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A short note on Cormac McCarthy and Rating Writers
Cormac McCarthy has died at 89.
I discovered McCarthy in the ‘90s. I was a more voracious reader then in that pre-internet era, and I had just finished every last book by Wallace Stegner. I told a friend I wanted to read more novels set in the desolate, dry Western landscapes I loved, and I just couldn’t go back to Louis L’Amour.
The friend suggested All the Pretty Horses - and I was hooked. (I did not like that movie adaptation, but I did love what the Coen Brothers did with McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.)
The thing about being a writer or an actor or a teacher or pretty much anything is that there is always someone much better at it than you are. If you play tennis, you are not Novak Djokovic. If you dance, you are not Mikhail Baryshnikov. If you sing, you are not Leontyne Price. If you act, you are not Daniel Day Lewis or Olivia Colman. If you write, you are not Shakespeare, or Cormac McCarthy.
But lots of people write. In the universe of authors in the English language, perhaps Shakespeare is the first-rate writer. Cormac McCarthy is second-rate, as is W.B Yeats. By that token, to say that George Eliot is third-rate, Edna St Vincent Millay fourth-rate, Stephen King fifth-rate and Jodi Picoult sixth-rate isn’t really unkind. In tennis, the 118th ranked tennis player is still pretty amazing even if he isn’t Novak; in writing, those of us who plug along at eleventh-rate (I think that’s where I put myself) aren’t really all that terrible.
Reading better writers sometimes makes me want to quit, and sometimes it makes me want to write more. That’s the same with any craft or passion, I suppose. I did learn a great deal from McCarthy, though I would never claim to be influenced by him. He did teach one lesson I took to heart, and there’s a demonstration here in this striking and justly famous paragraph from one of his early books, Blood Meridian:
“Two other dogs sat a little apart, squatting loosely in their skins, just frames of dogs in napless hides watching the coupled dogs and then watching the prisoners clanking away up the street. All brightly shimmering in the heat, these lifeforms, like wonders much reduced. Rough likenesses thrown up at hearsay after the things themselves had faded in men’s minds.”
That first sentence again: “Two other dogs sat a little apart, squatting loosely in their skins, just frames of dogs in napless hides watching the coupled dogs…”
In high school English, I was told that repetition was invariably a sign of laziness. Often, of course, it is. But rather than desperately deploying hounds, bitches, or curs as a sign of “not being lazy,” McCarthy is prepared to let the same plural noun do slightly different things to dazzling effect. I don’t pretend to be able to write as he did, but I remember reading that sentence and others like it, and taking comfort from it.
I suspect I have abused the acceptability of repetition in McCarthy’s name. But that’s what ninth-rate scribblers do.
Wherever Cormac is, I hope he’s given a glorious desert sunrise as his welcome.