to be (and no, this isn’t a coy way of saying that I stayed up all night combing through my books for Capitals):

    Melville (she said Moby Dick, but I think he does it elsewhere too?)

    “The next thing to do is to tell how the Diamond found its way into my aunt’s house in Yorkshire, two years ago, and how it came to be lost in little more than twelve hours afterwards.” (Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone)

    “‘These goddam Communist Jesus Foreigners!’ the peeler man screamed.” (Flannery O’Connor, “The Peeler”)

    “This syphilitic man was thinking hard there, at the Crossroads of America, about how to get his legs to step off the curb and carry him across Washington Street.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions)

    “She remained singularly unruffled when confronted with my discovery, and said d’un petit air faussement contrit that she knew she was a very wicked kid, but simply had not been able to resist the enchantment, and had used up those music hours–O Reader, My Reader!–in a nearby public park rehearsing the magic forest scene with Mona.” (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)

    “A water-clerk need not pass an examination in anything under the sun, but he must have Ability in the abstract and demonstrate it practically.” (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim; there are also Dark Powers in this book)

    “In a minute 325,000 little zippered real-leather ladies’ change purses were rammed into the digestion of starving Mrs. Lonesome, the Jersey Consumer.” (Grace Paley, “Come On, Ye Sons of Art”)

    “Why, after all, should one not be born there as one is born here, helpless, speechless, unable to focus one’s eyesight, groping at the roots of the grass, at the toes of the Giants?” (Virginia Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall”)

    Maybe she meant the football team and maybe these are not all characteristic of these authors’ work all the time, but they certainly are or were white, and capitalizing should certainly be rescued from the eighteenth century and Arundhati Roy….”

    I left in the bit about the football team because it is funny.

  • This from another friend (I have all sorts of friends, in High Places and Low Places):

    “George Saunders is the first that springs to mind. From “Pastoralia”:

    “I filled out my Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form. Did I note
    any attitudinal difficulties? I did not. How did I rate my Partner
    overall? Very good. Were there any Situations which required Mediation?
    There were not.
    I faxed it in.”

  • Okay, we’ve come up with so many examples I think it’s CLEAR that Arundhati Roy shouldn’t be blamed for the Original Sin — so maybe another pertinent question is, does the quality/purpose of capitalisation differ from author to author here, and if so, does the capitalisation of Indian writers fall into its own category? It’s not a rhetorical question.

    If not, is it the coincidence of capitalisation and (lush, tropical) setting that suggests similarity? The coincidence of capitalisation and Something Else? What is it?

  • Oh — I am taking over this blog. But I forgot to mention Graham Swift’s Waterland, which capitalises Empire, State, Destiny, Salvation, Old Folk (…”She having decided, for reasons no more explicit than those which made her begin, to give up her work with her Old Folk), New Life (“Who did not believe any more in miracles and fairy-tales, nor (having experimented in her younger days) in New Life and Salvation”), Golden Age, Gone, and, of course, History. There may be others.

  • For what it’s worth, the sentence that caught my jaundiced eye in the review of Raj Kamal Jha’s book is this:

    “He also likes – I think we can call this the Arundhati Roy effect in Indian fiction – another hokey move, which is to capitalize words and phrases in mid-sentence.”

    You can read the whole review (which makes many other points, so I don’t want to suggest that the above accusation was the entire thrust of his argument — but not having read Jha’s book, I can’t evaluate his other criticisms) here:

  • Celeste

    Preeta–based on all these examples, I was also wondering about the Purpose of capitalization here. I can see a few slightly overlapping categories:

    * to imitate/emulate an earlier style, either seriously or for irony: “to give up her work with her Old Folk” (Swift); “…used up those music hours–O Reader, My Reader!–in a nearby public park…” (Nabokov)

    * to bestow a title (often ironic or sarcastic) upon someone or something: “Nice Big Daddy of Conventional Treatment” (Moore); “being trendy Smug Married instead of sheepish Singleton” (Fielding); “Look of Restrained Dismay” (Pessl); “Mrs. Lonesome, the Jersey Consumer” (Paley)

    * to mock corporate-speak and corporate titles: “How did I rate my Partner
    overall? Very good. Were there any Situations which required Mediation?
    There were not.” (Saunders)

    * to create a category (often mockingly): “Some creatures were simply Not Wanted on Voyage” (Barnes); “I threw a Party with Boys” (Nabokov)

    * to elevate the word to a universal concept–think “Trouble with a capital T”: “‘When you’re Dead,’ Samantha says, ‘you don’t have to brush your teeth…’” (Link); “Wherever it erupts, this Funk, they wipe it away…” (Morrison); “he must have Ability in the abstract and demonstrate it practically” (Conrad)

    Actually, that the first category might contain all the others.

    Based on this, does the capitalisation of Indian writers fall into its own category? Thinking through examples we haven’t mentioned above (Rushdie, Roy, etc., and yes, Samarasan), I’m not sure it does.

