Is Cormac McCarthy a Terrible Writer?

roadFor the record, I don’t think so. In fact, I think he’s brilliant. Mind you, so far I’ve read only The Road. [Update: now I’ve also read No Country for Old Men.] Still, though I had my doubts when I began it for the first time, by the time I finished it I was under the spell of its strange, difficult, deeply poetic language. I’ve been reading and rereading it as I work through it with my class, and for me it just gets better — I find McCarthy’s prose weirder and more interesting and more affecting on each pass.

At the same time, paradoxically, as I reread it I’ve also been very aware that my admiration is a decision on my part, and that it’s one that could quite conceivably have gone the other way: I can see perfectly well that the same prose could be experienced as awkward, pretentious, and affected. I’m not sure I can objectively justify my own belief that it is written with integrity and redolent with artistic significance. There are certainly moments in the novel that I don’t like, sentences I can’t make sense of or that seem to me near misses, if not outright failures. “The snow fell nor did it cease to fall” is one. The last sentence of this passage is another (I’m quoting the whole bit to give it its best chance):

He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms soaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

But despite the bits that make me stumble or wince, The Road reads to me like writing that matters, that deserves to be taken seriously. I don’t mind the sentence fragments, or the eccentric punctuation (though I do find the absent apostrophes distracting). I enjoy the dense vocabulary and the occasionally florid imagery. I find the oscillation between severe minimalism and poetic expansion exhilarating. This week I did an exercise with my class on “found poetry” in the novel. One reason I thought it would work is that we accept or forgive irregularities and difficulties in verse to a degree we don’t, typically, in prose; reading The Road as poetry freed us up to appreciate its peculiarities without fretting too much about lucid intelligibility or standard syntax. Consider the novel’s first sentence, for example:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Or, just a bit further along,

Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.

The cadence of the lines makes poetic sense of them, doesn’t it? I also think they’d sound just right read in an Irish brogue – again, it’s something about the rhythm, the rise and fall and slight excess of them. Yet I can see how they could strike another reader as mannered, almost self-aggrandizing: look at me, writing!

I haven’t done a systematic survey of critical responses to The Road, but what I have seen shows judgments divided over just this problem of whether the writing is good (even brilliant) or bad (awful, even). In the NYTBR, Janet Maslin is appreciative:

Since the cataclysm has presumably incinerated all dictionaries, Mr. McCarthy’s affinity for words like rachitic and crozzled has as much visceral, atmospheric power as precise meaning. His use of language is as exultant as his imaginings are hellish, a hint that “The Road” will ultimately be more radiant than it is punishing. Somehow Mr. McCarthy is able to hold firm to his pessimism while allowing the reader to see beyond it. This is art that both frightens and inspires.

In The New Republic, James Wood argues that McCarthy’s “dumbly questing, glacially heuristic approach matches its subject, a world in which nothing is left standing. . . . Short phrasal sentences, often just fragments, savagely paint the elements of this voided world.” He doesn’t find it entirely successful:

The second register is the one familiar to readers of Blood Meridian or Suttree, and again seems somewhat Conradian. Hard detail and a fine eye is combined with exquisite, gnarled, slightly antique (and even slightly clumsy or heavy) lyricism. It ought not to work, and sometimes it does not. But many of its effects are beautiful — and not only beautiful, but powerfully efficient as poetry. . . .

Yet McCarthy’s third register is more problematic. He is also an American ham. When critics laud him for being biblical, they are hearing sounds that are more often than not merely antiquarian, a kind of vatic histrionic groping, in which the prose plumes itself up and flourishes an ostentatiously obsolete lexicon. (Blood fustian, this style might be called.)

Closer to home, one of my colleagues said she is convinced McCarthy is a genius (to be strictly accurate, she was speaking about Blood Meridian, but the stylistic features she described sounded very familiar). But wise Colleen at Bookphilia maintains that The Road “is bad because the writing is bad and because the plot in no way makes up for this deficiency”, and others express the same opinion with less economy, as in this blog comment I turned up while idly googling opinions on the apostrophe issue:

 I just tried to read this book and had to put it down after around thirty pages due to the absolute atrocious writing style and complete disregard for language structure. Fragments, overuse of conjunctions, lack of multiple different kinds of punctuation. Overall it makes the book a very slow read due to having to re-read passages multiple times.

Language structure is there to aid communication, it should not be modified willy nilly by some hack author as a literary device in a way to inject what he is unable to convey through language. In this case all you have is a clumsy, choppy, piece of sub-par writing.

