The Great Cormac McCarthy Experiment

B. R. Myers caused an eruption in the literary cosmos a few years back when attacked the brightest lights in the High Brow Firmament in an article in the Atlantic, later published as a short essay of the same name entitled A Reader’s Manifesto.  He offered copious examples that allegedly exposed as pretentious gibberish the purple prose of Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy and others.

But he didn’t stop there. He also accused literary critics of aiding and abetting a general purpling of literary prose among young writers by uncritically heaping praise upon what he thought was largely meaningless verbiage.  It was, he implied, a vicious circle that threatened to drag American literature into a new dark age.

Naturally, Myers’ piece caused an intemperate backlash from the establishment and especially from those imitators seeking a place within it. Nonetheless, the defenders of contemporary prose did not so much rebut Myers’ criticism as deride him as a philistine incapable of appreciating the subtle sophistication of their luminaries.

Now, I don’t want to rehash this debate, much less bring upon my head the wrath of these writers and their acolytes.  But I do want to propose a minor experiment that might shed some light on the sociological side of the question: is Cormac McCarthy’s style really affectively good, or is it, as Myers suggests, a bitter flavor that elite opinion has decreed sweet in order to divide itself off from the herd?  Put more simply: is the emperor wearing any clothes?

Notice that I’m not following Myers’ formalist aesthetic approach to the question in proposing a literary analysis of McCarthy’s prose.  I’m asking whether McCarthy’s prose could find an audience among the great unwashed masses without McCarthy’s name and the literary establishment’s endorsement.

Interesting hypothesis, you say, but wholly impossible to test.  One would have to find an audience untouched by McCarthy’s style and the endorsement of that style, which requires the prior existence of a parallel universe where no one had heard of him, his style or his admirers. A second best alternative would require a book by McCarthy published under a pseudonym by some small publishing house that was off the radar of the establishment—again, an unlikely scenario for a whole host of reasons.

There is, however, a third alternative: someone could take advantage of the new age of e-publishing to produce and offer for sale a McCarthyesque novel.  Leaving aside the labour involved for the moment, it is not so moot an endeavour as it seems.  Sure, there’s no good reason to suppose that even the best impersonator would be identical to the genuine article; thus, the success or (more likely) the failure of Pseudo-McCarthy’s novel would prove nothing either way.

Yet I can’t help but think it would be interesting to see what would happen in the e-publishing context when reader reviews are instantaneous and unselected.  Would readers be moved by the particular cadences and obscurities of McCarthy’s prose?  Again, this assumes that the style and depth (if deep it be) is reproducible, which is not a foregone conclusion.

At any rate, I’ve been asking myself this question for some time, debating whether I’d craft a few short stories in the style of McCarthy—at least a style that apes some of the more imitable features of McCarthy—and publish them to see what happens.  In fact, I wrote some McCathyesque prose in a comment over at JK Konrath’s blog, a mostly parodic example for my own entertainment.

Time, of course, is the perennial impediment to such grand enterprises.  It’s not like I have an abundance of it to expend on unprofitable literary experiments that many would likely find utterly irrelevant and even vaguely offensive.

Still, I’m captivated by the philosophical implications.  What happens if some people actually enjoy it (assuming I attempt to avoid parody this time)? Would it reveal anything other than the fact that someone, somewhere can be found to enjoy anything? I don’t know — and I guess that’s what’s so intriguing about it.

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16 thoughts on “The Great Cormac McCarthy Experiment

  1. the defenders of contemporary prose did not so much rebut Myers’ criticism as deride him as a philistine incapable of appreciating the subtle sophistication of their luminaries.

    Yes, anyone incapable of perceiving the Emperor’s fine raiment is without question a fool.

    Not only does this apply to ol’ curmudgeonly Cormac, but it’s the reason Salinger refused to come out of his hole all those many years and it at least contributed to David Foster Wallace’s demise. Both men (and others like them) could do no wrong in the eyes of the elite at one time, and each had their own unfortunate solution to keep it that way.

