Friday, August 17, 2007

Cormac McCarthy & the semi-colon

Mithridates has sent me the link to Cormac McCarthy's interview with Oprah Winfrey, here -- you have to join Oprah's book club, but membership is free.

Oprah asked McCarthy about punctuation. He said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that's just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn't like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.

Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy's punctuation in McCarthy's texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer's texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.

Winfrey commented on McCarthy's punctuation, and the most interesting thing about this was that McCarthy did not say anything about how that punctuation got into the published text in the first place. A standard publisher's contract gives the publisher the right to conform the text to house style. If this clause is not changed, preservation of the author's punctuation is a matter of chance -- it depends entirely on the discretion of the publisher. If the clause is changed, however, this STILL doesn't guarantee that the author's punctuation will be respected.

When I was given an offer of publication I asked my lawyer to change the clause relating to house style; the book had many different kinds of punctuation, including a small boy's diary, and one could not require it to conform to some arbitrary standard. He changed the clause, so the contract gave me the last word on spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and so on.

The text was quite complicated, so I offered to meet the copy-editor before she started work. I had made a special trip to New York to try to settle possible difficulties in advance. I had five books that were coming up for completion; I was desperate to get back to them before they were gone; I wanted everything to be as simple and clearcut as possible. My editor called the copy-editor, who said she would rather work through the book first and send me her mark-up. The editor, copy-editor and production manager all assured me that the copy-editor's comments were only suggestions; I could change anything I didn't like, and then the book would be sent to the printer. I asked whether there were any points on which the editor felt strongly. If anyone wanted to make a case for some particular point I was happy to discuss it. The editor and copy-editor both said there was no point on which the editor felt strongly; no one wanted to make a case for any particular point. I reminded everyone politely that my contract gave me the last word.

The copy-editor made thousands of gratuitous changes to the book, for which she was, of course, paid an hourly rate. It was then necessary to go through the book thinking about these suggestions -- if someone has "corrected" a grammatical mistake, it is always possible that it is a genuine mistake, so one must consult various works on usage to ensure that one has not been wrong all these years. I went through, anyway, marking up the mark-up, and I again made a special trip to New York to make sure there were no problems.

The production manager looked through the book and she was very very unhappy, because I did not want to italicise titles of books and films, I did not want to use quotation marks around the titles of songs, I had used numerals in many cases instead of spelling out numbers below 100, I had used ALL CAPS WHEN A CHARACTER WAS OUTRAGED and told there was no need to get so excited instead of italics, which is the correct usage, or small caps, which is another possibility, and altogether the production manager was afraid the book would bring shame on Miramax if published with its author's grammar, spelling and punctuation.

The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.

In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

I say: LOOK, if perceived norms did not exist it would not be possible to mark a text as departing from norms, it is not possible for the texture of a text to be different, to be perceived as original, without marking itself off from norms by departing from them.

I say: When Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas she was not "Gertrude Stein", she was just Gertrude Stein, a writer doing what she thought was right for her text. It's not a question of justifying what's in a text by appealing to precedent; you do what is right for the text.

I say: Look at Frank O'Hara! Look at don marquis! This is America, where there is this idea that playing around with punctuation and usage is part of the vernacular, the AMERICAN way of doing things, when some artists started calling themselves "the New York School" it was a JOKE, this American idea that you can just have your own circus--

I say: Look, we give force to these rules by complying with them for the sake of compliance. The more people comply with them, the harder it is for others not to comply with them, the more non-compliance looks like the prerogative of genius rather than just what any writer can choose in doing what's right for--

