Sunday, 4 February 2018

Weird Little Marks

Lots of my friends like Cormac McCarthy. I have tried to read his novels, but I find them portentous and woolly-minded, (the two things often go hand in hand). If I needed confirmation that McCarthy is not all he is cracked up to be when it comes to writing, then this piece, which reports that McCarthy despises almost all punctuation, provides me with just that thing.

 I think what I find most shocking in the article is the fact that McCarthy is so arrogant that he boasts about removing punctuation and:

'paring down an essay “by Swift or something”'

when nothing written by McCarthy is going to last a tenth of the time that Swift's work has already - and it, unlike McCarthy's work, will, I'm sure, endure, (ideally without his tinkering).

People who proudly say they don't use punctuation, clearly don't understand what punctuation is for. Punctuation is not a decorative optional extra, it's not some kind of doily; punctuation improves clarity, and writing without clarity is not worth doing.

It may have been the woman who copy edits at the New Yorker who pointed out that commas are stepping stones that guide the reader through the river of a sentence. Whoever it was, she is absolutely right. Ambiguity is always ready to drown meaning, especially in English, which is a language that seems to lend itself particularly to ambiguity. Take the sentence that begins the paragraph before this one: if I'd written 'People who proudly say they don't use punctuation clearly don't understand what it is for',  it would have been ambiguous or even downright misleading. I actually don't much like the comma I have put there - my inclination would be to expand the whole sentence and say 'Those people who proudly say they don't use punctuation only say so because they clearly don't understand what it is for', but in the end I decided that that would be unnecessarily long and that placing a comma before 'clearly', even though it is a bit inelegant somehow, does indicate that the people I'm referring to are declaring their pride in not using punctuation, rather than their pride in using punctuation in an unclear manner.

Similarly, in the following two sentences, the absence of one of those things that McCarthy regards as a  'weird little mark' in the first leaves the meaning ambiguous, while its presence in the second makes only one meaning possible:

'I could tell she’d been crying because her face was red and ugly.'

'I could tell she’d been crying, because her face was red and ugly.'

After reading about McCarthy and his stupid ideas, I went off and started reading recipe books to calm down. Not any old recipe books, mind you; I turned to one of the best writers I know.

His name is Simon Hopkinson. He hasn't won any prizes for writing, I don't think, perhaps because he only writes cookery books. Even so, to my mind he is a great stylist and better than most of the feted authors of today. This tiny example of his prose, taken from The Vegetarian Option, exhibits Hopkinson's care with words and his meticulous use of punctuation. In the space of one sentence, he conveys a piece of information he has been given, while also making it clear that he has quite serious doubts about whether it is reliable or not:

Okay, it isn't earthshaking, but it also isn't ambiguous - and that's good enough for me.


  1. I remember reading "No Country for Old Men," and liking the early portion very much. It was gritty noirish prose that wouldn't have been out of place in a 1950s paperback. But the sheriff's philosophizing at the end was juvenile and nonsensical.

    1. That sheriff section sounds like the bits I call portentous. The Road just left me astounded by how people could think it was a great piece of work. I thought it was flimsy and trite. Mind you, gritty, noirish prose is not to be sniffed at. I'll give him that.

  2. Couldn't get anywhere with "All the pretty horses". Perhaps if I self-medicated with testosterone, but it doesn't seem worth the side-effects.

    1. The real question is would a doctor give you a prescription if you expanded it was in the cause of literary endeavour