    As far as the whiplash against Myers, I experienced a modest amount of that merely by suggesting the literary upper crust had some culpability in his death. The attacks were vicious and instantaneous – leading me to believe I was on the right track. The IDEA of it, of course, was not attacked. I (someone they’d never met before) was. That told me something, too.

    1. MS,

      You could be right that Foster sought validation in his writing and that the validation he received owed more to the times than to his books and his message. When he saw that he would always be a darling, appreciated for all the wrong reasons, he fell into despair. Maybe. It’s hard to diagnose a man I don’t know. All the same, I wouldn’t want to assign blame, because a man always pulls his own trigger.

  2. “Maybe. It’s hard to diagnose a man I don’t know. All the same, I wouldn’t want to assign blame, because a man always pulls his own trigger.”

    This is all true. I cannot possibly know what went on inside his head.

    Nevertheless, the subject of suicide is interesting to me in part because it tends to be shrouded in lies. That’s because society is often at least partly to blame for most suicides, but wants no part of it. Instead, every suicide is treated as some tragic failing of its victim, rather than the canary in the coal mine every suicide really is.

    Just as a for-instance (since it happened just the other day) here’s Lady Gaga on Amy Winehouse’s suicide: “don’t kill the superstar. Take care of her. Take care of her soul. I loved her and I just remember feeling like I wasn’t alone because she was so different and she was so special.” The somewhat veiled implication is that the world is at least partly responsible for her death. Note that the writer of that post [assuming my link posts properly] fervently objects to the implication. She wants no part of the responsibility.

    This is a consistent pattern of denial if you study the behavior surrounding suicides.

    1. “…society is often at least partly to blame for most suicides…”

      In some sense, I suppose, one could say society plays a role. But I’d be more inclined to see it as a poor fit between a given kind of character and the times and the cultural milieu in which he lives. To take an extreme example, a natural leader born into inescapable slavery will not hold up as well as someone who’s naturally sheepish—a survivor will do better, in other words, than a nobleman.

      “…a consistent pattern of denial…”

      Ah yes, but the question is always the interpretation of the pattern. Do people deny culpability (supposing they do in fact deny it) because they are culpable in some way, or because it would be better for the living to believe that it was some fault particular to the man? After all, the latter is the better way to get by.

  3. “I’d be more inclined to see it as a poor fit between a given kind of character and the times and the cultural milieu in which he lives.”

    I see what you’re saying – but on the other hand, what you’re describing IS society. Besides which, in many of the most basic ways the “times and cultural milieu” that are the problem never change.

    “a natural leader born into inescapable slavery will not hold up”

    You claim this, but is it demonstrably true? I’ll leave that for you to consider. I have only one word on that: Spartacus.

    “Do people deny culpability (supposing they do in fact deny it) because they are culpable in some way, or because it would be better for the living to believe that it was some fault particular to the man? After all, the latter is the better way to get by.”

    It’s very much the latter. There was a case fairly recently (I’m pulling this from an October 1, 2010 Jersey Journal, page 2) in which a ‘tormented’ Rutgers freshman (Tyler Clementi, by accounts a talented violinist) killed himself by jumping off a bridge. He had complained to a dorm adviser and several other officials (apparently pretty adamantly, too) that his roommate spied on a ‘gay tryst’ he had and streamed it live via webcam.

    Governor Christie stuck his head in and said he’d asked the state’s AG to determine if a ‘hate crime’ prosecution was possible.

    So both the victim and the NJ Governor pointed to one individual as the reason for the suicide.

    Problem with that is, if the roommate had NOT been able to embarrass Tyler – if the mob was sophisticated and humane enough to refuse to be baited – Tyler’s tormentor, and not Tyler, would have been the one with the problem.

    Indeed: The article points to several other, similar incidents in which people were driven either to suicide or a mental breakdown via ‘cruel messages’, and in every case it was people behaving (predictably) as a vicious, mindless mob (all internet attacks, in these cases) that drove these people to their deaths (or insane).