And speaking of language, the text reads like it was written by a freshman with a thesaurus. There is excessive use of bizarre adjectives and over-description. Simple sentence structure with over use of a inappropriate descriptors just reeks of poor undergrad writing.

 Or there’s this post:

McCarthy’s writing is full of incomplete sentences and anastrophe, completely lacks quotation marks, and frequently embeds dialogue in the middle of paragraphs. What truly annoys me, though, is McCarthy’s inconsistent use of apostrophes for contractions. Each of these conventions is a barrier to straightforward reading (though I finished The Road in only a few hours). If they made me stop and think about the language, characters, or plot, I wouldn’t object, but they’re merely distracting.

We’re looking at the same evidence but drawing very different conclusions. I wish I could assert confidently that I’m reading right and the naysayers are ill-informed, mistaken, or obtuse. I do think that fixating on non-standard grammar, unfamiliar vocabulary, or other technicalities is a superficial way to evaluate the quality of literary writing. And McCarthy’s odd prose did make me stop and think — not so much about “the language, characters, or  plot,” but about the themes and values of the work, and also about the role of language itself, in making meaning and in creating aesthetic and emotional effects. Can I do better, though, than saying “it worked for me”? Can the haters really get past “it didn’t work for me”?

This is the reason I think debating “literary merit,” or ranking or rating books, quickly becomes an exercise in either folly, futility, or bullying. If you’re going to ask “but is it any good?” you need to flesh out the question: good at what? for what? for whom? There are myriad ways a novel can be. A much more interesting discussion will come from asking “what does McCarthy’s prose do?” or “what are the connections between McCarthy’s literary strategies and the central ideas of The Road?” then from asking if he is a good or a bad writer. Why would you even ask those questions, though, if you didn’t think the work was worth spending that kind of time and thought on? By assigning The Road to my class, I’ve implicitly endorsed it as good writing, haven’t I? And, to return to where I began, I think it is good writing. Good at what? Good for what? Well, one of the things it is unequivocally good at, or good for, is provoking discussions about good (or bad) writing.

Update: More Critical Views

Ron Charles in the Washington Post:

even with its flaws, there’s just no getting around it: The Road is a frightening, profound tale that drags us into places we don’t want to go, forces us to think about questions we don’t want to ask. Readers who sneer at McCarthy’s mythic and biblical grandiosity will cringe at the ambition of The Road. At first I kept trying to scoff at it, too, but I was just whistling past the graveyard. Ultimately, my cynicism was overwhelmed by the visceral power of McCarthy’s prose and the simple beauty of this hero’s love for his son.

Jennifer Egan in Slate (the review overall asks thought-provoking questions about the novel’s “literary masculinity”):

There is no limit to the devastation, only new forms of its expression, and McCarthy renders these up in lush, sensuous prose that belies the inertness of its object and keeps the reader in a constant state of longing and alarm.

Gail Caldwell in the Boston Globe:

Unfolding in a spartan, precise narrative that mirrors the bleakness of its nuclear winter . . . even with his lapses into grandiloquence, McCarthy is too seasoned a writer to over dramatize what may be the last drama of all . . . he has written this last waltz with enough elegant reserve to capture what matters most.

Mark Holcomb in the Village Voice:

[McCarthy’s fans] should be satisfied with the current offering’s characteristic helpings of hypnotic, gut-punching prose and bracing depictions of emotional longing (“She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned” )—qualities McCarthy’s detractors seem bizarrely content to underestimate or overlook.

Sycorax Pine:

His prose is plain, but shows the almost baroque love of unusual and archaic language amidst this plainness that I have always heard associated with him (this is my first finished McCarthy novel). At a certain point in the novel, it was teaching me an average of one new word per 8 pages: discalced (unshod!), fire-drake, lave, mastic, rachitic, siwash, skift,claggy, quoits. The boy picks up clichés out of nowhere, it seems, magically resurrecting conventions of language that died in the cataclysms of his pre-speaking life. From time to time, a turn of speech will seep through from our time, revealing the possibility that this is an allegory for our politically embattled world

 Further Update (2/18): A thoughtful dissenter:

In setting The Road in a post-apocalyptic world where plot is beside the point and the two main characters are — given their hazily remembered past, monochrome present, and probable lack of a future —inevitably archetypal, McCarthy overuses the stark-but-somehow-simultaneously-baroque tone that eventually threatens to send all his work off the rails. McCarthy is a writer who could make a casual brunch read like the end of the world, so when he’s actually writing about the end of the world, his grandiosity grows numbing. In this sense, his language fails The Road, distracting from the emotional potency it might have had. (Clearly, there are many who disagree.) [from John Williams at A Special Way of Being Afraid]

And yet another update (2/27): At least two commenters (so far) in this FlavorWire thread are not fans.