They're looking at me in an embarrassed, pitying way, and it's kind of funny, because as it happens I am actually a, perhaps even the, world authority on this subject. I really am. The concept of propriety in ancient literary criticism was the subject of my doctoral thesis. It covered ancient criticism, rhetoric and theories of correctness of language from Homer to St Augustine, it took in sociolinguistics, it looked at the subject of linguistic Atticism, it looked at the whole tradition of Shakespearean scholarship with special attention to 18th-century objections to Shakespeare, it looked at the Homeric scholia, it did groundbreaking work on the conceptual difficulties raised by distinguishing propriety (which was seen as stylistic) from purity of language (which for ideological reason was meant to be neutral, a degree zero) -- not only was it a monster of erudition, it also brought to bear modern theories of language and literature. The problem is not that I am speaking from a position of ignorance. I am speaking from a position of knowledge to people who don't know what knowledge would look like. I am talking to people who are afraid that other people who also don't know what knowledge would look like will read the book and think it is full of mistakes.

I say I should have published the book myself. I leave. I go to Coliseum Books and I buy copies of All the Pretty Horses and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and some others I now forget, and I bring them back, and I say LOOK, and I show them passages in the books and how the punctuation is essential to the character of the books, and I say LOOK, Alice B. Toklas was not just some book that only a few people could get, it was INCREDIBLY POPULAR, and my editor says: But that was a very special book.

My editor says: Well -- I can never really tell until I've seen the typeset pages. Let's see what it looks like and then decide.

What this means is he would like to send the copy-editor's mark-up to the printer and present me with a fait accompli, so that it is then necessary to go through the text again and mark it up all over again. There is a chance that if they make it hard enough I will give up, I will not be willing to spend that much time on it, and also there is a chance that once it is actually typeset it can just stay that way and some unfortunate accident will prevent changes being made in time to affect the published text. And all this time I am desperate to get back to my five other books, so if I have to keep fighting for this one they will all be lost. (The whole time I watch the McCarthy interview I am thinking of this meeting in a room at the top of the world.) And I don't know what to do, because even if I utter more sentences, if I utter sentences about my contract, I can't stop them from sending whatever they want to the printer. I can't control what they do with the physical object. The production manager will do whatever the editor tells her to do.

I go to Washington to visit my mother. I think that perhaps, if I get the editor in a social setting, if I set up a dinner with the friends who first discovered the book, perhaps it will be possible to get him to see that this is ridiculous. The New Yorker has a Brooks Brothers buttoned-down collar approach to prose, but all books don't look like the New Yorker. So I set up the dinner. I go back to New York. The business manager at Miramax, Steve Hutensky, who first showed the book to my editor, is also coming. My editor and I get to the restaurant first. Then my friends Tim and Maude come. And then Tatum O'Neal, Steve's girlfriend, shows up unannounced, and we are all at the table waiting for Steve, and Tatum is talking vivaciously. Steve comes very late. It's loud, and there are too many people, and Tatum is talking about the histrionics of women these days at the Oscars, and it is impossible to talk about the book. This is my last day in New York; I don't have an agent; this is my only chance to make sure this is settled, but Tatum talks and talks and talks.

I have an e-mail exchange with my editor. My editor's boyfriend, Joe Dolce, had said FUCK the Chicago Manual of Style, and this had carried weight in a way that a world authority on propriety vs. purity of language had not. My editor says he thinks I may be right.

I go back to England. A couple of weeks go by. I get the proofs of the book. I start reading through, and I see something on the first page and think: Is that what I wrote? I thought I changed that. So I check the text on my hard drive, and this was not in the text. I don't have a copy of the mark-up I sent in (later other writers would say to me, you should ALWAYS keep a copy). I ask my publishers to send me a copy of the copy-editor's mark-up, and when it comes I can see places where I had written STET where the STET had been whited out, because the whiter-out had been careless and whited out part of the text.

So now I'm insane. All the other books have been driven out of my head. If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed. I ask my publishers to send me the copy-editor's original. I go through looking for incrustations of white-out. Poor crazy head. There are a couple of places where I wrote a long explanation in the margin of why the copy-editor's suggestion was not right, and in those places she had allowed the author's text to stay, so if I had written a long explanation for every single one of thousands of changes, explaining why the text as marked up was the way it was, this might have been acceptable in a way that merely writing the book was not.

