1. marina
    Offline

    marina Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2008
    Messages:
    1,280
    Likes Received:
    55
    Location:
    Seattle

    Minimalism or Gimmicky?

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by marina, Jul 7, 2009.

    When I read Cormack McCarthy's The Road, I was shocked with the lack of punctuation. After a while, though, it seemed to make sense. The feeling of the story, the setting--life had been stripped bare, and so he stripped his writing to the most minimal as well. (Or at least that's how I took it)

    But then in a book I just read called Breath by Tim Winton, he does almost the same thing--minimal commas, no quotations marks. This writing style also fits this particular story.

    However, I'm beginning to wonder if it's all just a bit gimmicky. I mean, shouldn't your prose be sufficient to give the minimalist sense rather than mucking with the technical aspects of written communication? Shouldn't your literary devices be confined to your words? While the minimal punctuation fit the 2 stories, it did get a little tiresome after a while trying to make sure I understood dialogue versus inner monologue, and who exactly was speaking.
     
  2. ManhattanMss
    Offline

    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 14, 2009
    Messages:
    626
    Likes Received:
    14

    Good points, all. I haven't read Breath, so I can't comment on that, although I'd trust your insight as a perfectly valid. In THE ROAD, I thought it was an excellent choice that worked exceptionally well to underscore the meaninglessness of convention of any kind in the particular circumstances of the story. It'd be a safe bet that in a post-apocalyptic era, grammatical matters would likely be the last of issues to create concern, in a sense. I think I noticed that he wasn't entirely consistent in this matter, either (and there could be reasons for that, too).

    I also think the blurring of dialogue and inner monologue and who is actually speaking or significant is something that works very well with some liberties taken with this sort of thing. I believe Saramago does this well (especially in BLINDNESS, and maybe ALL THE NAMES and other stories, too), and creates a sense of the overall, more global significance of the theme of the story than pinpointing it through a singular viewpoint.

    I guess I think these kinds of things would feel more "gimmicky" in the hands of a less experienced writer, and part may have to do with style, too. Writers are more and less comfortable with "experimental" styles, diverging from common practice, and that sort of thing. I imagine one who's not comfortable would likely read as more gimmicky (or worse, more un-literate) than one who is, maybe. I'm sure I'd be more likely to try and convey these things through the story and language, as you suggest, than to diverge very much from conventional punctuation (but then my life has been pretty much about punctuation for a very long time; so that could change, too, I suppose).

    Did you ever read Perec's A VOID? in which he does not use the letter "e"? And I believe the characters uncover a manuscript in which another vowel is missing (so that manuscript contains neither one, since it's part of the overall story). I have writer friends who think this work was brilliant, and maybe it is. I couldn't finish it, though (or I guess I should say I haven't finished it), because it did seem gimmicky to me. Even so, I have to admit that it did read like a story that felt very foreign and which did provide a sense of a kind of absence of something unnamed.
     
  3. Acglaphotis
    Offline

    Acglaphotis Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jun 1, 2008
    Messages:
    912
    Likes Received:
    3
    As a writer, they have complete control of how they work their prose. Just because something is accepted everywhere as a standard and is grammatically correct doesn't mean works can work outside of it. The only problem I could predict is readability, but beyond that, it's just another tool to use :).
     
  4. Mercurial
    Offline

    Mercurial Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 16, 2009
    Messages:
    3,453
    Likes Received:
    117
    I havent read either of those books, but I've read ones similar in the sense that I understand where you're coming from.

    Most of the time, I'm a Grammar Nazi, but I'm lenient if it's called for. Flowers for Algernon for instance had a lot of mispelled words, but the story was told from the point of view of someone who was very, very slow. As his intelligence increased exponentially, the spelling improved. It's one of the things I loved about the book and is a creative way of expressing, of showing instead of telling. Not only do you absorb the text mentally, but you see the harsh mispellings physically on the paper and the point is really driven in.

    I suppose it could seem gimmicky if it isnt done properly, without obvious reason, but it's actually something I certainly approve of in creative writing. Just dont expect me to read it all in one sitting; my head will hurt too much. :p

    On the other hand, I dont think I could handle poor SPAG in a more structured format like an essay.

    Thanks for the names of the books; I think I'll check The Road out...
     
