No Speech Marks for Cormac!

Cormac McCarthy is publishing two new novels; the NY Times says (archived):

Widely revered as one of the greatest living American writers, McCarthy has not published a novel since 2006, when he released “The Road,” a post-apocalyptic survival story that won the Pulitzer Prize and became a best seller.

I read The Road and found it impressive and memorable, but it didn’t make me want to read more of him (although if the reviews of the new ones make them sound irresistible, I may give them a try). But I’m really just using the news as a hook to bring you the following pastiche by Lavie Tidhar:

He walked out of that door and stood staring at the diminishing sun and he thought back to his childhood how he begged them how he said I want to play with them with the commas and his mother said commas are not toys and his father said youve been a bad boy you cant even have an apostrophe and he said what about speech marks and his mother said no speech marks for you Cormac and he walked outside and stood there like he stood there now watching the blood red sun and blood he thought there must be so much blood at least one per sentences he will show them he didnt need their commas or their speech marks or their stupid apostrophes they were just conventional signs.

He liked full stops though. All that blood. All that blood and short sentences and full stops. But never a comma. Then he went back inside.

I think you can appreciate that even if you’ve never read a word by C McC.


  1. My brother, after reading Blood Meridian in college, wrote some parodies of McCarthy also.

  2. The pastiche is note-perfect..
    Attempted to to read C McC a couple of times, but it always read like a parody of the laconic Western cowboy tough-guy persona: so I’d start laughing, couldn’t get myself to take it seriously.

    No Country for Old Men is Yeats, I find..

    Sailing to Byzantium

    That is no country for old men. The young
    In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
    —Those dying generations—at their song,
    The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
    Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
    Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

  3. Christopher Culver says

    Your post here is ambiguous as to whether you had read any McCarthy’s up to The Road. I hope you haven’t missed out on Blood Meridian at least, one of the great works of the 20th century.

  4. Nope, that’s the only CMC I’ve read. Maybe someday I’ll get around to Blood Meridian.

  5. Counterpoint: Blood Meridian is one of the most overrated works of the 20th century (IMHO, of course, and YMMV): 300+ pages of repetitive, episodic, blood-drenched nihilism liberally larded with ponderous pseudo-biblical language and tropes. I found it eye-glazingly pretentious and dull…though I forced myself to finish it because I’m an inveterate “finisher.” (Subsequent conversations with friends suggest it’s strongly a love-it-or-hate-it work.)

  6. OK, maybe someday I won’t get around to Blood Meridian!

  7. Rodger Cunningham says

    I agree with laowai about Blood Meridian. The only McCarthy I still own, and can recommend, is Suttree.

  8. I only know one person who liked Blood Meridian. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a library I can feel them.

  9. The NYT article says that in his two new novels, McCarthy “tackles more cerebral subjects: the history of math and physics, the nature of reality and consciousness, whether religion and science can coexist, and the relationship between genius and madness.”

    Oh dear. How will he get all the bloodshed in?

    The article also says (quoting his editor) that the novels show stylistic changes. So perhaps he will be using commas this time.

    I haven’t read any of his books but I did watch the Coen brothers adaptation of No Country for Old Men. It’s engrossing, in a strange and almost repellent way, but also seemed completely nihilistic.

  10. David L: How will he get all the bloodshed in?

    I know you are being sarcastic, but this seems a silly question to ask about an author who inserted a tree full of dead babies into one of his novels.

  11. Crawdad Tom says

    I’d also recommend Blood Meridian, as well as All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing.

  12. I have never heard of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve heard of vaguely “the road”. some film?

  13. Brian McLean says

    “Blood Meridian” is superb but make sure you surround yourselves with loved ones who remind you that this is just one man’s worldview. It’s a dirge.

    I don’t know the source of this but it has been floating around on the old wide web for some time:


    A: Two or perhaps three, approaching now, from beyond the tree in the long low light of morning. From some black place: a reckoning neither required nor bidden, a reckoning no judge could have ordered, but a reckoning nonetheless. One of the men carries a single glove, ready to grip the hot, bright bulb and twist it dead. The other two follow, smoking, and whisper about what is to come: the treacherous scramble in wet woolen darkness, the fight to fill that space with light. One of them, the youngest, cradles the thin bowl of glass in his hands like a baby foal born too soon―partly out of gentleness, partly as if to shield it from the mare’s desperate inquiring eyes.