The typesetter had made all the thousands of gratuitous changes, which were sent out in the Advance Reading Copies, and now he had to go through the text making thousands of changes, which meant that time he could have spent concentrating on Greek and Japanese was taken up with undoing copy-editor madness. Technical problems with Greek and Japanese were never resolved, so all the technical problems had to be solved by all the foreign publishers from scratch, so years, in the end, were disrupted cleaning up after all the problems caused by the copy-editor and production manager. McCarthy seems not to have gone through this.

McCarthy is laconic, with a deep voice. He's impressive. This is someone who had no doubt that he had improved on Swift by fixing the punctuation -- and in some cases rewriting sentences to accommodate the improvement. He's been lucky, though, because he never came up against an editor or a production manager or a copy-editor who decided his own texts were not fit to be seen.

Well, well. To say that it would be easy to go on for another 3,000 words is a slight understatement. My thesis was 100,000 words long and could well have been longer. It's hard to be sane. One tries not to write about King Charles' head. It was good to see the interview.


Levi Stahl said...

I'm with you on punctuation in old texts--Peter Ackroyd's definitely got it right, understanding that the punctuation and the spelling are a large part of the joy of old texts. (Imagine The Anatomy of Melancholy, for example, with corrected spelling and punctuation--it'd be a totally different book--and far less fun.)
McCarthy's position seems at the least ignorant, if not breathtakingly arrogant.

But why should one try not to write about King Charles's head? Seems a good enough idea to me . . .

Anonymous said...

Next time this happens, you really should focus on the terms of your contract. If you had gotten their lawyers involved, I think you would have got your way pretty quickly. (I say this as a lawyer.)

Mithridates said...

I thought you would react strongly to this, given your strongly individualistic punctuation--which I've always meant to ask you about, but which I just chose to STEAL from you instead!!!!!!!

I actually laughed out loud when CM said this. It reminded me of his comment to a newspaper somewhere that Henry James and Marcel Proust "wasn't writing to me." He says these things as confidently as a religious fanatic would say he saw the face of the Holy Virgin in his morning muffin. I had to replay it to make sure he really said it. That's what I meant when I said that he'd said some odd things. Blottings that ugly up the page: something like that. Astonishing.

I had no idea that such a brilliant posting could have been triggered by this. This needs to be sent off as a short story and published INSTANTER. I really mean it.

Helen DeWitt said...

I did think McCarthy's comment was funny -- but then, he does have a very strong sense of how he thinks a sentence should flow, and perhaps found it hard to imagine that other ways might be characteristic of other writers and therefore something the reader should not be spared. (It was the comment that he had actually rewritten sentences to work with the improved punctuation that I particularly liked.)

Anon. Of course, if this happened again, I would bring in my lawyer -- or rather, I would first make a point of sitting down with the copy-editor and working through 20 pages or so to make sure she understood what she was doing, and I would then quote the text of the contract in an e-mail to all concerned to remind everyone of the strict limits it set on alterations to the text. The problem was, I had never had a book published before; with a first book, one is necessarily dependent on the intelligence and good faith of the people publishing it.

philq said...

I hate it when editors modernize the spelling & punctuation of old texts, but it seems almost impossibble to find nice unadulterated editions outside of university libraries. The Norton Critical Editions are the only ones I know of that leave all that sweet old-timeyness (if you pardon my technical vocabulary) intact. Do you know of any others? For example, I would LOVE to find a good edition of Thomas Browne, but everything is modernized...

Also there seems to be trends in modernization. I bought an old used copy of Jonathan Wild and it's completely wrecked, but a new Penguin edition of Tom Jones seems to have changed only the elongated S's (too lazy to figure out the font for that one). I would love to read a nice 10-page New Yorker spread on these trends!

Helen DeWitt said...