    So I maintain that it is it’s unchanging human nature, and not something inherent in changing times nor any single individual, that drives many people to suicide. These tragic individuals often (not always, I’d imagine) have a great deal to tell us about a real sickness in this world, and have paid the ultimate price in their attempt to convey that message. And yet we still cannot hear them, not even a little.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      “…the ‘times and cultural milieu’ that are the problem never change.”

      If that is so, then the problem is insoluble. Suicides will be Greek tragedies.

      “Spartacus.”

      I actually had Spartacus in mind when I wrote the remark. That’s why I added “inescapable” before slavery. Anyway, the example was meant to be illustrative, not demonstrative of the kind of individual character vs. society distinction I had in mind.

      “…if the mob was sophisticated and humane enough to refuse to be baited…”

      That was a sad story and I agree that in these sorts of case the mob who watched the stream and the tormentor are culpable, even if they’ll never be prosecuted. Mr. Snitch’s cases, however, involved people more removed from the suicide (fans, audiences, etc.).

      “So I maintain that it is it’s unchanging human nature, and not something inherent in changing times nor any single individual, that drives many people to suicide.”

      You could be right on some level. The problem with human nature explanations is that they’re so loose that they can be true and false at the same time. So you’ll have to be more specific with regard to the aspect of human nature.

      Also, you have to consider external explanations versus internal justifications. While the mob may torment a hundred people, only a small portion will commit suicide. The reason is internal, something particular to those individuals who do act.

      Incidentally, if you’re looking for an interesting take on the mob, and you haven’t read him, pick up some of Rene Girard’s work. He’s a scholar of religion and a theorist about violence, particularly of the mob-based variety. The most straightforward is likely I saw Satan Fall like Lightening, which a line from the Gospel of Paul (I think, but don’t quote me).

  4. There’s an interesting side note to the subject of suicide, which I think buttresses my point re the culpability of society and the message the departed were, by their actions, attempting to impart. And that is: The insights of some of those who attempted suicide (but fell short) and are willing to be open about it (which is not most of them, to be sure).

    Talk-show celebs like Dick Cavett and Craig Ferguson, for example, have had a good deal to say on the subject. Not widely reported, but fairly easy to find online. I came away from both men’s experiences with a sense that a new door had been opened for them. (A door that could yet hit them in the behind, mind you, but still.)

    I apologize that your post, which was about pretensions in literature, has taken this turn in the comments. Mia culpa. Somehow I find it related, but don’t ask me to explain that.

    1. As for the connection, it’s inevitable that people will look to a writer’s work for answers after he commits suicide. Some claim there are signs in Hemingway’s work. Maybe, maybe not. Are there any in Wallace’s? Was his postmodernism a symptom? It may all be speculation.

      By the sounds of it, Ferguson got lucky in passing a friend on the way.

  5. “By the sounds of it, Ferguson got lucky in passing a friend on the way.”

    Yes. That reinforces my conviction that his intent was sincere, as was Cavett’s. It wasn’t just a cry for attention or some other acting-out.

    “Some claim there are signs in Hemingway’s work. Maybe, maybe not.”

    I used to think so, now I think I was just sucked into the populist view of writer as malcontent (therefore, of course he killed himself). I think now he just did not want to live with the certainty of deteriorating health. I think that is largely because, for him at least, that would have meant an end to his writing. (I acknowledge that I could be wrong about all that.)

    “As for the connection, it’s inevitable that people will look to a writer’s work for answers after he commits suicide.”

    Certainly, popular works are dissected endlessly for meaning, and a writer who commits suicide becomes at least more ‘popular’ than he was before the act. I was looking at the Wikipedia entry for Spielberg’s film ‘Minority Report’ the other day and was particularly struck by the endless (and fairly ridiculous) search for hidden messages in that film. The main reason I fell the reviewers are overreaching is because a film is too far-flung an enterprise to hide a lot of meaning. It’s tough enough for the filmmaker to make himself clearly understood, let alone tuck away Easter eggs to be found another day. (Although of course, computer programmers do exactly that, but then again their Easter eggs do not require interpretation. They merely require discovery.)

    1. The theory behind looking for portents of suicide in a writer’s work is not strange all on its own. If writers write about what they know, and some writer writes books about depressed people who commit suicide, it might be a sign that he himself is depressed and thinking about suicide—that’s the simplest case.

