Cormac McCarthy: Owning My Hate

American Fiction Lit-Crit News Reading

A year ago I listed Cormac McCarthy as one of the five overrated writers of 2006. This was just a couple of months before McCarthy's The Road was published, and I had no idea what agonies lay in store.

I am simply baffled, just straight out bewildered, by the fact that so many people whose opinions I respect -- Oprah Winfrey, the numerous Morning News Tournament of Books judges, even my friend Jeff Bryant (who I usually agree with, and who shares my love for Kerouac and Bukowski) -- are calling Cormac McCarthy a great writer and The Road a masterpiece. I certainly can't believe that all these smart people are wrong and I am right -- yet at the same time I have made every honest effort to understand what I am missing. I even bought The Road, intending to give it a fair read, a fresh start, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this will be the Cormac McCarthy novel I can finally stand.

The fresh start didn't pan out. The crimes against the English language committed in the first eight pages of this book are so deplorable that I could not reach the double digit page numbers at all. I also feel offended -- yes, offended -- by the mean, miserable view of humanity this book shoves in my face. But my dislike for this book seems to transcend any mental or aesthetic considerations, because as I suffered through these first few pages I felt my body physically rejecting this book like a badly transplanted organ. I would look down at my hands and discover that the book was closed. I'd open it, struggle through a few sentences more, and then look down and discover it closed again. Reading The Road felt like swimming in a pool of thick hard mud, and I tried and I tried but I could not get past page eight.

I know I'm not completely alone, anyway. I discussed my bewilderment with a writer who eagerly backed up my judgement and insisted that I must "own" my hate, and that's what I'm going to do right now. I'm not complaining about The Road because I think I am smarter than Oprah Winfrey or Jeff Bryant, nor because I want to change their minds. But there must be many others like me out there, others who cannot stomach the idea of Cormac McCarthy as any kind of representative writer for our times. I am writing this for us.

* * * * *

Please look at these opening lines:

All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapor, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.

Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic. Every now and then she looked up at Kanchenjunga, observed its wizard phosphorescence with a shiver. The judge sat at the far corner with his chessboard, playing against himself. Stuffed under his chair where she felt safe was Mutt the dog, snoring gently in her sliip. A single bald lightbulb dangled on a wire above. It was cold, but inside the house, it was still colder, the dark, the freeze, contained by stone walls several feet deep.

Let's look at all the things the author does well here. First, there is that dizzying plunge from the bright mountain sky to the dark ocean home of the giant squid. Mountains and sky, deep ocean depths; this signals to the reader that the novel will offer a vast range of emotion and experience, and that it will do so in surprising and dynamic ways. Then, there is the clever surprise that a "native" in a faraway Eastern land -- the type of person who is more likely to be the subject of a National Geographic article than the reader -- is placidly browsing a magazine that symbolizes the benevolent condescension of Western imperialist culture. This signals that we are reading a book of sly, subtle wit. Finally -- and this may be a stretch, but probably isn't -- the fact that the National Geographic article is about a giant squid recalls Herman Melville's Moby Dick, since giant squids are what sperm whales eat.

Yes, this is a hell of an opening sequence, and when I encounter a book that starts like this I feel thrilled and excited and I can't wait to keep reading. Of course, these paragraphs were not written by Cormac McCarthy. They were written by Kiran Desai, and they begin The Inheritance of Loss.

Now, let's look at the opening sequence that greets the reader of The Road.

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. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he'd wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

The first thing the reader detects is that this will be a thoroughly humorless book, a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aimng to be "good for us", because it's sure not aiming to be fun. That's the moral outlook Cormac McCarthy always offers -- a stern "church lady" tone warning of stark choices between evil and redemption. Maybe that's why I'm mystified that somebody like Jeff Bryant can appreciate Jack Kerouac's On The Road, a book that refused to wallow in shame or guilt, a book that sang out with the joy of being alive, and can also swallow spoonfuls of medicine from a mean old physician like Cormac McCarthy.

And then there are those stubby ungrammatical half-sentences, the prose signature of junior high school students everywhere, and of Cormac McCarthy. Sentences that do not have a subject and an object. Short. Brutish. Sentences that make me feel rotten. Contractions that dont have apostrophes, accompanied inexplicably by contractions that do have apostrophes.

And, now that we're discussing these lost apostrophes, why is it that McCarthy gets away with giving us "hadnt" and "wasnt" while also giving us "I'm" and "we're"? I suppose he does this because "Im" doesn't look right on the page and "were" looks like "were", but if there's one thing worse than a pretentious and stiff prose device, it's a pretentious and stiff prose device that the author doesn't use consistently.

Back to the text: Kiran Desai nods to Herman Melville in the opening passage above, while the end of McCarthy's first paragraph clearly recalls the rough beast of W. B. Yeats's Second Coming. But "crouching there pale and naked and translucent" is simply not the equal of "slouches towards Bethlehem to be born". Yeats did not write with such a heavy hand, nor such a deadening lack of humor.

Then, finally, inevitably, we get to the dialogue without quotation marks:

... He watched the boy and he looked out through the tress toward the road. This was not a safe place. They could be seen from the road now it was day. The boy turned in his blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi, Papa, he said.

I'm right here.

I know.

Hi, Papa. And hi, William Saroyan, and hi, James Joyce. We don't use quotation marks here, because the world is evil and everything is dark and now it is day. And you can make anything sound profound when you don't use quotation marks or punctuation. Witness the following lines of dialogue from the TV show "Friends":

Monica said, Oh my god, Chandler. I can't believe it.

Chandler said, I know.

You gave my father a lap dance.

Chandler said, why do they put so much steam in there.

Ross stood up. Because otherwise they'd have to call it the room room.

