It’s not the same as recorded speech. A better word for the back-and-forth between persons in most novels would be chitchat. The word dialogue entered the English language in the thirteenth century as a name for a specific type of writing in which the action or argument develops as an interchange between two or more points of view. This is, in fact, the earliest use of the word. Not until two centuries later did the technical term become a synonym for casual conversation.
The unattractive word dialogism, which has gained prestige through its association with the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, is now more likely to be substituted for the dramatic interplay of thought in the novel. Originally, though, the order was reversed.
In his Arte of English Poesie (1589), for example, Puttenham observes that the forms of poetry and the manner of its writing are as diverse as its subject matter. Some poets write of heroes, while others are “more delighted to write songs or ballads of pleasure.” Some are taken with “the perplexities of love,” while others write only for the stage. “There were yet others,” he continues, “who mounted nothing so high as any of them both, but in base and humble style by manner of Dialogue, uttered the private and familiar talk of the meanest sort of men. . . .” He names Theocritus and Vergil as practitioners of the kind, identifying the eclogue (or “shepherdly talk”) as a subgenre of the larger class.
The fiction of speech in another man’s mouth, however, is called something else entirely:
Jonathan Franzen is perhaps the most glaring example in contemporary fiction. As if he were an entomologist collecting specimens, Franzen excels at characters who sound like someone at the next table in Starbuck’s, whose conversation you find yourself eavesdropping upon. In The Corrections, he noticed the way that some people end their sentences with a rising so, as if they were about to go on, although they don’t. In Freedom, he is deft with the word like. “We haven’t even started on jealousy yet,” Patty tells Richard. “This is, like, Minute One of jealousy.” Or later:
What I am suggesting is that the two treatments of dialogue in the contemporary novel—the scrupulous mimicry of everyday speech and the studied exclusion of differing points of view—are connected at the level of basic assumptions about the nature of fiction in today’s literary culture. Reading Luke Ford’s interview with Robb Forman Dew, I was struck by the following exchange:
Robb, quickly: “No. I don't think I could. Are you?”
Robb: “You are? You really are? Oh no. You can’t be.”
In Being Polite to Hitler, the horror of the atomic bomb is the psychological landscape of the novel. The novel opens in October 1952, when “there was not a single community [in America],” according to Dew, “that didn’t harbor an unacknowledged dread and anticipation of some sort of retribution for having perpetrated an act of aggression previously unmatched by any other country.” The dread worms its way into the lives of every character in the novel, spreading frustration and unease. No other response is possible, because the only admissible point of view is that “dropping a bomb like that on a civilian population” was an “act of aggression.”
Robb Forman Dew can no more imagine a different conception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than she can imagine having conservative Republican friends. And in this she deviates little from Jonathan Franzen, who is otherwise a much superior novelist. Their novels suffer as a consequence, however, because it is just impossible to enter into dialogue with what can neither be imagined nor believed. In Bakhtin’s terms, their novels are monologic, a long rehearsed speech by a single uninterrupted voice. Or, as I would prefer to call them, they are examples in American fiction of “begging the question,” which establish their premises by shutting out anything that might aggravate them.