Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Cormac McCarthy

A writer’s vocabulary

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The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

A few days ago, I took an online quiz designed to test your vocabulary. You start by ticking off a list of words of varying difficulty whose definitions you think you know, from “midget” to “inveigle,” and then work your way through a series of more exotic creatures: “tenebrous,” “portmanteau,” “embonpoint,” “terpsichorean.” (Note that the entire test is conducted according to the honor system, and there’s no way of verifying whether you only think you know what a word really means.) I ended up ranking somewhere in the ninetieth percentile, which is pretty good, but with the following caveats: 1. English is the only language I know well. 2. I studied Latin and Greek in college, and even though I’ve forgotten most of what I learned, it gives me a definite edge for words like “hypnopompic” and “uxoricide.” 3. I write for a living, which means that the English language is the equivalent of my professional vocabulary. When you factor in the technical terms and phrases acquired in the course of learning any complicated trade, the working language of a doctor or engineer is probably just as large, and arguably more useful.

In fact, for most writers, a large vocabulary can be as much of a hindrance as a help. For every author like Cormac McCarthy, who rightly takes enormous pleasure in digging up obscure, vivid, evocative words, there are a dozen others who would be better off restricting themselves to the words on the first page of that test. A writer who sprinkles the page with the likes of “terpsichorean” had better have a sensational ear; otherwise, it’s a mark of frigidity, of showing off in tangential ways at the expense of the flow of the narrative. Which doesn’t imply that a writer doesn’t need an extensive vocabulary, or that he needs to avoid words that might send readers to a dictionary—it only means that he needs to exercise discretion and good taste when it comes to bringing it into play. And it’s impossible to make those kinds of judgment calls without an extensive storehouse of uncommon words at your disposal, which allows you to drill down into the nether regions of the language on the few occasions when it’s really necessary. For a writer, having a big vocabulary is a little like knowing karate: you learn it so that you’ll never need to use it.

Illustration from the Golden Book Animal Dictionary

So what words does a writer need to know? Nouns and verbs, above all, and particularly the proper names of everyday objects: furniture, clothing, architectural elements, plants and trees, body parts, modes of transport, and whatever technical vocabulary the story requires. For a thriller writer, this means the routine jargon of law enforcement and forensics; in fantasy, the names of weapons and armor; in science fiction, the language of physics, biology, and any number of other fields, used only when necessary to clarify the action. In practice, I find myself consulting the dictionary less often than reference works like The Ultimate Visual Dictionary; The English Duden, with its lovingly detailed and annotated illustrations of everything from factory floors to barbershops; and The AIA Guide to New York City and other locations, a wonderful source of descriptive material for real places and buildings. Again, though, the point isn’t to interrupt the narrative for a lengthy digression on architecture, but to know that the information is there, available if you need it, even while it remains safely in the background in the meantime.

In general, however, the only real solution is to read and write endlessly, and to treat words both as valuable possessions in their own right and as means to a larger view of the world. John Gardner’s advice here, which is brilliant, is to go page by page through the dictionary, making a list of all the common words that you don’t use on a regular basis, which not only extends your lexical range but broadens the universe of actions and situations that you can readily describe. I’ve never gone quite as far as this—like most writers, I actively add words to my vocabulary only according to the demands of a particular project—but I probably should. A big vocabulary is useful to the extent that it encourages you to see things, both in the world around you and your own imagination, that only become visible once you know their names. And this implies that in the long run, the best way to expand your vocabulary is to broaden the range of written experiences you’re trying to evoke. Whenever you write about a subject or way of life you haven’t explored before, you’ll find yourself seeking out the words that the action itself demands—and once you’ve acquired the words you need to tell the story you have in mind, they become a part of you forever.

Written by nevalalee

January 16, 2014 at 9:27 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 20, 2010.

After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that my recent post on the subject barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? The graph above, for instance, shows us what we get when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list. And while the results may seem surprising at first, they aren’t hard to understand.