  5. arron89
    Offline

    arron89 Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2008
    Messages:
    2,460
    Likes Received:
    91
    Location:
    Auckland
    I'm reading The Road right now, and I have to admit, as much as I love contemporary and experimental fiction, I was very sceptical of McCarthy's style at first. But I'm coming to the conclusion that his rejection of conventional grammar and structure rules is to add a greater potency to the words, to give them a certain poetic quality, and certainly at moments you get a sense of the words just falling together perfectly and effortlessly, rather than simply being means to an end. It also emphasises the notion of story-telling, as opposed to writing, which I think is one of his intentions, and of course adds to the sparseness of his prose. Anyway, still reading, guess I'll have a more concrete idea about it at the end.
     
  6. marina
    Offline

    marina Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2008
    Messages:
    1,280
    Likes Received:
    55
    Location:
    Seattle
    Hm, it's like poetry then. Poetic prose.
     
  7. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    It was a bit awkward reading The Road for the first few chapters. But by the end, I got used to the lack of punctuation. I agree with marina that it makes sense to use a lack of punctuation given the theme and mood of the book.

    On a side note, has anyone seen McCarthy's interview with Oprah? I was disappointed because Oprah doesn't seem like she's interested in literature that much. She usually engages in conversation with her guests, but here she just fired question after question.
     
  8. ManhattanMss
    Offline

    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 14, 2009
    Messages:
    626
    Likes Received:
    14
    I think it also gives it a sense of a different "world order" based in immediacy (where only what matters really matters) in this world where there is no past and no future (to speak of). As Marina says, it is very "poetic" in that sense (using and ignoring punctuation as an integral part of the overall image or metaphor).
     
  9. Rabid Fox
    Offline

    Rabid Fox Member

    Joined:
    May 21, 2008
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Canada
    I have The Road sitting on my shelf, which I hope to read sometime soon. I read No Country for Old Men, also by McCarthy, as well as The Orchard Keeper last year--the guy must be allergic to quotation marks. :) Ah well. No Country was a fantastic book, and I am hopeful for The Road.
     
  10. WashingtonIrving
    Offline

    WashingtonIrving Member

    Joined:
    Apr 30, 2009
    Messages:
    46
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Scotland
    Yeah, it's what he's done in all (I think?) of his books. Some of them have indentation for speech though, the Road being one of them, at least the edition I read did.

    I think in the wrong hands it would be a gimmick. He's changed his style a lot over the years, from something more verbose than almost anyone to the spare style you find in The Road.

    I'm not going to claim originality for this insight, but The Road is essentially an extended trip through the head of the father. In this context, not differentiating between spoken words and thoughts makes complete sense. You're inhabiting his world. As I said though, he does this in all of his books so that's probably just an additional thing.

    Yeah, the whole thing was a little odd. I think that was his only ever television interview as well.
     
  11. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I just looked it up, and you are correct. That was his only TV interview although he did have a few in print.

    While I thought The Road was great, I think some of his other novels are better, namely All the Pretty Horses. He was in his 70s when he published The Road, so I'm taking a guess that part of the reason the prose in The Road was so simple and short was because of the age factor. A lot of novelists have said that you need a lot of mental endurance to write a great novel. Unfortunately, McCarthy is in his decline. But I still hope he writes another novel soon. I have always loved reading McCarthy.
     
  12. WashingtonIrving
    Offline

    WashingtonIrving Member

    Joined:
    Apr 30, 2009
    Messages:
    46
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Scotland
    I dunno about a decline. I know that a lot of his fans loved it, but I'm not too fussed about the Border trilogy. The Crossing is definitely my favourite, if only for the brilliant opening passage with the wolf, but otherwise I found it a bit lacking in.. something or other. That said, it was the first McCarthy I read so I could stand to revisit.

    I'd have a hard time choosing any of his novels over the Road. If you separate his verbose early novels from his increasingly minimalist later ones, the Road reads like the end point of that progression. But each to his/her own, of course.
     