* * * * *

Cormac McCarthy is far from the first champion of grim and mannered literary prose to be called a genius, and it's a telling fact that he's most often compared to William Faulkner, who I don't particularly care for either (and, in fact, I know that Oprah Winfrey has cited William Faulkner as another favorite author, so maybe it's all starting to make sense).

The dilemma I feel as I hear one intelligent reader after another praise a writer whose works I hate (to top it off, Harold Bloom is in the fan club) points, for me, to the problematic nature of literary criticism itself. In one extreme sense, a person might conclude that the only valid form of literary commentary is praise, because it's illogical for a person who dislikes something to claim to have a better understanding of that thing than somebody who does like it.

And yet, we criticize. I don't know exactly why we do this, but it feels important, and it helps ease the pain. If I didn't write this article objecting to the Cormac McCarthy craze that's currently gripping the world around me, I don't know what would happen. Maybe I would explode.

In the end, it's simple as this old cliche: there's no accounting for taste. You know, I hear Jeff Bryant likes the Atlanta Braves too.

74 Responses to "Cormac McCarthy: Owning My Hate"

by stevadore on

Eye of the BeholderI think literary praise is a bandwagon that many like to jump on because it's the 'right' or 'in' thing to do at the moment.The hardest thing to do, I believe, is to be honest with oneself, especially when it comes to writing. Sometimes, or many times as the case may be, that requires going against the flow of the popular wave. Most critics don't do that.I agree with you, I read that passage and thought to myself, how the hell is this guy a published author? I'm much better than that, yet he's this A-list author? Ughh!Compare that with Leif Enger's Peace Like a River in which practically every word sings with perfect pitch. I read writing like that and realize how lousy I am!Ironically, that's the pull of reading books for me. It's all about subjectiveness. That's why I think reviews are almost pointless. I will never read The Road, but I'm reading Peace Like A River because of word of mouth praise.

by brooklyn on

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Steve!

by calgodot on

Thoroughly HumorlessThere ain't much funny about the armageddon wasteland in which The Road is set. So "thoroughly humorless" is apt.And it ain't a matter of "right" or "wrong." It's a matter of taste.Trying to "prove" good writing reminds me of the thoroughly humor-full scene near the opening of Dead Poets Society, where the new teacher puts to rest the idea that one may objectively measure "great" literature.It's not a manner of an amateur who thinks his writing is "better." Such a statement begs the question, What's the ruler by which you measure, Steve?Maybe it's because I don't harbor the arrogance of assuming I'm some expert who can measure the greatness of a writer or the depth of a writer's talents, but I happen to like both McCarthy and Desai. I like oatmeal and cold cereal, too; I don't think one is better than the other. Some days I eat oats; some days it's oat-ee-ohs.The "bandwagon" of which Steve & Levi appear to complain runs in two directions. We Fans of Cormac have passed the Haters of Cormac many times on the road.Sure, a lot of people will buy The Road and never read it - so what? So Oprah picked it - so what? The only people who ought to care about the Oprah Club are marketeers and booksellers. Those who care about literature ought to just read.Read what you like. Praise it to heaven. Criticize what you don't until you're blue in the face.But questioning the tastes of others, simply because you don't like a particular book, is not exactly a sign of literary love. It's more a sign of pride, arrogance, and foolish conceit. Something I've been guilty of more than once myself, but it's a youthful folly which I endeavor to put behind me now. Kind of like my fervent and unquestioning devotion to Kerouac, whose prose, you know, suffers from many maladies, both technical and lyrical.

by bhadd on

CormacA good way of assessing the writers in this post is their use of the word IT. It was cold is usually not a sentence of greatness whereas in Cormac, It begins as the dream, then the beast as the beast becomes the focus of the dream.The Hood Company

by theoreticalk on

Gah!I really wish that you could have enjoyed The Road. I got used to his brand of language after awhile, and grew to love it, especially in the context of the book.After I finished, I went and picked up No Country For Old Men, then Blood Meridian. Great books. I'm a McCarthy fanboy, now. I think that McCarthy's stuff is love/hate. I really admire the guy and his ability to tell story.I think that language is subjective, but story is eternal, and when I finished The Road, the story certainly affected me in a way that I won't go on about. (Some dust must've found it's way into my eye)

by Stokey on

fair and balancedI appreciate your not liking McCarthy because literary reviews need to be honest and objective. I recently looked at the first page of a half-dozen books to see how the masters do it. Anne Rice was pretty good, John Grisham so-so, Tolkien was awkward (but fairly inviting), Robert Ludlum was terrible, John O'Hara old-fashioned and boring. I have to quote Ludlum: "The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp. The waves rose to goliathan heights..." The sort of writing we'd typically warn beginners not to do - it's highly unskilled. (It was a storm, Bob; a storm at sea. Goliath and swamp critters weren't there.)However, I didn't care for either passage you cited, Desai or McCarthy. They're hard to read; the writing is clumsy. The words make you stumble as you read them. Furthermore, literary devices/techniques are peripheral to the point of irrelevance. Writing, story, and message are essential. Devices, tricks, gimmicks are things that are discussed in English class for lack of something better to do.

by spinlily on

A refreshing review!I've been keeping my mouth shut about Cormac McCarthy for several years now, ever since I attempted to read one of his novels. Thank you for your review; it was very refreshing.

by brooklyn on

But, Cal, I thought the whole point of my post was that I'm *not* trying to say that anybody who likes McCarthy is wrong, but that I still feel it is important for me to criticize this writer. I was trying to walk the fine line between arrogance, on one hand, and frustrated silence on the other. I guess I didn't walk the line fine enough, but I was not trying to say that anybody who likes Cormac McCarthy is wrong, and I really thought I made that clear in what I wrote.