Good Exposition is Hard to Find

People often sound off about the value of showing over telling in fiction. I think this is a pretty stupid contest to set up: what’s important is finding the right technique to get the work done. As I emphasize in my class on close reading, you can do some things by telling that you can’t do otherwise–establishing historical context, for instance, or philosophizing or otherwise commenting on the action of the story. Huge swathes of brilliant writing from the nineteenth century is basically telling: I could never embrace any putative standard of excellence in fiction that doesn’t put Chapter XV of Middlemarch pretty high up the list. It’s not as if telling is the easy way out, either. It’s hard to manage information in a compelling and elegant way, as I was reminded by some joltingly awkward moments in a book I just finished, Julie James’s About That Night. Here’s an example:

She had a week off before her summer job started, during which she planned to do nothing more strenuous than roll herself out of bed every day by noon and mosey over to the university’s outdoor pool, which was open to students.

‘I hate to burst the bubble on your daydream, but I’m pretty sure they don’t allow alcoholic drinks at IMPE,’ Rae said, referring to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, which housed said pool.

James’s challenge here is that Rae, who’s familiar with the campus, would naturally use the acronym, but the reader, who isn’t, needs it glossed. She is right, then, to gloss it, but it feels like an awkward afterthought when the explanation is tacked on like that. Why didn’t James’s editor work with her on this bit? What is the solution, anyway? My first thought is that it would help to put the details in sooner, maybe here: “mosey over to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, where the pool was open to students.” Then we’d recognize the source of the acronym when Rae uses it, wouldn’t we? And then the awful phrase “housed said pool” could go too.

Here’s another bit of awkward explaining:

Dex smiled at Rae, then turned to Rylann with a curious expression. ‘Oh, Ry-linn,’ he said, pronouncing her name. ‘I’d been saying it wrong after I saw the picture of you and Kyle in the paper.’ He cocked his head. ‘Not a very common name, is it?’

I’d been saying her name wrong since page 1, and this is page 149. Obviously this is something James knows is a likely problem. To me, it makes more sense to address it sooner, though admittedly I may just be sensitive on this point because my own name is not very common and often mispronounced and I’ve had to explain or correct it for 40-something years. Why not include the pronunciation and provenance of the name in an early bit of characterization? We hear all about her hair colour and amber eyes right away, after all. But it’s the ‘pronouncing her name’ bit that’s really an editorial wobble. What else could he possibly be doing?

Another one, still later:

With a smile curling at the edges of his lips, Kyle held up a Starbucks cup. ‘Drink this. My mother used to get migraines. I remember her saying something about caffeine helping.’

‘Sweet Jesus, you are a god,’ Rylann said, taking the cup gratefully. She’d had luck with caffeine before but hadn’t had the energy to stop at a Starbucks on her way home from work.

This is the first we’ve heard about her even contemplating a stop at Starbucks. It makes sense that a regular migraine sufferer would know about and have tried various fixes (though this is also the first time in the novel that she’s had a headache at all), so I can see why it felt necessary to say something to fill that in–but again, I think it makes more sense to integrate her previous experience as well as her idea to stop for coffee into the actual description of her coming home from work–‘By the time she left work at six thirty, her head was throbbing, she felt nauseous, and even the hazy pre-sunset light outside made her eyes hurt so much that even stopping at Starbucks for the caffeine that had helped her headaches before was intolerable’–or something like that. Then Kyle arrives bearing his Starbucks cup and the scene can just go on.

These are not fatal flaws, though there are other similarly graceless moments in the book–more of the same after-the-fact fillers as in these examples (after a comment about ‘Keith, Kellie, Dan, and Claire’ in conversation, we get ‘Keith, Kellie, Dan, and Claire had been their “couple friends”‘), or the occasional info-dump (as when Kyle arrives at his old campus and we get a whole paragraph describing the computer science building), or problems with modifiers (‘Now in his late fifties, there was gray in Sharma’s black hair’). Not fatal–but at the same time, they send the signal that this book has relatively low standards when it comes to its prose and its craft: not just the writer but the editor either didn’t see or didn’t care that it could be better written. It’s not that my ideas for tweaks would move the novel any closer to the depth and richness of the exposition in Middlemarch, but there’s no need to give telling a worse reputation than it already has by doing it so clumsily.

In fairness, I should add that the book overall is not so bad.