  13. arron89
    Offline

    arron89 Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2008
    Messages:
    2,460
    Likes Received:
    91
    Location:
    Auckland
    No critics I've read (and certainly not in my own opinion) have said that Cormac McCarthy is in decline. In fact, most of what I've read (a lot of which is now printed on the book itself) declares that The Road is the crowning achievement in a long and successful career and firmly establishes McCarthy as one of the Great American Novelists.
    And calling his prose "simple" is, again IMO, a misjudgement. Yes, the sentences are often simple in construction and the minimal style certainly favours relative brevity in writing, but there are moments in the novel where what he does with language is nothing short of sublime. Its not 'simple' out of necessity or mental lack, its 'simple' because that's how he chooses to best write his novel.
     
  14. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    His previous novels are wordier which is why I called The Road "simple". I'm not implying that being simple is bad. Hemingway writes in simple prose, and yet he is an extraordinary writer. Also, I doubt any critic is going to openly say an author is declining. Even though it may be the truth, it's a sort of thing a critic shouldn't be saying in their reviews. And from what I understand, many critics consider Blood Meridian to be his best novel.

    The main reason I said he was on the decline is because of his age. Only a slim minority can write really well past 70ish. I think the peak age is something in the 50s, judging from when a writer publishes his or her best work. It has to be after the writer gains a lot of experience but not before he or she loses mental endurance.

    On a side note, I don't get why he doesn't like quotation marks. It was fine in The Road; it fit the theme and mood. But in Blood Meridian, I had to sometimes go back and reread dialogue just to make sure it wasn't narrative.
     
  15. arron89
    Offline

    arron89 Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2008
    Messages:
    2,460
    Likes Received:
    91
    Location:
    Auckland
    He's commented about it a few times in interviews. Basically it stems from a disdain (putting it politely) for the overly formal and regulated styles of writing from the 17th through 19th centuries (he "fixed" a Swift essay by eliminating much of the 18th century punctuation, and says that Proust and James aren't "writing" to him), and its his way of renegotiating the rules of language and story-telling in a written medium, focussing less on the petty rules that often do nothing to aid a reader's understanding (as his books evidence). Its a trend that seems to be gaining more and more popularity among writers, although publishers are less than receptive to it and it seems that only pre-established writers are able to get published writing like that.

    Edit: I still disagree with the age thing, by the way - barring actual mental conditions like Alzheimer's, there's no real reason to expect someone's mind to decline to the point that they'r eless of a writer than they once were....Heminway, Beckett, now McCarthy....and no doubt countless others....I dunno, I guess I've never had any reason to believe that that is true.
     
  16. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    As you get really old, your mind is not going to be as sharp as it once was. It's a fact. Just because a writer publishes something late in their lifetime doesn't automatically make it an excellent piece of writing. Hemingway published The Old Man and the Sea in his 50s and died when he was 62, so I wouldn't really count him as being old. And when Beckett was in his 60s and 70s, critics sometimes called him a minimalist. Wiki has a section about Beckett's later works. It's actually an interesting read. You can definitely see a contrast between his early and late works. If Hemingway had lived another 10-20 years, perhaps he might also have become more of a minimalist (if that's even possible).

    As another example, Knut Hamsun was publishing books well into his 90s, but his masterpieces were from when he was in his 30s and 40s. The only writers I can think of who were consistent even at an old age are Goethe and W.B. Yeats.
     
  17. WashingtonIrving
    Offline

    WashingtonIrving Member

    Joined:
    Apr 30, 2009
    Messages:
    46
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Scotland
    Ken Kesey was once asked why he didn't write another novel like Sometimes a Great Notion, and he said that he just plain couldn't work with the same intensity that he could when he was younger. On the other hand, Dostoyevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov last, and that's just about the best thing he wrote. He must have been in his 60s? Just to add to our lists of examples.

    You'll probably find that each of you can cite examples to argue your case. I think it would be fair to say that generally authors don't write their best stuff in their later years, but on the other hand that might be down to other factors as well as, or even instead of, age. In some cases passion might dim slightly once success has been achieved, for example. And certainly it would not be fair to say that it is inevitable that an authors output deterioates. Most rules have exceptions.

    In McCarthy's particular case, I can certainly see why someone would prefer his wordier novels to his more minimalist later ones. You'll find a few dissenting voices out there if you look, Arron. There's 1 article in particular that I recall reading, but can't remember where. Argued that most modern writing was rubbish by rubbishing the efforts of some of the 'best' writers.
     