Looking at the chart, it’s clear that books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, especially by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie‘Salem’s LotThe Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist. So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And just as Updike himself once predicted, he and Roth seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2013 at 9:00 am

How to repeat yourself

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John Gardner

Writers are generally advised not to repeat themselves. After I’ve finished the rough draft of a story, one of my first orders of business is to go back through the manuscript and fix any passages where I’ve inadvertently repeated the same word in the same sentence, or within a short run of text. Knowing how often you can use a word is a matter of taste and intuition. Some words are so common as to be invisible to the reader, so you can, and should, use the word “said” exclusively throughout a story, even as dialogue can usually be varied in other ways. Other words or phrases are so striking that they can’t be used more than once or twice in the course of an entire novel, and I’ll sometimes catch myself maintaining a running count of how often I’ve used a word like “unaccountable.” Then there are the words that fall somewhere in the middle, where they’re useful enough to crop up on a regular basis but catch the reader’s eye to an extent that they shouldn’t be overused. Different writers fall back on different sets of words, and in my case, they tend to be verbs of cognition, like “realized,” or a handful of adverbs that I use entirely too often, like, well, “entirely.”

Whenever I’m sifting through the story like this, part of me wonders whether a reader would even notice. Some of these repetitions jar my ear to a greater extent than they would for someone reading the story more casually: I’ve often revisited these pages something like fifty times, and I’m acutely aware of the shape of each sentence. (Overfamiliarity can have its pitfalls as well, of course: I’m sometimes shocked to discover a glaring repetition in a sentence that I’ve read over and over until I can no longer really see it.) But I encounter this issue often enough in other authors’ books that I know it isn’t just me. Catching an inadvertent repetition in a novel, as when Cormac McCarthy speaks twice in Blood Meridian of something being “footed” to its reflection, has the same effect as an unintentional rhyme: it pulls you momentarily out of the story, wondering if the writer meant to repeat the same word or if he, or his editor, fell asleep at the switch. And a particularly sensitive eye can pick up on repetitions or tics that even an attentive reader might miss. In his otherwise fawning study U & I,  Nicholson Baker complains about John Updike’s overuse of the verb “seemed,” which even I, a massive Updike fan, hadn’t noticed until Baker pointed it out.

Nicholson Baker

But repetitions can also be a source of insight, especially when you’re coming to grips with an earlier draft. A writer can learn a lot from the words he habitually overuses. If you find yourself falling back on melodramatic adverbs like “suddenly,” you might want to rethink the tone you’re taking—it’s possible that you’re trying to drum up excitement in a story that lacks inherent dramatic interest. My own overuse of verbs like “realized” might indicate that I’m spending too much time showing characters thinking through a situation, rather than conveying character through action. You can learn even more from longer phrases that reappear by accident. As John Gardner writes in The Art of Fiction, discussing a hypothetical story about Helen of Troy:

Reading…lines he has known by heart for weeks, [the writer] discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery: The brooch Helen threw at Menelaus the writer has described, he discovers, with the same phrase he used in describing, much later, the seal on the message for help being sent to the Trojans’ allies. Why? he wonders. Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And the comparison to dreaming is a shrewd one. “Repetitions are magic keys,” Umberto Eco writes in Foucault’s Pendulum, and although he’s talking about something rather different—a string of sentences randomly generated by a computer—there’s a common element here. When you write a first draft, you’re operating by instinct: you accept the first words that come to mind, rather than laboriously revising the text, because you’re working in a mode closer to the events of the story itself. At its best, it’s something like a dream, and the words we select have a lot in common with the unmediated nature of dream imagery or word association in psychoanalysis. Later, we’ll smooth and polish the surface of the prose, and most of these little infelicities will be ironed away, but it doesn’t hurt to look at them first with the eye of an analyst, or a critic, to see what they reveal. This doesn’t excuse us from falling back on the same hackneyed words or phrases, and it doesn’t help a writer who thinks entirely in clichés. But it’s in our slips or mistakes, as Freud knew, that we unconsciously reveal ourselves. Mistakes need to be fixed and repetitions minimized, but it’s still useful to take a moment to ask what they really mean.

