Benbrook Library / Books / Musings

Reading Writing That Isn’t “Right”

This man makes English teachers cry.

Earlier this week, as I was perusing show times in preparation for one of my biannual trips to the movies, I came across “The Counselor.” Thanks to the dumbed down, relentlessly Hollywood-style preview for the movie that’s been running in TV commercials, I knew almost nothing about it except that it stars a cowboy hat-clad Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz, who apparently is still doing stuff. Upon further investigation on the IMDB, I found that the screenplay was written by Cormac McCarthy, a revelation that both gave me hope for the quality of the film and raised some interesting (in my mind) questions (also in my mind).

I’ve read three books by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men, The Road, and All the Pretty Horses), and I plan to someday read at least a fourth (Blood Meridian). I enjoyed and would recommend all three that I’ve read, but I realize they aren’t for everyone. For some, the disturbing/depressing subject matter will be a turnoff. For others, McCarthy’s unique writing style will make them want to run far, far away. For those unfamiliar with McCarthy’s work, what I’ve favorably dubbed “unique writing style” might be labeled by haters, not at all inaccurately, as “flagrant disregard for the rules of the English language.” It’s this polarizing style that got me thinking.

My first thought, as it usually is, was goofy: Does Cormac McCarthy write his screenplays in the same style he writes his novels? If he does, I imagine the screenplay for “The Counselor” reads something like this:

Cameron Diaz glides into the room and she flicks on the lights and she sits on the old worn leather chair. Wearing a red dress and a blue scarf around her neck.  She waits and she waits but it doesnt matter now because all that’s left is the waiting and she is resigned to it. A seeming eternity of dull anticipation, then a swift ending. Brad Pitt enters the room and takes the seat across from Cameron Diaz and he deliberately removes his Stetson to smooth back his hair and returns the hat to his head. Well, he says. No change in her stony expression. You know why I’m here, she says. He gives a low chuckle.

I do.

Then dont waste my time.

I wouldnt dream of it. You ready?

Yeah.

Okay. Let’s go.

As you can see, McCarthy’s not a fan of commas, quotation marks, complete sentences, or consistent apostrophe usage. This style would make for a screenplay that would be at worst confusing, and at the very least, kind of annoying to work with, which leads me to my second thought: How important are traditionally proper grammar and punctuation to readers, and how does that level of importance impact their reading choices? When authors like McCarthy flout the commandments of English, are you bothered to the point that you’re unable to read their work? When considering that question, it’s important to acknowledge the difference between unintentional errors that slipped past the editor and an intentional stylistic choice like McCarthy’s. For instance, my mom will sometimes abruptly stop reading a book entirely if she finds one or two typos or grammatical errors. She takes such things as an indication of sloppiness and amateurism on the author’s part, which submarines his or her cred and kills my mom’s desire to read his or her book. It makes sense to me that mistakes that get left in a book due to carelessness cause a reader to balk, but what about consciously done rule breaking? I’m betting the attitudes on McCarthy and writers with similar styles tend to fall on the extreme ends of the spectrum; you either can’t stand the liberties they take with language, or you enjoy their work, writing style and all, and their departure from convention doesn’t really bother you.

 For me, when it comes to McCarthy, I’ve been so interested in the content of his novels, the wonky sentences and missing punctuation marks haven’t irked me all that much. You could argue, as I’m sure people with infinitely more literary savvy than I possess have, that his style enhances his work. The writing is stripped down of floweriness and frills, and the result is raw and often powerful prose. Sure, I definitely notice all that’s “wrong” with his writing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world in which all authors wrote in his style, but I’m willing to let it slide in his case. I’m an easygoing guy like that.

What about you, dear reader? Are you a staunch grammar and punctuation traditionalist, or are you willing to allow the authors you read some wiggle room with their words?

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One thought on “Reading Writing That Isn’t “Right”

  1. I read The Road, but I did not enjoy it, both because of the depressing subject matter and because of the distracting, inconsistent grammar and punctuation errors. I don’t plan to read anymore of his stuff. I enjoy poetry (e e cummings) that breaks the rules, but I prefer grammar and punctuation even then. Like your mom, I don’t keep reading books that have a lot of proofreading/grammar/spelling errors in the first few chapters. Attention to detail is important. However, since I’m a composition instructor at a university, this is probably not a surprise. I suspect, however, that literature profs might be much more flexible, hence “poetic license.”

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