Breaking news: Cormac McCarthy proves apostrophes susceptible to nuclear attack!

Written by Andrew on August 22nd, 2009

Cormac McCarthy's The RoadMy list of 15 books that left a lasting impression is full of science fiction, much of it very dark, and some of it apocalyptic. After ignoring the hype for a couple of years, I finally picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only to become immediately annoyed with McCarthy’s pretentious, mannered style.

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.

Naturally, this apocalyptic abomination is being made into a “major motion picture.”

I think what bothers me most is how much attention McCarthy and The road have gotten. With more praise and “book of the year” awards than God’s own Bible, you’d think McCarthy had done something deeply original. Well, he hasn’t. Writers like Joyce experimented with alternatives to standard dialogue punctuation, but I would argue that time has proven their experiments a failure.

And there are far superior works that address how we as humans might react to the end of our civilization and the impending extinction of our species. Two of my favorite examples appear at the end of Elizabeth Hand‘s Saffron and Brimstone. “Echo” and “The Saffron Gatherers” explore similar themes of survival amidst the loss of hope without resorting to needless typographical devices.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who’s annoyed and even a little angry about The Road‘s undeserved success.

The Bibliophile Baker:

What really irritates me is his apparent aversion to punctuation. For a while I was trying to decide why some words deserve apostrophes, and others don’t, but I think I finally figured it out: he puts apostrophe’s for contractions of words + had, but not words + not. i.e. He’d use some markings, but he didnt use others. This to me is both annoying and pretentious.

Bibliobibuli has an excellent analysis of the specific patterns, along with a roundup of the punctuational criticism from around the ‘net.

Literary Kicks may respect Oprah, but nevertheless has some more well-constructed analysis of McCarthy’s assault on the English language.

And with that, I’m hereby inaugurating my list of…

Writers I Would Like to Punch in the Face

  • Cormac McCarthy, for being a pretentious twat.
  • Philip Pullman, who doesn’t seem capable of creating a sympathetic character, even in books ostensibly written for pre-adults.
  • Michael Crichton, whose varied and single-minded obsessions in each book (chaos theory! quantum mechanics! the Japanese!) seemed about as relevant as an elevator operating manual to a Kalahari bushman.

Having actually met enough reasonably well-known writers to think that there’s a greater-than-zero chance that I might also meet those on this list, I should of course note that I’m a pacifist and wouldn’t think of really punching these guys in the nose. Well, maybe Michael Crichton, since if I met him now he’d have to be a zombie…

 

6 Comments so far ↓

  1. Sharon says:

    This is the funniest thing Ive (hee-hee!) read recently. :D Punch away!

  2. Mark says:

    I read this book long before the hype and loved it. I barely noticed the punctuation. I think the stark feeling of the prose is one of the triumphs of the book. The fact that his punctuation left you “annoyed and even a little angry” seems a little over the top to me, but everyone is entitled to their opinion.

  3. Avery Christy says:

    After reading twenty pages of “The Road”, and then tossing it, McCarthy’s writing came across as a college student in some writing course trying to develop a new style. The characters, the setting, the writing, the whole thing has all the literary and emotional depth of a college student giddy with their own ideas and who has not been tested by time or experience but is oft patted on the head by their pretentious professor.

  4. Hamish H. says:

    You think that the awards were because of his unusual punctuation? And that he for some reason resorted to that style to try and express the themes of the book? LOL. It’s not supposed to be original, it’s just how he writes all of his books. Seriously, is it really that hard to get used to?

    And Avery: rip the book all you want, but calling his style or ideas inexperienced and untested after 20 pages is just absurd and juvenile. Honestly, it sounds like it’s coming from said arrogant, pretentious college student who has no patience and just wants to shit on things he or she doesn’t get right off – not sure how you can complain about a lack of depth when you barely cracked the cover.

  5. Bruce says:

    You think that the awards were because of his unusual punctuation? And that he for some reason resorted to that style to try and express the themes of the book? LOL. It’s not supposed to be original, it’s just how he writes all of his books. Seriously, is it really that hard to get used to?

    And Avery: rip the book all you want, but calling his style or ideas inexperienced and untested after 20 pages is just absurd and juvenile. Honestly, it sounds like it’s coming from said arrogant, pretentious college student who has no patience and just wants to shit on things he or she doesn’t get right off – not sure how you can complain about a lack of depth when you barely cracked the cover.

  6. Steve says:

    I think anyone who labels Cormac McCarthy pretentious is pretentious himself. Screw the punctuation and the comparisons to other authors; the man tells a good story! His book are stark, straightforward, and hard to put down. That’s all I really need in a book.