by Stokey on

We can't accept that excellent writing and poor writing is simply a matter of personal preference. We need for this to be objectively quantifiable, measurable. We can measure writing against writing. Beowulf is inferior to Sophocles. Ben Jonson is inferior to Shakespeare. Most poets are inferior to Wordsworth. If you like Ted Hughes better than Wordsworth, that's a difficult argument to make. McCarthy might be a fine writer, but you need to make that case; not just say it's a matter of personal preference. I'm not saying you can rank books on a scale from one to a hundred thousand, but there are plateaus of poor, mediocre, fair, good, great, etc. And it's worthwhile for a critic to offer a detailed opinion because that advances the argument as to what excels and what doesn't.

by bootzilla on

mccarthy did a fine jobunderwhelming with scorched prose. i read the book on a trip to Costco. this is the way the world ends - not with a yawn but a simper.

by calgodot on

Upon re-reading, Levi, you do indeed tread a fine line. I think maybe it was the arrogant assumption of Steve's post which fired me up. Still, you do tend to tip over to the side that accuses McCarthy fans of merely voicing a popular opinion. I don't know if you've ever visited the CM Society pages, but many of us Cormac fans were on the boat long before the Horses were Pretty. It's true that a lot of people praise the man without having read him. But it's also true that some of us are genuine in our appreciation of his prose. His meter and line do indeed invoke Faulkner and Melville, two authors I admire with ferocity as well. I suggest that your love of the free line, as exemplified by Kerouac and the Beats, is what makes McCarthy rub you the wrong way. I think I may have told you this long ago, but when I first read the Beats, I was appalled: my background was Faulkner, Melville, Hawthorne - the old school English teacher had neglected my education in anything past 1950 or so. I had to ease my way into the Beats to learn to love them as much as I do now.And Stokey, I can indeed simply say it's a matter of taste. Best evidence of this is how one's tastes often change in one's own lifetime. If your "favorite writer" at 15 is the same as your "favorite writer" today, then I pity you and suggest you read more. (Unless of course you are only 16, in which case: send me your Amazon ID and your birthday, and I'll see what I can do to help you grow a little.)If you want to rank authors and books, feel free. I don't see how you find it helpful, though. And I'd enjoy seeing you try to prove such a list is not merely reflective of your personal tastes. Because I like watching twisty mental gymnastics.

by calgodot on

Qoote of the DayAn amusingly apropos quote of the day on my Google homepage today:"I never met anybody who said when they were a kid, 'I wanna grow up and be a critic.'" - Richard Pryor

by Milton on

in defense of hate in criticismI think it's vitally important to voice a dissenting opinion, if for no other reason than we live in a time when more books are published than any time in history, and fewer people are reading them. Ideally, the world should be able to exist without reviewers, and I love the inherent anarchism in the idea that writers should just write books, readers should just find them and judge them for themselves, and that this whole meta-discourse about literature should simply disappear. But that isn't going to happen until the world itself descends into anarchy, and by that point I think we'd all be happy if we're even reading books at all.So as much as we might pine for a literary utopia, I think we have to accept that the tiny sliver of the population who seek out books beyond the supermarket shelves do pay attention to what the gatekeepers tell them. And if the biggest gatekeepers out there (which are Oprah and the Times Book Review, like it or not) are steering people wrong, concerned readers should say something. That's why I find it wonderful to see Levi calling bullshit on McCarthy, or reviewing the Review each week. Because it does matter what other people are reading. Of course it does. It's not going to change what I'm reading, but it's going to change our culture, and the kind of books that we read in the future, and the books for which our kids will someday have to buy Cliffs Notes. Perhaps I'm running the risk of sounding like a raving lunatic here, but I find it almost a moral imperative to raise an objection when you see an undeserving writer being added to the canon. Because most people DO read just one book a year, and someone needs to tell them not to make it this one. Think of the children. Won't someone PLEASE think of the children?

by brooklyn on

Cal, this has been an interesting conversation, and the fact that you feel so strongly about this is somewhat enlightening to me. Some comments: first, I really didn't say anything about anybody yielding to popular opinion, and I don't think that this is a likely explanation of why so many smart people like McCarthy more than I do. I mainly said that I am baffled, and that says it all. I'm just baffled.You're right that I favor the "long line", and this probably explains some of my distaste for McCarthy's stubby style. Another reason is that I don't favor the idea of the universe as a battleground between good and evil. McCarthy's moral message -- correct me if I'm wrong, Cal, because you clearly know more about his work than I do -- seems to be that humans are nearly helpless in this vast struggle, and that all we can do is hope for some sort of mystical salvation in the future. I don't go for that sort of thinking. I don't go for "good vs. evil" at all, in fact, and I feel pretty passionate about this point. Beyond this, Cal, thanks for sharing your reactions here. I'm glad to hear your opposing viewpoints. I may sometimes slip over into arrogance, but I always try to correct myself when I do.

by brooklyn on

Thanks for saying this, Milton! You know, I do feel a bit of self-doubt when I speak such loud (and probably, to many, obnoxious) words as I have spoken here. So it helps to know that some people think this type of criticism does have real value. I often wonder, I really do.

by Stokey on

I suggest that great writing is measurable, and is vitally important. People should be aware of great literature. It is vitally important. It defines us. Tell me what Ronald Reagan read; what W Bush reads. Survey 6 billion, ask 'em what they read, and why. Explain to them Northrup Frye's statement "we are our myths." Writing needs to have a positive impact on planet ours. It needs to be mission-oriented. And it needs to set the standard. Someone's taste might prefer mystery or romance or pornography. But people who consider reading, a hobby, probably consider living, a hobby. I don't. When I was sixteen I was reading Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Fitzgerald, Hemingway; but my favorite writer was me. Still is, thirty-six years and several grad schools later.

by R. W. Watkins on

Oprah?Oprah...? Huh...? Humourless Oprah...? Her opinion valid...? Sorry, Levi, now I must admit to being COMPLETELY lost.... Call me a social libertarian to the backbone, but isn't that a bit like asking uptight and self-righteous Geraldo Rivera for his thoughts on de Sade, Anais Nin and William Burroughs...?