    The men walk to the bulb. The Remover’s shadow blackens as he approaches it. A quick unnatural lunge.

    Then all is dark.

  14. Speaking of great gloomy classics, I decided quite a few years ago that I ought to watch The Seventh Seal, so I ordered the disc from Netflix. For the first hour or so it was merely humorless and plodding, but when I reached the scene where Death comes knocking on the villagers’ doors, I just burst out laughing – I could only compare it to the section with Death in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and various bits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (they call me … Tim!).

    I’ve never been able to take Bergman seriously since then.

  15. The Seventh Seal has a fair share of funny moments,
    including a number coming from Death. In fact, I was actually sort of surprised that there was no levity at the end, just the athiest, the doubter, and the believer each facing death with the utmost seriousness.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Then all is dark.

    Renowned author Dan Brown staggered through his formulaic opening sentence.

    they call me … Tim!

    “There are some who call me… Tim –”

  17. I never saw The Seventh Seal. De Düva showed me all I needed to know.

  18. Ha, I was thinking of citing that myself!

  19. On searching for connections between Seventh Seal and MP and the Holy Grail, I found this reverse spoof.

  20. The NYT article says that in his two new novels, McCarthy “tackles more cerebral subjects: the history of math and physics, the nature of reality and consciousness, whether religion and science can coexist, and the relationship between genius and madness.”

    The journal Nature had an article a few years ago:

    Novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper

    Oh dear. How will he get all the bloodshed in?

    From the article: “And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.”

  21. David Marjanović says

    The journal Nature had an article a few years ago:

    Most of it is good advice, but a few comments are warranted:

    • Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

    That’s stupid, unless you’re writing for Nature or another journal with extremely tight space restrictions.

    The first thing my supervisor taught me when I started writing scientific papers was: you will be misunderstood – by someone, at some point, for some reason –, so it’s your responsibility to leave as few opportunities for that as possible.

    A bit of redundancy goes a long way there. Just don’t add so much that it drowns everything else out.

    Minimize clauses, compound sentences and transition words — such as ‘however’ or ‘thus’ — so that the reader can focus on the main message.

    Transition words are extremely important for not giving the reader whiplash as you progress through a chain of ideas.

    Avoid footnotes

    Heh. That needs to be told to the historical linguists, who routinely hide important arguments there! In the natural sciences, most journals flat-out don’t allow footnotes at all, and the others hand-wringingly plead with you (in their instructions to authors) to minimize them.

    Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language.

    This, on the other hand, is much better than it sounds. There’s nothing gained by writing about a vertebrate’s mandible instead of its lower jaw.

    And don’t use the same word repeatedly — it’s boring.

    …within reason. From the time when every full professor had his own secretary comes the tale of a professor who wrote a manuscript and gave it to his secretary for stylistic improvement. Noting a stunning abundance of statistically significant, the secretary replaced it by a wide array of phrases like numerically interesting

    In a scientific paper, clarity is more important than beauty. Usually, what is clear is also beautiful, and what is beautiful also tends to be clear; but when the two do come into conflict, do not hesitate to cold-bloodedly shoot for clarity like Han Solo.

    Don’t say both ‘elucidate’ and ‘elaborate’. Just choose one, or you risk that your readers will give up.

    …what, why? These are two vaguely similar words with hardly overlapping meanings…?

    • And don’t worry too much about readers who want to find a way to argue about every tangential point and list all possible qualifications for every statement. Just enjoy writing.

    Obviously enjoyment is beside the point, but – in doubt, just wait what the reviewers really argue about. You can always add clarifications later (unless there are unusual space restrictions, see above).

    Commas denote a pause in speaking.

    Bull-fucking-shit. Hasn’t been remotely true since the older parts of the US Constitution, if ever. Commas are a fixed, regulated way of representing certain features of intonation.

    Speak the sentence aloud to find pauses.

    That gave us all the epenthetic vowels on older runestones and in OHG writings.

    And don’t use exclamation marks to call attention to the significance of a point.

    …nobody does that in English anyway?

    You could say ‘surprisingly’ or ‘intriguingly’ instead, but don’t overdo it. Use these words only once or twice per paper.

    That depends on the subject matter.