    So the next question is: Why do we associate Capitalization with Indian writers, even though they’re clearly not the only ones or even the first ones to do it? My theory is that those particular Indian writers have a strong, distinctive style for other reasons–primarily, the “big-voice” narration that may be a bit bombastic, commenting on and drawing connections to Global Issues. (That reminds me most of Dickens, actually, and that kind of narration leads naturally to capitalizations both serious and ironic.) But capitalization is the most obvious style marker, and especially after Rushdie and Roy, many people come to associate those capitals with “Indian style.”

    Here’s an experiment to test the theory: If an Indian writer *didn’t* use Capitalization, would the writing seem less “Indian”? Take Narayan or Ghosh, for example, who don’t use many Capitals as I recall. Conversely, if an Indian writer used Capitalization but wrote about, say, Industrial-era England, would the writing seem “Indian,” or “Dickensian”? I can’t think of any examples for this one, but maybe others can.

  • astameshkin

    Celeste, I love your categories. Thinking about the particular “whys” behind stylistic capitalization is important. I often wince at its overuse (especially for the purposes of Mockery or Categorization) in fiction, but in small and well-chosen doses, it has wit and bite that makes me chuckle–but not Chuckle.

    I have to wonder if the use of capitalization in contemporary Indian writing emerges partially (even subconsciously) from a (sometimes light, sometimes more significant) critique of Britain and its Literature’s conventions? **enters seminar room, scrawls “Post-colonial Literatures” on board, scowls gloomily over spectacles, raps at map with pointer, realizes this is not one’s area of expertise**

  • I had to disappear briefly, but I also loved Celeste’s categories and wanted to comment on them: I think, yes, the Indian use of capitalisation is connected to the British use, though I’m not sure it’s always a simple critique. I think it’s conscious satire in some cases, but it’s also a habit inherited from writers more widely read in India today than perhaps anywhere else, like Dickens (in school) and Wodehouse (for fun — that’s why I mentioned him in my initial e-mail — I read somewhere that his largest readership today is in India, and the preservation of that Wodehousian language can even be detected in Indian speech patterns, whether in jest or in earnest — Naipaul mentions this in an essay in _An Area of Darkness_).

    Celeste’s final paragraph also hints at another question I wanted to raise: if an Indian writer didn’t use the style whose characteristics she’s outlined (capital letters, big voice, bombast), would they be any less “Indian” in style? What constitutes a national style, and why is it that writers like Rushdie and Roy are more commonly lumped together in a single category than writers like Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh (pre-Sea of Poppies, which I haven’t read but which seems, linguistically, to be a whole new kettle of fish)? Is there some unspoken idea that the more restrained style is a non-style, that it’s invisible, the default, the norm, however you wish to put it? I mentioned in another comment thread on this blog that I’d been rereading L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between — well, one thing that strikes me about it is how clearly it is a precursor — both in style and in content — to Atonement. Yet I haven’t come across anything that imposes the heading of Genre, or even Style, on this kind of writing — high diction, a certain kind of retrospective restraint, consistent use of the pluperfect tense — let alone accuses McEwan of simply imitating Hartley (I must emphasise that I would never make that accusation myself). Again, is this style perceived as the non-style, in the same way as Anglo-Saxon food is not Ethnic Food?

  • Celeste

    Preeta, I think that’s it exactly: the restrained style is seen as the norm, or a non-style. YES, just as Anglo-Saxon food is not considered ethnic food. (Of course, this is total nonsense, but I think it’s also the common perception.) It seems that the critics who get hung up on the Capitalization Thing often overlook other markers of style–high or low diction, rhythm, sentence length, pacing, structure, all that sort of stuff–unless it’s extreme.

    Maybe this is too simple of an answer, but could this critique of capitalization be based in Laziness? After all, capitalization is the easiest thing to notice; analyzing diction, or rhythm, or any other aspects of style, takes careful thought and careful explanation. With anything that is foreign–by which I mean both “unfamiliar” and “from a different country”–it’s hard to think honestly at their complexities and easy to make simplistic generalizations. “Hm, these Indian writers–something is different, something makes them non-western, but what is it? Well, um, there are all these Capitalized Words–yes, that must be it. THAT’S their style.”

    Oh yes, and how could we have left off one of the most obvious examples of Capitalization?

    “He was getting rather tired by this time, so that is why he sang a Complaining Song.” AND

    “‘I have discovered that the bees are now definitely Suspicious.'” AND

    “He had made up a little hum that very morning, as he was doing his Stoutness Exercises in front of the glass.” AND

    “‘If I know anything about anything, that hole means Rabbit,’ he said, ‘and Rabbit means Company,’ he said, ‘and Company means Food and Listening-to-Me-Humming and such like.'” AND

    “‘That Accounts for a Good Deal,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘It Explains Everything. No Wonder.'”

    I could go on, but open just about any page of Winnie The Pooh and you’ll find more examples, both in the narrative itself and in the characters’ speech.

  • Celeste

    A follow-up on Preeta’s comment that there might be “some unspoken idea that the more restrained style is a non-style, that it’s invisible, the default, the norm.” I wonder if this unspoken idea is mostly present in England and America. Do Indian readers and critics see books with More Capitalization as sounding more “Indian”? Or do they see them differently–as mock-British, say, or mockingly British, or as something else?

    (Side note: I’m curious about how non-English-speaking critics see these books too. What about in German, where nouns are capitalized? How does the Capitalization come across there?)

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