by drplacebo on

Worthwhile debateIf the NYTBR pans a book, you don't usually get an opposing view.Here, however, we often get a lively debate (such as this one). You have to take critics with a grain of salt - even Levi. He has recommended some books that I have read that I really enjoyed; and probably wouldn't have read without his drawing attention to them. Even better, he has criticized books that have brought out discussions such as this that have made me interested enough, if not to actually buy the book, then to at least look at a copy in the bookstore and get a feel for what it's about. This is particularly true of books by independant publishers. So now, It behooves me to look through a few Cormac McCarthy books, if only to get a sense of the writing and to see what all the brouhaha is about.

by brooklyn on

"... my favorite writer was me." That's a good line, Stokey.

by brooklyn on

I guess your response -- and I think you are the first to bring the validity of Oprah's Book Club up here -- just shows how multi-faceted our opinions are. Personally, I've always admired Oprah -- in fact I admired her back when she was a nobody debut actress appearing in the movie "The Color Purple". I had been an Alice Walker fan at the time and eagerly ran off to see the movie -- Spielberg didn't pull it off, but like many people I left the theatre saying "who WAS that actress??!!". I don't watch her show, but I think Oprah's Book Club is a good, good thing. I even read "The Corrections" (and liked it) mainly on her recommend. When she recommends Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, though, it just makes me feel sorry for her loyal fans who will have to suffer through these books, when there are so many better books out there. But she certainly does have the right to recommend whatever she wants.

by Billectric on

Good point about the Cliff's Notes.

by eman on

i feel the same way-i had tried to read one of his books before and couldn't get past the 1st paragraph.but the topic of "the road" made me try harder this time. (i've got a thing for post apocolyptic stories) well frankly i was shocked at how BAD of a writer he is - once again i struggle just to get past the first sentence but i persevered and got thru the whole book in 1 day. i dont know if its his "style" but the dialogue was pathetic. and repetitive.the descriptions - which should have been the whole book were ... repetitive again. he described the bleak snowy scenes over and over and over - the same way. he didn't change it up at all.not to mention that the story itself was repetitive .i'd rate his writing a step above mass market fiction of dean koontz or danielle steele. what has this literary world come to.

by firecracker on

I'm not sure that the original post had anything to do with questioning the taste of others (as if such a thing even existed), but rather questioning the idea of taste at all and how our preferences are as individual as fingerprint. To question why some things intrigue us and others do not is a fairly basic and common act, with nothing to do with arrogance -- although that made me laugh. I love how we're all so touchy about this, though ... and how this post, which seemed more to me like a good ribbing, gets so much attention over anything else going on here. Perhaps this means everyone is guilty of such "arrogance" that they feel so strongly to defend it. Or ... perhaps ... it means nothing at all?

by coolazice on

Criticism, CatholicismI'll preface this by saying that I've never read any Cormac McCarthy. But even so, think you need to explain your opinions a bit more. Your main argument against McCarthy is that he is humourless, determined to present the evil in people, and pretentious in the way he goes about it. I'm going to ignore your points about punctuation because even you are admitting that he is doing what he does for a purpose (except to say, that the lack of quotation marks was pioneered by no less than James Joyce).And so, my first reaction was - well, Levi, your name is Levi and his is McCarthy. The Jew and the Catholic. It doesn't at all surprise me that you object to his 'stark choices between redemption and evil'. That is one perfectly acceptable Jewish response (and I'll point out here that I'm Jewish myself, lest you think that I am having a go at you). Faulkner is of similar bent - the world as a fermented sin-heap. Graham Greene even more so. I wonder whether you like Greene? If not, I think we can pretty much assume that you do not like strong Catholic biases in your authors. If you do like Greene, then I don't quite understand, because he has pretty much all the qualities you speak of.But finally, I'd like to tell you - it's OK to criticise! To my mind, the criticiser tends to know more about their subject than the praiser - they've applied more thought and less emotion to the piece. So if you think McCarthy's a chump, you tell 'em buddy. What the hell would Oprah know?

by Tony Spors on

No one has mentioned how obnoxious a character the generic little boy is in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is. Talk about slathered in sentimentality. This is the second time a boy in a Cormac McCarthy novel has made me want to retch. The first time was in "All the Pretty Horses", another pathetically overrated novel.

by Cormick McFartsy on

I saw the film, "No Country for Old Men" and then read half of Blood Meridian. I also read the last 15 pages to see how the story turned out. Man, that is some tedious piece of writing; it just seems to go on forever. Aren't there any editors out there anymore?

No Country... and Blood Meridian do have one interesting things in common, though. The main character (or non-character) is that good ol' boy, the Grim Reaper. McCarthy loves this guy. In Blood Meridian, Mr. Reaper extols the virtues of war, murder and the brotherhood of military excess. It seems that McCarthy actually believes such shit! But perhaps I'm wrong about him; I hope so.

Peter Matthiessen wrote three books about a man who becomes a murderer and he wrote them in excellent, unmannered prose. There are no hokey, pseudo-mystical personifications of death in those books.

Cormac McCarthy may lack a sense of humor but his books are good for a laugh if you are desperate. Take a look at Peter Matthiessen instead.

by Brooke who love... on

I tried to like The Road. I had to read it for a grad class over the summer and people who I liked and whose opinions I respected LOVED the book. I hated it with a fiery passion. I was the only person out of 25 people who didn't think it was brilliant. I thought it was unapologetically condescending and pretentious. I SUFFERED through The Road. After seeing No Country for Old Men (and also hating it with the passion of 100 burning suns, except that some of the acting was awesome) and finding out subsequently that it was written by McCarthy and it ALSO GOT PHENOMENAL reviews, I started to wonder, is it me? I have great taste in books. I have since decided, no; most people are just stupid. I ran a search for "I hate Cormac McCarthy" and it brought me here. For that I am grateful. I thought I was alone.

by Nick on

I also just saw "No Country" and was very disappointed. It really reminded me of how I felt when I read "Blood Meridian". I kept asking myself, "Why am I reading (watching) this?"