    When you think you’re done, read your work aloud

    I know of a grand total of one colleague who did that. He’s mocked for that, as too in love with his writing and too convinced by his own ideas.

    But yes, read your work again and again (silently). If anything is ambiguous or you left out part of your chain of reasoning, you’ll probably catch it that way – it’ll throw you.

    Find a good editor you can trust and who will spend real time and thought on your work.

    You submit to a journal, not to an editor. The editorial office will assign an editor to your manuscript, and there’s nothing you can do about it, except point out a conflict of interest or submit to another journal.

    Number pages and double space [sic].

    Unless the journal says single-space. Number your lines, though, even if the journal forgot to make that explicit. It’s a pain for reviewers to have to refer to unnumbered lines.

    • And don’t rant to editors about the Oxford comma, the correct usage of ‘significantly’ or the choice of ‘that’ versus ‘which’. Journals set their own rules for style and sections. You won’t get exceptions.

    Yeah, it’s called “submission” for a reason.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    … Bull-fucking-shit …

    I agree with each and every one of your animadversions. Wehret den Peevern!

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Astonishingly, it seems that a novelist may not give particularly good advice on the style of scientific papers. Given the close similarity of the genres, this is surely remarkable.

    It seems all a bit Strunk-and-Whiteish. Same error, essentially. There is no unique correct style. It depends what you’re trying to achieve.* Tell Homer to “omit needless words”, why don’t you?

    Henry James would have had no time for McCarthy’s stylistic advice, and quite right too. He had no intention of writing like McCarthy, and why should he?

    * And on your culture, and on what your audience/readers expect.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Everything I didn’t mention is in fact good, and some of that is even original in the sense that I probably haven’t seen it spelled out before.

  25. It’s shameful that a novelist can tell people to “avoid footnotes”, in a world in which exist Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pale Fire.

    Footnotes serve to prune the narrative of the main text to linearity, without discarding the secondary argumentation. I think footnotes are wonderful. Though, one advice I give to myself is, if while writing a footnote you find yourself wishing footnotes had footnotes, you should stop and rethink.

  26. ktschwarz says

    Lots more of Language Hat readers’ favorite footnoted novels at Translating The Three-Body Problem.

  27. Commas denote a pause in speaking.

    This reaches Prutkovian level. “Commas denote a pause in speaking. Don’t pause for too long or you will need to put two commas next to each other”

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Don’t pause for too long or you will need to put two commas next to each other

    Or “…” …

    The end of every book is followed by a long pause without commas.

  29. The end of every book is followed by a long pause without commas.
    That gave me an idea for my first novel. It will end with 20 pages of commas, and in the very end will be the words “Just start reading another book already, will ya?”

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    Unfortunately the title “The Neverending Story” is already taken.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    The end of every book is followed by a long pause without commas

    Except Finnegans Wake.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s not the only work to use that trick, is it?

  33. Certainly not. Nabokov, for instance, used it in The Gift.

  34. January First-of-May says

    It will end with 20 pages of commas, and in the very end will be the words “Just start reading another book already, will ya?”

    the Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops so I put in A Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese

  35. David Fitzjames says

    LH, you’d never read Cormac MaCarthy before then? What do you now about his earlier works?

    I find his antifetish for punctuation a bit hard to take sometimes, I’ve had to read the same page several times because of it, and his idiolect is rather odd, but otherwise his themes and storytelling just reach me. I prefer him to most of the vaunted English-language literary gods of the past 3 or 4 centuries. (Joyce Carol Oates? Really?)

  36. I’ve read reviews and snippets — he’s just not my thing. I only read The Road because my wife was in the hospital and a copy happened to be on the small bookshelf they kept for relatives who preferred reading to working on the huge jigsaw puzzle they kept on the table. I liked it better than I expected, but I doubt I’ll read more of him; there’s too much else to be read.

  37. Commas denote a pause in speaking.

    This reaches Prutkovian level. “Commas denote a pause in speaking. Don’t pause for too long or you will need to put two commas next to each other”

    I’m surprised that no-one here besides me is nerd enough to point out that a comma in an AT dialing sequence is in fact a pause of a specific length of 2 seconds ¹, so if you want the dialer to pause for 4 seconds, you put two commas sequentially: ,,

    1) Or even more specifically, as the Hayes command set WikiP reminds me: “Pause for the time specified in register S8 (usually 2 seconds)”

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