The Ones Who Get Away with Murder: The Cormac McCarthy Edition

Welcome to a series of blogs focusing on authors who break all of the rules and get away with it. If you have a book or an author who fits the maverick mold, let me know and I may feature him/her in a future article! 

Artists of any kind are victims of a strange black and white dichotomy when it comes to "The Rules." On one side of the coin, a purist will tell you that when it comes to art, there is no rule book, and that by effectively telling the truth as you see it, you will succeed.

On the flipside, there are millions of artistic mavericks still waiting to get a leg up in an industry that seems obsessed with a perfect mix of marketability and and accessibility that you can only achieve by following a "formula." In other words, regardless of how we are encouraged to be bold and brash, too many people who are in the business of buying and distributing art do everything they can to stifle such things. They don't want to spend their valuable time trying to interpret your ambiguous artistic message in a quagmire of mixed fonts in present-tense dactylic hexameter that would only appeal to a specific niche and make them very little money. Hence "The Rules."

Writers are frequently subjugated by a deluge of of them. Grammatical Rules, Style Rules, Formatting Rules, Storytelling and Thematic Rules. As an editor, I make money by enforcing most of those Rules, helping to create polished copy that would hopefully please the eye of any discriminating reader of an aspiring professional's work. Yes, I try to maintain and even enhance an author's artistic vision, but a lot of "scrap" usually gets cut off in the process. But any aspiring writer is likely to be (and very well better be) a voracious reader, and you have undoubtedly stumbled upon books that made you stop in your tracks, slack-jawed, and ask, "How did he/she get away with that??"

I present Exhibit A: Cormac McCarthy, author of esteemed books No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road among others. The latter has been my most recent nighttime reading selection. Although it is my first McCarthy novel, I was already aware of his tendency to deviate from "the norm" in every possible aspect. The stripped-down nature of his writing sometimes makes Hemingway's prose look more purple than an eggplant. "They" often say (and I've been one of "them") that the artistic use of sentence fragments is good and can add rhythmic quality to your work, but that overuse can result in prose that is halting and difficult to read. McCarthy punches this rule square in the face by making nearly every sentence of The Road a broken fragment.

McCarthy also eschews something that is so common to writing and reading, that getting used to it is like trying to walk in snowshoes on concrete: quotation marks in dialogue. When his characters speak, we simply know it by a break in paragraph or a scant dialogue tag. He provides minimal clues as to who is saying what, but you generally just know because of something inherent in the the rhythm of his writing. Also, when you're only dealing with two main characters, one of them a small child, it's not too hard to decipher. However, the technique embodies the avant garde, and it is an acquired taste. Here is a brief excerpt from the Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road that will give you an idea of what I'm talking about:
He sat crosslegged in the leaves at the crest of a ridge and glassed the valley below them with the binoculars. The still poured shape of a river. The dark brick stacks of a mill. Slate roofs. Old wodden watertower bound with iron hoops. No smoke, no movement of life. He lowered the glasses and sat watching. What do you see? the boy said. Nothing. He handed the binoculars across. The boy slung the strap over his neck and put them to his eyes and adjusted the wheel. Everything about them so still. I see smoke, he said. Where. Past those buildings. What buildings? The boy handed the glasses back and he refocused them. The palest wisp. Yes, he said. I see it. What should we do, Papa? I think we should take a look. We just have to be careful.
There is a simple, beautiful, poetic elegance about the style in which McCarthy writes, but it is so unconventional that it might leave the reader wondering how he succeeded. I mean, if I tried to do that, I'd probably be able to sit on a throne of rejection letters reaching into the stratosphere. So why does Cormac McCarthy get to break all the rules and win the Pulitzers and National Book Awards for his books while you and I are busting our rumps to find every instance of passive voice and sweating buckets over proper punctuation? It's simple.

Cormac McCarthy is in league with a tiny minority of other artistic geniuses who can deviate from the path of the norm and make it look beautiful the same way those guys from Stomp can bang on tin cans and swish brooms around on floors and make it sound like music. They can do it the way someone like Janis Joplin was able to rip her vocal cords to shreds and yet captivate millions of people and become a rock legend. Or the way Jackson Pollock could throw seemingly random splashes of paint onto a canvas and end up with them hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It might not be to everyone's tastes, of course, but no art is. That doesn't make it any less noteworthy.

You will find, as you become more comfortable in your artform and your abilities, there are a million ways to make yourself stand out from the pack in your own way. It's folly to try and copy another person's genius when you have your own abilities to develop. You may also have to just settle for being "really good," like most writers, rather than be the next McCarthy, Twain, Capote, or Faulkner. Few people, Cormac McCarthy likely included, rarely get where they are by bursting out of the gate with no concept of "The Rules" in mind. In fact, even though McCarthy has little use for proper punctuation and complete sentences, he still follows the most important ones. He keeps things simple. He finds a visual music in his words that keeps people reading from beginning to end. He haunts our imaginations with searing imagery and the power of his ideas and themes, and he doesn't bog us down in unnecessary words and meaningless concepts. You can do all of those things by writing in a conventional manner, but isn't it refreshing to stumble upon someone who can help open your eyes to something completely different?

Once you've achieved a level of credibility by following "The Rules," you may just be able to throw away the quotation marks too. Until then, it's probably a good idea to hang on to them.


  1. That passage was beautiful. I have GOT to read this!

    And good break down on breaking the rules. After all, no matter what craft and art you create, you gotta know the rules before you can break them. the reason for that is because you gotta be able to recognize when something works, and when it doesn't--and that means experience. And it is structure and "rules" that guide folks to useful experience.

  2. Exactly right, Rachel. McCarthy and those in his league know exactly what they are doing. I think it's that air of assured confidence in everything he writes that makes it work. The book is beautiful and heartbreaking. I highly recommend it to everyone.