I did manage to just shut "Blood Meridian" halfway through, which is something I hate doing. Unfortunately, I didn't walk out on "No Country".

It's clear that they are canonizing McCarthy as we speak. But I ask you, where's the plot? His books (and their movie adaptations) have no plot at all. They remind me of college creative writing classes where all the students' "stories" are just these boring descriptions of sunsets and feelings, with a random act of violence or love thrown in for effect.

No wonder why all the grad students love it--it reminds them of their sub-par work.

by Nate on

I'd like to offer a few defenses of the criticisms lobbed at good ole Cormac.

For those of you who thought the Road was poorly written and your third-grad child could do better, it might make sense to read some of his other works before you make that decision. The Road is a serious departure from Cormac's style in previous books and, as such, is deliberate and thoughtful. The sparse, sometimes awkward prose effectively conveys the mood most appropriate for the setting of the story.

The first sentence illustrates the brilliance of the move: "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."

The cadence of "in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night" illustrates the tedious, and yes, repetitive nature of the lives of the characters. The odd verb/subject "he'd reach" reaffirms this point as it implies he would reach out and he did reach out, both. He would, as he'd done it many many times before, and he did this time in particular. The reader is unsure which reading is correct, and that's the point. The confusion of the characters in their dire predicament is foisted upon the reader by the awkward prose. The repetitiveness forces the reader to succumb to the apathy that haunts the main characters. Again, it's the repetitiveness of survival that the style is driving at. The characters lives are consumed by the constant need to move to find safety and food. All of humanity's accomplishments, culturally and aesthetically, are rendered completely irrelevant, and the novel's style represents this reduction--human civilization, existence, stripped of all its entrappings, including morality, and laid bare as a savage struggle to survive.

This repetitive, simple style also serves to create an aura of suspense. The reader immediately feels the vulnerability of the characters and the impending sense of doom because their safety is not secured by any grandiose narrative structure. The style is appropriate for the setting, aptly anti-epic.

As to Nick's criticism, (where's the plot?) it is true some of his novels have no plot to speak of, sure. But "No Country for Old Men", had a wonderful plot. If you can't identify that piece as primarily plot-driven, I'm not sure what I could say to convince you. The plot followed three men, from different perspectives, all whose lives were in jeopardy. It created a genuine sense of suspense as to the fate of the main characters, because, unlike in Hollywood movies, anyone in a C. McCarthy novel could die. A short run-down: man steals money, gets chased by mad-man and sheriff, entangles innocent wife in the fray, and hobbles his way to Mexico only to be killed later...that's quite a plot. I would have expected this criticism to be levied against Blood Meridian and Child of God, both of which have no real "arc", but No Country follows a plot structure that is very familiar territory in both cinema and genre fiction.

--Nate

by Lar on

McCarthy's novel is an annoying piece of writing. Three hundred pages of post apocalyptic despair suddenly uplifted by seven pages of hope! Carrying 'the fire' across america in search of the 'good guys'!!

If we're having an apocalypse let's have it right till the end.

by Derak on

"I am simply baffled, just straight out bewildered, by the fact that so many people whose opinions I respect -- Oprah Winfrey"
Some one give this guy a stand-up gig, he is hilarious.

by Carl on

I opened The Road three times. Finally I returned it to the library unread. Very unusual for me.

by Rod Clifton on

What probably seems like many years later, I've read your article about owning your hate as it relates to Cormac McCarthy.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, obviously. But, I guess I'm astonished at yours.

First, I think it's wrong to compare authors as if one is great because he writes one way, and another is not. I don't think you can compare authors in that way. If you could, I don't think someone could explain liking Harlen Coben, and Margaret Atwood at the same time. Or Hemingway, and Danielle Steele at the same time. Or Palahniuk and Stephen King.

Authors are different, write to different audiences (intentionally or not), and cannot possibly please everyone. In fact, they probably should not please everyone.

As far as Cormac's writing itself, judged by itself, it's discouraging for me. Not in the negative way you may initially think; I'm discouraged because I don't think I can read a better book than The Road. I would love to. But, I don't see it happening.

Lastly, why do we need dialogue written with he saids, and quotations, and the same old style we've always seen. If it's written properly, you should be able to follow it, and I follow Cormac's dialogue just fine.

Lastly, part two, and bleakness? You know what that is, right? The pessimism that you see in his stories? It's actually conflict. Conflict drives story. Some people choose to express conflict differently, but you cannot have a story without conflict, or some weak antagonist. Cormac has incredibly strong antagonists, and a lot of conflict.

I understand you do not like him. I could not read The Road when I first came upon it. I then settled myself, became a little less ADD, and focused, and I was fine.

by Lee Griffo on

I hope you have by now given The Road another go. I too, hated the abuse of language and literally threw the book across the room the first time I tried to read it. A friend encouraged me to persevere, and I am ever-grateful. It helps if you consider it poetic prose. The imagery is astounding and there is abundant homage to Yeats' "The Second Coming." If you skip it, it is your loss.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Lee -- thanks for the encouragement, but I don't think I'll be giving this book another look. Even if I could get past the abuse of language if I tried, I still find his basic moral outlook so uninspiring that I don't think I want to try ...