Mithridates -- it doesn't bother me if Cormac McCarthy is crazy. Glenn Gould was crazy. Glenn Gould does things with Brahms that I think are completely bonkers. McCarthy's craziness, his blindness to having blind spots, is part of his genius. But I think someone who wants to express artistic temperament in the minutiae of punctuation should write his or her own book, not deploy it on other people's texts. We don't publish books with credits that say: punctuation by Margaret Wolfe.

Helen DeWitt said...

philq -- not sure about Browne. OUP publishes some texts with original spelling and punctuation; their edition of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, for instance, hasn't updated the usage for modern readers.

komfo,amonan said...

Wow. I found that tale heartbreaking. I remember reading about what happened to the early (posthumous) editions of Emily Dickinson, how punctuation (and even some words) were changed, and thinking, "How fortunate we live in times where we can read decent editions and read about how crappy early editions were."

Poetry is seen as kind of a different animal. But still.

Helen DeWitt said...

Yes - I hate those cleaned-up editions of Dickinson. I think one problem is that a lot of people are like Lynne Truss. They are happy to make an exception for writers of genius (if you're James Joyce it's OK to break the rules). The problem is, though, that writers of genius don't walk around with little halos over their heads, enabling us to distinguish the writers of genius from the riffraff. If the only justification for breaking rules is the claim to genius, very few unpublished writers will be allowed to break rules. They are by definition writers who have had no reviews, no critical assessment; the culture at large has not yet endorsed these particular violations of rules. Most writers surely want to make a much more modest claim, which is that the text handed in reflects the sensibility of the person who wrote it. Replacing that sensibility with that of a randomly-chosen stranger should not be the default procedure; it should be done only in exceptional cases, when very compelling reasons can be put forward. As things stand, however, replacing the author's preferences with those of a stranger is the norm; allowing the author's preferences to stand is the exception. Hence, I take it, the dreary sameness of so much that is published.

Mithridates said...

I love craziness too. Gould is a great example. Nabokov is another, who hated Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Woolf, Musil, Mann. The list goes on. Tolstoy thought Harriet Beecher Stowe superior to Shakespeare. I know what it's like to get looked at crosseyed after I make my antipathies known. Maybe I'll have a posting about all my totally arbitrary beliefs and preferences.

The punctuation question interests me. I think of the Your Average Reader. Take one of my sisters, for example, who tried to read Oates's foxfire - b/c it sounded porny, no doubt - but couldn't get past page 50 because there weren't enough periods (or any, I can't remember and haven't read the book). That seems to be the problem that most readers have in terms of punctuation. Faulkner's impenetrable for any number of reasons, but the fact that periods make less frequent appearances in Absalom, Absalom seems to be the biggest one for some of the people I've talked to. What I'm trying to say is that, except for periods and maybe commas, most average readers - the target audience of most publishing houses - don't seem to care about punctuation, not usually being very aware of it in their own writing themselves. My mother puts book titles in quotation marks, my father doesn't put the comma before and in a list of more than two things, and my sisters use commas like periods. I'm not criticizing them. They're the nonacademic, nonliterary but generally literate people who buy books and read them, and they don't pay much attention to the largely arbitrary rules from Strunk & White that were forced upon me at a young age and from which I've been desperately trying to break free these ladt few years. Now, writers and academics and Thems What Know, spotting "irregularities" in punctuation and mechanics, will probably say to themselves, Well there must be some reason for this, and eventually come up with one if they think the book worth thinking about at all.

So my question is, Who are these people that your publishers said will think the book sloppy and unprofessional b/c of its punctuation? The only group I can think of is Other Publishers. And nuns.

Helen DeWitt said...

Mithridates. We can only surmise.

Ben W said...

The person looking for nice Browne might could find some here. Some PDF facsimiles, mostly just htmlized web editions, but (& am I no scholar of Browne so can't be certain) they look to be done with care, and certainly the spelling hasn't been modernized.