Written by nevalalee

November 18, 2013 at 8:39 am

Blood Meridian and the limits of violence

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In her fascinating New Yorker profile of the author Hilary Mantel, Larissa MacFarquhar writes: “What kind of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent.” Of course, the present can be violent, too, along with many of our visions of the future, and one of the hardest things about becoming a writer, at least for me, is coming to terms with the depiction, meaning, and significance of fictional violence. I’m about as mild-mannered a personality as they come, but I’ve found myself working in a genre utterly predicated on the anticipation of violence and the occasional violent payoff. Both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles have high body counts, and Eternal Empire doesn’t seem likely to break the pattern. There’s a moment fairly early in my third novel in which an innocent person meets an unfortunate fate, and several readers, including my wife, have pointed to this scene as particularly shocking. But I can’t see any way around it. For the narrative stakes here to have any meaning, the reader needs to know that no one is safe. As a result, although I’m a fairly cerebral novelist at heart, I’ve ended up writing about violence more than I ever expected.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since finally finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which had been on my short list of novels to read for a long time. Until now, the only McCarthy I’d read was The Road, another devastatingly bleak and violent novel, but Blood Meridian goes much further: it’s essentially an epic meditation on violence, with more atrocities per page than any other story I can name. It’s a challenging book, hugely readable from paragraph to paragraph but often wearying as a whole, which is an inextricable part of McCarthy’s conception. The violence here is deliberately depicted without the usual payoffs: the narrative doesn’t build in any conventional sense, but instead carries the reader along through sheer rhetorical and symbolic power. This isn’t an unstructured novel by any means, but the structure is paratactic rather than periodic—the plot doesn’t advance so much as proceed inexorably from one bloody set piece to the next. McCarthy’s strategy is to give us as little context as possible: the book is based on real but largely forgotten historical events, and its characters spend much of the story moving through vast, featureless deserts where even the constellations cease to take their familiar shapes.

I’m not especially interested in delving into the allegorical depths of McCarthy’s story, and I’m not even sure he has much to say about the role of violence in American history, any more than Kubrick does in The Shining. As a writer, I’m more inclined to consider the book on its most fundamental level, as the work of a novelist of formidable gifts confronting the narrative problem of violence. I’ve mentioned McCarthy’s language, which, like all great styles, is often vulnerable to parody. Its central strength, however, and the one that unites its many registers of tone—from brutal realism to Biblical sonority—is its specificity. McCarthy delights in arcane but evocative proper names for animals, weaponry, landscape, and it’s hard for the reader not to be caught up in that spell:

…all about in that circle attended companies of lesser auxiliaries routed forth into the inordinate day, small owls that crouched silently and stood from foot to foot and tarantulas and solpugas and vinegarroons and the vicious mygale spiders and beaded lizards with mouths black as a chowdog’s, deadly to man, and the little desert basilisks that jet blood from their eyes and the small sandvipers like seemly gods, silent and the same, in Jedda, in Babylon.

And this specificity is central to the novel’s treatment of violence. McCarthy shows us horrible things, but he’s no more or less specific in the details of mass scalpings as he is in describing the way a man’s shadow looks against a rockface, and it’s all part of the same rich narrative fabric. (This is why the idea of a film adaptation is so daunting: it would take a director of genius to find a visual equivalent for McCarthy’s prose, without resorting to the sorry compromise of voiceover.)

In the end, however, McCarthy, like Shakespeare, is most evocative when he falls silent. After more than three hundred pages of detailed bloodshed, the book ends, famously, on a note of ambiguity: the final encounter with Judge Holden is left to our imagination, and rightly so—it’s one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever read in a book, the embodiment of the fear that our childhood nightmares will still be waiting for us, when we least expect it, years or decades after we thought we left them behind. And the moment when the author finally turns his eyes away wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the entire novel hadn’t methodically demonstrated that McCarthy can describe violence as well as any writer who has ever lived. The most frightening image in the world, as Stephen King once observed, is a closed door. McCarthy knows this, too, and it’s a measure of his shrewdness that as soon as that door opens, it closes immediately—and shoots the wooden barlatch home, locking us out of what follows. And although I have no way of knowing this, I suspect that McCarthy wrote all of Blood Meridian with that closed door in mind, systematically showing us everything to prepare us for the moment when he shows us nothing, leaving us with that one simple sentence: “Then he opened the door and looked in.”