I do appreciate the W. B. Yeats hooks, but everybody from Chinua Achebe to Joan Didion to Ann Beattie to Lou Reed has riffed well on Yeats, so I don't think this in itself will win me over.

by John Mercredier on

Owning My Hate: or a wanker's antsy rail against a book.

by Levi Asher on

Hey John -- at least I am owning my hate. Are you owning yours? Calling me a wanker doesn't make a strong case.

by Claudette Rush on

I have felt some pressure from other AP teachers to teach The Road, but I haven't because I can't get through the damn thing. On my first go, I got to page 8. The next time I tried to read it, I quit at page 50 something. I found it painfully monotonous, but my hatred for the book stems from its utter lack moral purpose. I won't try again.

by JBR on

I've never taught McCarthy and have no particular axe to grind here, but I'm astonished by your comment that The Road has no moral purpose. For me, it's probably the most morally committed of McCarthy's novels. Concerning your comments on its monotony, I must differ there as well since I find its more-or-less minimalist style, some might say its parody of Hemingway (although I wouldn't quite say that) almost fascinating. And I suppose that puts me at odds with Levi's opinion of McCarthy's style, but I'll comment on that (if I ever get around to it) in a direct reply to his piece.

by Courtney Valdez on

Literature does not NEED to be moral. Literature does not need to be anything, but literature itself. A story can be told any number of ways, depending on the writer and what he/she wishes to do with said story. This includes abusing language however one sees fit, if it suits the story. Much of the world's greatest writing comes from writers manipulating language to fit their own personal design. You might not like the particular story, or the kind of story, or the particular way the writer chose to go about telling it, but that does not necessarily invalidate it. It merely means you subjectively disagree with it. Trying to quantify art objectively is an impossible task, though fun at times, and ultimately pointless. I personally hate punk music, country, current rap and pop, metal...but I can acknowledge them as different expressions of the art form that is music.

by YS on

I've read the Road and Blood Meridian and didn't particularly enjoy either one. I think you're right that he has a Manichean view of the world, and actually believes the little sermons delivered by characters like the Judge. Humans are an inherently violent species, and there's nothing to be done about it but to be human and kill so as to not be killed.

His language is pseudo-mythical. He will use a verb such as "abrogate" as an adjective placed postpositively, which comes off as affected. People get entranced by his dense and confused prose full of gadzookery and impertinent technical anachronisms. But, if you take the time to parse his sentences, consult the dictionary for obscure words, and really examine what he's written, there's not a whole lot there in terms of meaning. Characters are killing and apparently circling the same locales, and being manly, violent, or benevolent as suits their needs. His world is a battle between different brands of moral relativism, and of course the one he champions should win, because it's better than the other ones. And this tedious moralizing viewpoint is brought to you in the form of herky-jerky writing whose confusing nature is seen by many as magnificent and complex.

by Geoff on

" I also feel offended -- yes, offended -- by the mean, miserable view of humanity this book shoves in my face."

THAT statement right there tells me you are decent person. Thank you for that.

As for this "writer's" prose, I'll be one of those that says the emperor has no clothes. I'm sure I'll offend a whole group of people but Cormac's work is trash.

But its a special kind of trash you see. It's trash that represents a view of certain elitists who believe that ultimately there is no truth or beauty or hope. And that if you are not a nihilist you are either wearing rose colored glasses or you're not paying attention. Its chic to be depressed and to damn the human race as some vile species. Its cool to have no faith or hope. That's for little kids and religious types and of course they don't count. No we who have our eyes open know how hopeless it all is! We are the realists! We're not like those little people who hope in a better tomorrow, who build and and believe. Oh how pedestrian! There is no meaning and there is no better future.

I call bs to that.

Cormac is an angry loner whose hatred of humanity is evenly matched with his lack of literary talent.

I refuse to pretend the Emperor has wonderful clothes on when the old fart is walking around naked.

Give me Shakespeare, Kipling, Dostoevsky, Tolkien, dammit give me Ray Bradbury!

But don't give me some pied piper of the pretentious and depressed. To hell with such tripe.

by Enrico on

You are an idiot, it's official

liking a terrible book like "On the Road" testify your absolute lack of taste in literature.

"On the Road" is a silly, teen ager book for teen agers that wanto to be free and against all. Pretencious crap, like your blog.

Beat Generation is old and forgotten.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for your feedback, Enrico.

by ge on

The Road: meh
No Country...: nah
the earlier stuff, cant for the life of me pierce but
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West: I say Yeah baby!
but I wouldn't wish to live there
He ought to have stopped there...and get a Peckinpah or Jodorowsky to direct, or don't bother. Word out in his hometown is CM has another major one cookin'...

On The Road: Go for the Scroll, stay for the Golden Eternity
and hid glories of MC Blues & Dr Sax, the sweetness of Gerard,
the speed of Subterraneans...
Jack was a Saint with the thighs of a footballer, the finger-strength of a Casals, the Blood of a Poet and the all-Americanness of living on milfshakes & apple pie

Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow most impressed me,
got into my blood & dreams at the time unlike any other reading. Actually that was the only book I ever shoplifted, perhaps guilt helped propel through me where others peter out?

But the real King of the Beats is Roussel, oui??

by Taylor on

It's foolish to criticize a book you did not even finish reading.

by Levi Asher on

Taylor, why are you so sure this is true? Since I'll never waste my time reading a book I can't stand, this would leave me unable to write about books I can't stand, which is half the fun of running a literary blog.