Oreopithecus bambolii said...


i'm not a writer, but as a just-finished linguistics major (here via languagehat) and aspiring librarian, this made me so mad i could barely see straight....

Jenny Davidson said...

You have just given me another reason to dislike Cormac McCarthy, I've got a blind spot when it comes to that man (have only read "All the Pretty Horses" which I realize is not his best, but one day when I am really feeling meanspirited I am going to sit down and read a few others and then rant about them to anyone who will listen). I am pretty much obsessed with all this stuff too of course, my most heartfelt condolences! I like the sound of your thesis--did you ever read the chapter in Cary McIntosh's book about the trend of the revisions in Richardson's later editions of "Pamela"? Very interesting.

(NB commenter above: there's a great new Oxford World's Classics edition of "Jonathan Wild," though of course that novel is complicated by the fact that there rae two different contenders for best edition to use as copy-text--and the standard scholarly edition made some odd choices in that regard...)

foxfire is indeed an excellent example of a novel that makes thoughtful use of EXTREMELY commonsensical and accessible tho non-standard capitalization and punctuation. Helen, I do not understand how you have miraculously gathered here the only group of readers in the world who seem to have read and liked (only with the exception of McCarthy, to whom I am allergic...) exactly the same books I have!

Oh, and there are some very comical cleanings-up in the later 19th century editions of Romantics like Keats and Shelley, quite astonishing--I think people in English depts have been investigating these trends, there certainly should be some stuff out there.

And finally--the semi-colon has long been my favorite punctuation mark, with the possible exception of the hyphen, which I'm also fond of...

Lee said...

I'm fond of both the semicolon and McCarthy, though both have their weaknesses; not so fond of talk of killing oneself, not after seeing what suicide has done to close friends and family.

Anonymous said...

The way I see it is like this:

The main function of language is communication. Punctuation is a language tool that facilitates language's ability to be as effective as it possibly can. If the punctuation you chose was chosen because you felt it was the best way to punctuate so as to communicate what you wanted to communicate, and more importantly how you wanted it to be communicated, then I say right on.

Anonymous said...

I have just gone through a similar battle with my publishing house.

In the end, my editor, after receiving an illustrated history of my various attempts over a chunk of years to generate a range of pauses while still remaining grammatically "correct" (sometimes one wants the meaning of the semicolon--for example--even if the shorter pause of the comma may sound fine) who basically laughed, gave up, and said that whatever I wanted to do was just fine!

Of course by then it was time to argue about the typeface . . . .

Benjamin said...

very good. said...

where can i get a copy of your dissertation?

Darlita said...

I am in love with your mind.
And your writing.
The Last Samurai blew my mind.
It is brilliant--one of the best books I've ever read.
I cannot believe the CRAP you had to deal with in getting it published in its intended form.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

My copy editor informed me that there were two spelling errors in my book: she wished me to spell "Ecuador" with a "q," and she changed the spelling of my first name to conform with a character's name from a popular television show. Now, offending the people of Ecuador is bad enough, but there is no call to go after my mother.

Mark Schreiber said...

This was editorial abuse. It's bad enough we have to put up with so much rejection, but when the people who publish our work want to change so much of it... I only got $1250 for my first novel, so I thought the least I could do was get creative control. You were much too polite and when you got the first markup should have just sent it back with the clause from your contract underlined.

I loved the all caps and lack of quotation marks in Samurai.

But the main thing agents, editor and readers should realize is that novels are one of the few creative endeavors that can be done - and should be done - by a single person. In a world where every job description demands that we be team players, we should be encouraged to stand alone. John Fowles preferred authenticity to perfection, and so should editors.

Of course there is the added futility of making changes for editors who soon leave the publisher, or for publishers that go bankrupt.

This was a brilliant post, and I enjoyed reading it, though I wish your gift for language and innovation had been appreciated, and I hope that now it is.