Written by nevalalee

October 19, 2012 at 10:03 am

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations: the sequel

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After playing over the weekend with the new word frequency tool in Google Books, I quickly came to realize that last week’s post barely scratched the surface. It’s fun to compare novelists against other writers in the same category, for example, but what happens when we look at authors in different categories altogether? Here’s what we get, for instance, when we chart two of the most famous literary authors of the latter half of the century against their counterparts on the bestseller list:

The results may seem surprising at first, but they aren’t hard to understand. Books by Philip Roth and John Updike might be outsold by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann in their initial run (the occasional freak like Couples or Portnoy’s Complaint aside), but as they enter the canon, they’re simply talked about more often, by other writers, than their bestselling contemporaries. (Robbins and Susann, by contrast, probably aren’t cited very often outside their own books.) Compared to the trajectory of a canonical author, the graph of a bestseller begins to look less like a mountain and more like a molehill—or a speed bump. But now look here:

Something else altogether seems to be at work in this chart, and it’s only a reminder of the singularity of Stephen King’s career. Soon after his debut—Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand were all published within the same five years—King had overtaken the likes of Robbins and Susann both on the bestseller lists and in terms of cultural impact. Then something even stranger happened: he became canonical. He was prolific, popular, and wrote books that were endlessly referenced within the culture. As a result, his graph looks like no other—an appropriately monstrous hybrid of the bestselling author and serious novelist.

So what happens when we extend the graph beyond the year 2000, which is where the original numbers end? Here’s what we see:

A number of interesting things begin to happen in the last decade. Robbins and Susann look more like speed bumps than ever before. King’s popularity begins to taper off just as he becomes officially canonical—right when he receives lifetime achievement honors from the National Book Awards. And Roth and Updike seem to have switched places in 2004, or just after the appearance of The Plot Against America, which marks the peak, so far, of Roth’s late resurgence.

Of course, the conclusions I’ve drawn here are almost certainly flawed. There’s no way of knowing, at least not without looking more closely at the underlying data, whether the number of citations of a given author reflects true cultural prominence or something else. And it’s even harder to correlate any apparent patterns—if they’re actually there at all—with particular works or historical events, especially given the lag time of the publishing process. But there’s one chart, which I’ve been saving for last, which is so striking that I can’t help but believe that it represents something real:

This is a chart of the novelists who, according to a recent New York Times poll, wrote the five best American novels of the past twenty-five years: Toni Morrison (Beloved), Don DeLillo (Underworld), John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian), and Philip Roth (American Pastoral). The big news here, obviously, is Morrison’s amazing ascent around 1987, when Beloved was published. It isn’t hard to see why: Beloved was the perfect storm of literary fiction, a bestselling, critically acclaimed novel that also fit beautifully into the college curriculum. Morrison’s decline in recent years has less to do, I expect, with any real fall in her reputation than with a natural settling to more typical levels. (Although it’s interesting to note that the drop occurs shortly after Morrison received the Nobel Prize, thus locking her into the canon. Whether or not this drop is typical of officially canonized authors is something I hope to explore in a later post.)

It might be argued, and rightly so, that it’s unfair to turn literary reputation into such a horse race. But such numbers are going to be an inevitable part of the conversation from now on, and not just in terms of citations. It’s appropriate that Google unveiled this new search tool just as Amazon announced that it was making BookScan sales numbers available to its authors, allowing individual writers to do what I’m doing here, on a smaller and more personal scale. And if there’s any silver lining, it’s this: as the cases of Robbins and Susann remind us, in the end, sales don’t matter. After all, looking at the examples given above, which of these graphs would you want?

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