      It gets tricky (and more often than not it’s probably just axe-grinding) when someone goes looking for subtler clues to the author’s mental state. Suppose Hemingway was an existentialist, which is how I read some of his books. Can we connect existentialism with depression, either as cause or symptom? This pushes the envelope for me. It would seem that one would need something stronger than strings of suppositions to come to that conclusion. The same connection between philosophy and suicide is tenuous (if not necessarily wrong) with Wallace too.

      As for interpreting art more generally, I happen to have a special interest in interpretation and theories of interpretation, especially the allegorical kinds, so I’ll probably post on it in the future. Suffice it to say, I didn’t see any deeper meaning in Minority Report either. The only thing I remember is the whopping hole in the plot: Tom Cruise’s character sneaks back into the headquarters with his own eyeballs when every eyeball-checker in the city is looking for them. No one thought to alert internal security?

  6. Re Minority Report: Sci-fi in general not only takes too many liberties with the sci, but the fi does not often hold together either. Since we’re talking about a Philip K. Dick adaptation here, how about another one: Blade Runner? The situation is that these human-looking robots (or whatever they are, exactly) are running amok, and it’s damn difficult to discern them from humans. So, uh, why are you going to all the trouble of making them look so human, then? Why not make them human-but-purple or something like that?

    And this is the problem I have with reading too deeply into most fiction: Most of it won’t even hold up to a SHALLOW reading.

    Not that I’m such a curmudgeon. I like Blade Runner a lot. It’s value is in the intangible humanity its central characters (especially the nonhuman ones) find they have in common, not in its logic. (Blade Runnner is just that kind of story the phrase ‘suspension of belief’ was invented for.) But so many critics aren’t satisfied with that, and look for deeper meaning that’s usually not there.

    Hemingway decided to simply chop thirty pages out of a book upon a writer friend’s advice. Not ‘edit’ them out – chop. Likewise, Frank Capra cut the first two reels out of ‘Lost Horizon’ when test audiences laughed it out of the theater. So how laced with deeper meaning could those stories possibly have been, and how lost were these two men that they could go so wildly wrong?

    Though as you say, I can understand why someone might look for deeper meaning in a piece of art. I think one might have better luck searching for it in a tree, though, as Joyce Kilmer suggested. (Or even in a beer, as Mad magazine later suggested.)

    1. Jeff,

      Some stories are, to quote Homer Simpson, just a bunch of stuff that happens. But others do have—and were intended to have—a much deeper meaning. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, is an allegory of Christian theology. Dante’s journey illustrates Christian belief through the narrative.

      It’s also worth mentioning that Plato believed in the power of stories to persuade people of things that no argument could. A classic modern case of this is George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, which, in my view, probably did more to discredit the Soviet Union than all the polemics combined.

      At a later time, I’ll probably post something on interpretation. I’ll also probably be posting a draft of a short allegorical story of my own, which I’ll invite others to comment on—I’m really just curious to see if it works.

  7. “It’s also worth mentioning that Plato believed in the power of stories to persuade people of things that no argument could.”

    Sure, and Jesus got his point across with parables. So did Aesop.

    I think the parable-tellers (or writers) have a point in mind before they begin, and construct (or recall from memory, or both) a parable that makes their point.

    Some writers want to see where their writing takes them, and once they find a direction that becomes their point. Often I find they HAVE no direction, but with writing so often a product, the writer is loath to throw out their inventory just because it’s a few days over the ‘sell-by’ date, (See what I did there? A parable. OK, maybe just a metaphor.)

    So a lot of prose comes out directionless. Even ‘Lost Horizon’, which I love, really has no greater meaning than a man who stumbled into a situation he liked and decided to hang out. For all the pretension towards art, what you saw was what you got, and that was that.

    Plato was looking for meaning. Dante thought he’d found meaning, and wanted to expound on it. Frank Capra and Philip K. Dick were like most people – looking to make their dolla and move on. Sometimes that’s just all there is to it.

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