As long as I state openly how much of a book I have read, I am not committing any lit-crit foul by sharing my feelings about a book that I disliked too much to finish.

by sak on

Ditto.

by Confused on

You know what my biggest problem with mcarthy is? It is difficult to understand what the hell is going on because h uses obscure words and tough sentences. It pisses me off because I'm forced to retread it and look up the words. Why the fuck could he not just write it so I could understand it? And I know his writing is poetic and beautiful, but if I can't understand the philosophy he tries to get across, and I can't understand what the goddamn fortune teller is saying about galant in blood Meridian, what seems like an important, forboding event, BECAUSE ITS ALL IN FUCKING UNTRANSLATED SPANISH AAARRRGHHHHGG

by The Judge on

Levi,

I more or less agree with you. It's vexing how many people think he's The Greatest Living American Writer, let alone a writer on par with Melville and Homer. I find the relentless bleakness of his outlook to be obviously juvenile and worse, uninteresting. I find his prose to be stunning and admirable at times, but just as often I find it to be stultifying, and worse, devoid of meaning. The way he pawns incoherent poesy off as bliblical deepness is his most unforgivable sin, in my opinion. Or maybe it's his humorlessness. Actually, the two are probably related.

I do think he has an unusually fine-tuned ear for dialogue, and if he wasn't constantly lionized, I would probably grade him out as a B, but it's difficult to be objective in the face of such appalling overestimation. I mean, Alice Munro writes circles around the guy. Putting him up there with Hemingway or whoever is just laughable.

by Bonnie Lee on

Last night we watched "No Country for Old Men" because we love the Coen brothers and because my husband would not listen to me about just how bloody and dark Cormac McCarthy is. I have read Blood Meridian (on a 12 hour flight and never felt so depressed after reading a book) as well as No Country for Old Men and The Road. I loved the Road, it was raw and human, and loving. It showed how people who lack the ability to put perfect prose to thoughts are able to communication complex emotions and experiences realistically. I do not like his bleak view of the world, the blood and violence, but this is the world he sees. It is a more real world than the books of Henry James and Hemingway, which are the stories of wealthy people and privilege.

I like McCarthy's use of vernacular, he listens to people in everyday situations, and yes, real people do talk like his characters. He takes a lot of his style from Twain, without the satire. Yet, the Coen brothers brought a lot of humor into the movie, which I am guessing I missed in my reading of the book.

To say you do not like reading him is fair. I doubt I will read another of his books, but to demolish his style without trying to understand the people and lives he is immersed in, is unfair. Is your inner world always peppered in perfect prose? Mine isn't.

Thanks for making me think a bit.

by Ezekiel on

The man looked at the boy.

The boy looked at the man.

'Life is a hallway of mirrors' he said.

Unaccountably.

And so it went on down through the Cosmos

Through the unutterable gloom.

'I heard voices'

On and on it went, pretentiously boring

and unending

by linda on

I was very glad to stumble upon this article, nicely said by the author.

I think 'The Road' is utterly juvenile and one dimensional. I can't work out how so many people think it's a masterpiece, including people I know whose judgement I respect.

This book does not take into account the real scope of human behaviour and potential. I simply don't buy the scenario. Only the bitterest misanthrope could imagine that if society and environment broke down, humans would behave the way they do in The Road. It's just not realistic at all. It's completely lazy.

There are plenty of well-imagined works about post-apocalyptic worlds that are more believable, and at least ATTEMPT to sew up inevitable plot holes.

Russell Hoban's Riddely Walker; John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids; even The Walking Dead series of graphic novels do a good job of depicting how humans actually might behave after the world as we know it ends.

by linda on

actually just a P.S. to my previous comment, The Walking Dead is disgustingly, stomach churningly violent, much more so than The Road; it features lots of cannibalism too. However, it also depicts the humans, in the short intervals between zombie and enemy attacks, enjoying life and one another's company. I can only think Cormac McCarthy doesn't know what it's like to do either, which is why he leaves it out of The Road (I can't comment on his other books - The Road was the first and last I picked up).

by Spene on

He's a postmodern hack, all borrowed poses, chic nihilism and reheated noir/western tropes.

by nick morrison on

Jesus. Get a grip. The 'Cormac McCarthy craze' is invisible to 99.999% of the world. Look up. Look out. There's a sky, a world...and Cormac McCarty isn't going to make a dent in it. I'm glad you got it off your chest but neither you nor McCarthy will make a significant change in the orbit of things. I didn't even bother with 'The Road.' I loved 'Suttree' and think that 'Child Of God' is maybe the finest weird book ever, but I know when to quit. 'Cities Of The Plain' was a clear sign that McCarthy's best days were behind him, so I got off the bus. Better to to do that than hang around and bitch when there's always an amazing writer comin' up the pike. Find him or her and announce that artist to the world. Fuck swimming in a stagnant pool, grousing about the once-great. Sour grapes, my lad. Get off your ass and read something new instead of moaning about a fine writer who has seen better days and done better things.

by Levi Asher on

Nick, are you my self-appointed spiritual adviser? Thanks for the advice, but I enjoy blogging about books I like and don't like, and I think I'll just keep on doing it if you don't mind.

by Greg on

I personally really enjoy Cormac, but i think your criticisms ( especially of this book) are valid. He is not easy to read. It's all very dark, but for some reason I enjoy it. Growing up in Appalachia I do prefer his earlier works. I understand where you are coming from though.

by Peter Fedorenko on

Hello. I am a professional writer. I do not claim to be a great wordsmith, just someone who is compelled to pound his dreams and nightmares onto paper and is fortunate enough to be paid for them. I realize my outlook may be simplistic for one who is a member of such a complex species, but as I grow older, I'm saddened by the "modern" ultra nihilistic stance taken by so many "current" authors. I am not naive. I know what we are and what we do, but every time I'm reminded of our cruelty and inhumanity, I remember so many years ago, in a far away place, where a teenaged boy; eating a from a can, dove on a hand grenade that had been thrown into the hole that he shared with three other teenagers. His final words were "Looks like the sun is coming out." I want to be like him.

by ace on

Ha! I also got here after Googling "Cormac McCarthy overrated" and "I hate Cormac McCarthy." I have tried to read FOUR of his books and ended up throwing them across the room. I predict he will be forgotten in fifty years, as time is generally not kind to the self-consciously mannered literary darlings of their day. Try reading the books that won Pulitzers in the early years, and you can see why they've fallen out of favor.