  18. bluebell80
    Offline

    bluebell80 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 20, 2009
    Messages:
    636
    Likes Received:
    18
    Location:
    Vermont
    After I saw this post, I went on Amazon to read the first few pages...I don't think I would spend money on The Road. Pulitzer prize winning or not. Just the first page annoyed the crap out of me, with the lack of punctuation.

    Frankly, I don't care for that stylistic choice, no matter how the author intended the subtext of the writing to be. To me it is gimmicky. Like, "ooohh, look at me I'm really trying to be different and stupid literary know it alls think its freaking great, because like haughty art critics, they think anything different, new, or strange is art."

    The Road could be the most interesting story since the dawn of man, though I doubt that highly, but I can't read past the first few pages, because its style sucks.

    I hate things that are all trying to be different for the sake of being different. It's not that I can't appreciate good writing with strange stylistic choices lending to its subcontext, but lacking punctuation just seems too noobish to me. Like it's trying to hard to be different.
     
  19. arron89
    Offline

    arron89 Banned

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2008
    Messages:
    2,460
    Likes Received:
    91
    Location:
    Auckland
    *grabs his copy of The Road*
    Well, without even opening the book, I would suggest that McCarthy shares your view of critics and academia, which makes your reading of his writing kinda ironic. He strips away punctuation not to be different for the sake of being different, but to make his writing more essential, more relatable, and more accessible. The pointless rules and conventions of our grammar system, to him, create an unnecessary formality and distance the reader from the writing more than is necessary.

    Turning to the novel itself, the first page is, I think, extremely readable. It may be missing a few commas where I maybe would've put commas, he uses fragment sentences which may annoy some people, and he plays with the syntax of some sentences to produce a greater effect, but really there isn't anything hugely original or unreadable about what he is doing, and it is being done with a very specific meaning and intention, not simply for the sake of being different, as you put it.

    As a student of both art and literature, it really irks me when people reject something simply because it doesn't conform with what they expect and therefore they assume its worthless showing off or pointless subversion. I'm sure there are artists and authors who think like that, but the chances of them being published/shown are extremely minimal - so instead of thinking "this is different, must be meaningless and showy", just take a little time, think it over, think beyond the text and try to understand why that artistic choice was made.

    As for it being too difficult to read, that just comes down to how much effort you're willing to put in. Take A Clockwork Orange, for instance. Anthony Burgess creates dozens of new words as part of a new language that is often unexplained or undefined, but the meaning becomes clear as you read and by the end you have no difficulty understanding the text. With The Road, once you get used to the lack of punctuation, it really isn't a difficult or annoying thing to read.

    And you may be apathetic towards the world of the critic, but surely if you see so many glowing reviews and such prestigious accolades lauded on it, you must want to find out why everyone likes it so much....
     
  20. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Maybe that is his rationale, but I agree with bluebell. In his attempt to make the writing more "accessible", he only succeeds in making it nigh unreadable. The reason there are punctuation standards, as well as grammar and spelling standards, is to keep writing clear.

    All he has succeeded in doing is to provide a rallying point for would-be writers who are too damned lazy to learn how to structire a clear, well-punctuated sentence. "Cormac does it, so I can do it that way too!"

    I've heard so many people using Cormac as an excuse for crapping on any manner of writing guideline that I looked at some of his writing.

    I wasn't impressed with what I saw.

    Just my own opinion, but it's all mine. :)
     
  21. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    I have to disagree with bluebell and Cog on this one. The lack of punctuation makes sense in this case. A lot of punctuation is stripped away much like the world the boy and his father are traveling through. Only the bare essentials are left in tact. It might be over-analyzing on my part, but that is how I interpreted it. And McCarthy is not trying to be different. He chose to write in a way that would fit with the theme and mood of the piece. A deliberate lack of punctuation isn't "noobish" or anything of that sort. He, like several other writers, has used it as a tool to enhance the effect of his novel.
     
  22. WashingtonIrving
    Offline

    WashingtonIrving Member

    Joined:
    Apr 30, 2009
    Messages:
    46
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Scotland
    It is over-analysing in the sense that he does it in all of his books, but it is particularly apposite in the case of The Road.