by Adam on

I've only read No Country... Oh my God, I agree with you, assuming his other books have a similar tone and style. And I think that's a safe assumption. I found No Country to be ultra sparse, bare bones minimalistic, hyper machismo writing, decently good at painting a brush stroke feel for the West Texas landscape using geographical lexicon that I think half the readers never heard of. But what was missing for me were the more important elements of great-or even good-literature, interesting, subtle, complex and conflicted inner lives of characters, or at least the main one, and a plot that has SOME relatability to regular people. A story of near mythical super evil bad guys and false bravado cowboy jerks and cartoonish white collar criminals and a good hearted lady and one old coot sheriff with a philosophical sense of decency does not make good modern literature- it is okay for GENRE writing. But slow, murky, rather uneventful genre worrying I'd guess. I think C.M. is like a small step more literature than Zane Grey. It's kind of easy what he does. I don't see the magic, the brilliance, the surprise or the moral honesty or complexity and there's almost no vulnerability in those characters. Fat as I'm concerned, Richard Ford, Philip Roth, even the young, new Joshua Ferris absolutely blow him out of the water, like no comparison if you wanna talk literature. This seems a case of hype leading to hype, of a chain reaction meme propagated by shallow followers. I don't get it either.

by Lonnie on

"He pulled his breeches off the footboard of the bed and got his shirt and his blanketlined duckingcoat and got his boots from under the bed and went out to the kitchen and dressed in the dark by the faint warmth of the stove and held the boots to the windowlight to pair them left and right and pulled them on and rose and went to the kitchen door and stepped out and closed the door behind him."

That's from the first page of "The Crossing." It's gibberish. I am baffled that some people could consider this good.

by Bruh on

This page just screams "I am hipster, hear me roar". The very fact that you had to say "I have great taste in books" is extremely subjective. I doubt you have a great taste in anything. The Road was phenomenal to say the least.

by Bruh on

Levi, why do you feel the need to act like a hipster?! You hate everything that is universally loved by society. Do you have nothing better to do than complain about something that you read 8 PAGES OF?! Power through that shit for Christ's sake.

Hello. I just heard some noise, and strolled over to rubberneck. I read No Country For Old Gits as having a stinky streak of Conservative stallion dribble running wild throughout; about good ol' days when Amerika was strong n' true blue honest - but now these funny named folks are a-comin' over and heck, Sheriff, we've a tough time scratchin' our g0d fearin' heads tryin' to figure em' out..

by Michael S on

I think the miserable view of humanity you speak of is actually an accurate view. I wish that violent people were capable of no worse than rape and cannabalism. I've read some accounts of genocide and civil war and found that real life can actually be worse than "The Road". It's important to address such tragedies with solutions like parental protection.

by Levi Asher on

Michael S., I understand your point. I guess my problem with Cormac McCarthy is that his literature stops at "miserable". He displays misery, but does nothing with it other than to show that it exists.

I seek literature that has the power to reach beyond mere recognition of misery, towards insight, redemption, understanding -- something, anything.

by babette on

If you dislike McCarthy's novels just wait till you get a load of his first effort at script writing! To call "The Counselor" an abysmally ugly rotten thing would be an understatement. But then again, I'm a Nabokov fan so what do I know?

by taigi on

read all the pretty horses in high school, and some of the imagery really is stunning, especially at the outset of their journey and how that's symbolized and all of that.
but good lord is the rest of the book awful.

i mean, i'm saying this as someone who fervidly ignores grammar and really likes being all doomsday and self consciously dark in my poetry. like, i was an emo kid in 2011, i know what i'm about.

anyway, the point here is that even i, writer fuckup extraordinaire cannot give less of a shit about cormac mccarthy and his lack of punctuation and sentence structure, or his white boy man pain.

so here we are.

by Maureen on

I'm so with you! I'm old now crippled with arthritis an my love of reading keeps me alive - housebound and living in books. As a child, young person escaped from my dysfunctional family life by devouring the classics, history, mysteries, poetry and biographies finding myself, beauty, hope, empathy and love within. Today I'm back reading everything I can find - or trying to - and what I've found is this. If the critics love it I'm going to hate it! Everything they seem rave over leaves me totally cold. It seems the more miserable, the more petty, the more irrational, the less loving the protagonists are, and the more oblique the words are - the more critics love it! Hey - I read to find clarity, understanding, poetic passages that connect me to a life worth living - I don't want to suffer - I don't want to fight to decipher the writer's personal often peculiar (to me) life messages. A reader needs to put effort into understanding literature but it's a two- way street. An artist has a job to effectively communicate his message to the recipient not demand the reader translate every meaning and every word according to the artist's personal dictionary. And just because a book truthfully depicts the savagery of human reality, disturbing the readers - does not mean the book is any good. I suffer my life reality as it is and don't look to reading for more. I read tragedy but these days I see a lot of authors who should check back with authors like the great Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck to pick up clues as to where they are falling short. That's my taste and these days I am finding reading be foreign writers more appealing as their stories involve very real, relatively normal people who fight to overcome VERY REAL human problems with which I can relate and empathize!

by John on

My god this is pretentious.

by Ethan on

In a fit after seeing All The Pretty Horses on his table and begging my life-loving 92 year old father not to waste his time with it, I absentmindedly googled "Cormac McCarthy pretentious" on my phone, semi-consciously hoping I would find a screed to balm my nerves. And found one I did. More hilarious is that it's nearing 10 years old and you're still rackin' up the comments! Maybe this will outlive the grumpster's novels.

by Simon on

You are a god damn moron, good luck following Oprah as your taste-maker.

by Chris Tangemann on

Has anyone ever told you you're a complete FKing moron? But still dont kill yourself.

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