    I don't think it's a good argument against anyone that they have poor imitators. But there is a valid point here. If you compare McCarthy's writing with someone like Melville, what is lacking at times is the flow that a book like Moby Dick builds up. Sometimes you do need to read a McCarthy sentence twice to see what is being said. This means that sometimes I have to stop being amazed at just how damn good some of the writing in order to properly understand it.

    What I think completely stops McCarthy being consigned to the ranks of writers that are 'too clever by half' is that he has a real flair for writing convincing dialogue. This helps him to ground his novels in something more approaching conventional reality than his high-flown biblical prose ever could hope to. As such, you are reminded that Blood Meridian, for example, depicts events that, more or less, actually occurred in a certain part of the world.

    That said, McCarthy is never going to be to all tastes. There is a reason why he remained obscure for so long. But then southern writers generally aren't to all tastes. I'd argue that McCarthy is a lot easier to read than Faulkner, say.
     
  23. bluebell80
    Offline

    bluebell80 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 20, 2009
    Messages:
    636
    Likes Received:
    18
    Location:
    Vermont
    Arron, I think I used "critics" in the wrong sense. I didn't so much mean critics who write reviews, but more of would-be critics or people of that world who act as know-it-alls. There are literary people who are not writers per-say, but have studied literature to the enth degree and feel their perspective is correct and anyone else's is just rubbish or wrong.

    I argued with my lit professor over the metaphoric meanings of Interview with a Vampire, among other shorter works in a different lit class. She was very opinionated. Yet, so am I.

    I am not saying she was wrong, or that anyone here who likes McCarthy's writing is wrong for liking it, or seeing some metaphoric sense to his lack of punctuation, but that I don't see it that way.

    I don't like having to reread the same sentence over again trying to figure out exactly what it means, because it is missing an essential pause in the sentence where the comma should be. To me it is like reading a story that hasn't been edited properly.

    I like punctuation.

    McCarthy is just one of those writers who is not going to appeal to everyone. I don't like it just from the first few pages, means I'm not going to read the rest of the book.

    Maybe I don't want to look past McCarthy's lack of grammar usage. And I'm not saying rules weren't meant to be broke, because sometimes they are. Sometimes it is a just a stylistic choice by the author, but it doesn't mean it's going to appeal to everyone. I did find it amusing that it was a Pulitzer prize winning novel, but that is the difference between haughty judges who think literature has to mean something so deep, so profound, and the rules of writing can be thrown out the window to enhance this effect.

    I don't think the lack of punctuation enhances anything. It turns some readers off, who may in fact enjoy the overall story.

    But, as Cog said, that is just my opinion. And everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
     
  24. thirdwind
    Offline

    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2008
    Messages:
    7,351
    Likes Received:
    2,891
    Location:
    Boston
    Not having commas was a good choice in this case. It shows the frantic thoughts of the narrator and sometimes of the characters as well. If there was a pause there, it would lose that effect of being frantic. Given the setting they're in, a quick pace with fast thoughts is the way to go. I don't mind if someone doesn't like the book, but I feel like I should give others my interpretation of why the author did this or that.
     
  25. bluebell80
    Offline

    bluebell80 Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 20, 2009
    Messages:
    636
    Likes Received:
    18
    Location:
    Vermont
    thirdwind, were you referring to the missing comma in my sentence? The one that should be between "again, trying" Because if you are, I would say it was a mistake on my part. The comma should have been there, since there should be a pause between those words.

    It's like overlooking typos for me, I guess. I can read a piece of writing, see a typo, but know what it was supposed to be due to the context of the sentence it is in and the ones around it. Missing punctuation is also the same. We can read something lacking punctuation, but know where the pauses should go after reading it according to the context. But, for me it takes me out of the story when I pause to think, "There should be a comma there." For me, my goal as a writer is to immerse my reader into the piece. Missing punctuation could possibly pull the reader out of the story. But common sense punctuation, not proper-follow-the-rules punctuation, should almost disappear much like "he said/she said" disappears after a while.

    I just started reading The Time Travelers Wife last night. One thing I have noticed, is sometimes I had to go back and reread the dialog because of the lack of tags. I was unsure exactly who was speaking sometimes. I see that is going to be a minor issue with this book, but so far I am more engrossed in the story to really pay much mind to this minor issue, but it does pull me out of the story more than I'd like it too.

    I'm just extremely picky when it comes to what I read and what I like.
     

Share This Page