Monday, June 1, 2015

Pestilent Punctuation

I'm a grammar nazi. This isn't a fact I try to hide. Though I don't bust it out unless it's for my critique group or my own writing (so, no, I do not go around correcting people on Facebook, for instance). I went to the library this week to see if they had any of the books from the best horror novels I'm reading through and reviewing every other Friday. The travesty that was the horror selection at the library is a post for another day, but I did end up finding a Cormac McCarthy book, Blood Meridian. I'd been curious about him for awhile, so I decided to pick it up in addition to the ONE book from the horror list I found that I hadn't yet read (a Ray Bradbury).

Judging by my title, you can maybe tell where this is going, at least if you've read him. Maybe you're nodding? Maybe it's just me.

The man has his own system of punctuation. Specifically, he doesn't use quotation marks to set apart dialogue. He also doesn't use apostrophes in most cases. I found that he randomly used them. For instance, "ain't" had an apostrophe. Yet I'm pretty sure "aint" isn't a different word, so if you want to avoid confusion why put an apostrophe there, but not in "wont/won't?" "Wont" without an apostrophe is still an actual word with a completely different meaning. So if you don't put an apostrophe, you've just written the wrong word.

Argh.

He also has a very stream of consciousness way of writing. I realized partway through a sentence that it had been going for quite awhile already. It actually ended up taking all of one page and part of another. In a hardcover. A single sentence that was more than one page long.

Blink, blink.

And, yes, it distracted me. It was working at first, but it pulled me out of the story when I realized it had been going on and on and on. Still, the fact that I made it as far as I did means his writing was flowing, despite the run-on sentence from Hades. That's the thing about his writing. If he weren't a good writer, it would be downright unreadable. Instead, you're lulled into continuing, muscling through. His flow and pacing work well. His descriptions are engrossing.

While he is a good writer, painting a picture with his words, I'm finding his writing style distracting. My poor little grammar nazi writer's soul is twitching inside me as I read on. Out of curiosity, I went to Amazon to look at what reviewers had to say. First of all, with 984 reviews, he's at 4 stars. Impressive. Or not? I don't know. Feels impressive to me for someone who has gone so far out of the mainstream rules of writing.

Anyway, I made it through five pages of reviews before anyone mentioned his lack of correct punctuation. Did they all know about it ahead of time? Does it really just not bother people?


In fact, the biggest technical complaint was about the vocabulary. The biggest non-technical complaint was about the violence. A lot of people took issue with the "pompous," "obscure," or "pretentious" vocabulary. Several of them said he did it on purpose to prove how smart he was. In fact, people repeatedly said they had to pull out a dictionary to finish reading it. I'm not that far in yet, maybe about 80 pages, but I have not had this issue. And not because I'm brilliant. I've got an okay vocabulary from being an avid reader, but it sounded from these reviews like every other word was twenty syllables.

But those same people had no issue with the screwed up punctuation?

Blink, blink. (Again.)

The thing is, I'm not having a terribly hard time figuring out when someone's talking. For the most part, it's quite clear. Yet it does pull me out of the story. I did notice that it gives a different feel to the book, changes the voice and tone some, which I find interesting. I want to continue examining that effect.

It makes me wonder, though, how he got published in the first place? I look at how regimented submission guidelines can be, and wonder just how someone gets their start when, from what I've been told, he does this in all his books. What editor took that gamble in the first place? What reader said, "I like this," and spread the word? How did his editor/agent get past the first page this occurred on and not give up, when we're told these days that mistakes on the first page mean they're not going to keep reading?

In other words, what's up with this?

I can see a well known author getting away with it after he's become well known and respected, but I really want to know how this happened in the beginning. When someone is given a chance despite breaking the rules, I want to know more.

Also, side note: Did they really use "ye" in the Old West? Because his characters are doing that. And I'm curious.

There's no big point to this post except that I wanted to talk about it, I guess. I'm curious how something like this begins, what the writer is thinking, what the editor was thinking, and just WHY? And I'm also curious as to why it doesn't bother more people. I get that I may be more bothered by something like this than most people, but I'd think it would irk anyone who is accustomed to reading, oh, I don't know, proper punctuation!? (<----totally not proper punctuation, but this is a blog post, not a novel, and I claim blog-etic license.)

Have you read a Cormac McCarthy? Did the weird punctuation bother you? Did you feel it changed and/or improved the tone of the book? Do you know of another author who does the same thing?

May you find your Muse.

Quotation images from Mohamed Ibrahim, clker.com
Confused Squirrel image by Kelly, clker.com

18 comments:

  1. Lack of quotation marks bugs the hell out of me, no matter who the author is or how beautiful the writing. I've never read one where I didn't, at some point, have to stop and puzzle out whether the character really just said that out loud. I don't understand why you'd want to make your book harder to read. I don't understand why less clarity is ever better. And I think there's a world of difference between an inner thought and a spoken word, and that's difficult to suss out if the author has thrown punctuation to the wind. Besides, punctuation is free--not like the book is cheaper because they saved ink on all those pesky quotation marks.

    mb

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    1. Ha, true, punctuation is free. Now I'm curious how many pages not having some punctuation will shorten a book by.

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  2. And I don't hide that I'm not that great at grammar. Especially commas. :P

    I can't read stories that don't use quotation marks. It's confusing!

    I have one of his books, but I haven't read it yet. Uh oh...haha

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  3. I can't read Cormac. It drives me crazy and I can't get into the story. I find it obnoxious that any writer thinks they're above the basic rules of punctuation.

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    1. At least the basic rules that have a good reason! I'd like to not have to guess when someone's talking.

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  4. You're talking about McCarthy in this post? Because, if so, I just took him off my reading list.
    Unless it's written in first person, there's no good reason for that and, even if it is first, there's barely a reason for that kind of stuff.
    That's just... showing off. "Look how avant garde I am" or some kind of crap like that.

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    1. I am. At the very least, pick up the physical book at a library or bookstore and scan through to see if you can take it. And yes, it feels that way. Or Stuart/Stewart from Saturday Night Live: "Look what I can do!"

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  5. My father read No Country For Old Men and said it was the same. I'm glad I watched the movie instead.

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    1. Yep. I did watch that movie, which is what made me curious about McCarthy in the first place. Then I kept hearing about him.

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  6. I, too, am/was a former grammar queen. Teaching somehow makes that happen. But, now being retired, my writing has loosened up. There are all sorts of sentences that are not sentences at all.

    Do not read James Joyce's Ulysses.

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    1. Oh, ugh, one to avoid. Then again, my curiosity often wins. I think being online so much and doing so much informal writing has seriously loosened up my writing. And, of course, there are always rules to break in writing.

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  7. The weird/lack of punctuation does bother me. I've browsed through a couple of his books, but haven't read them, actually. Maybe some day when I can suspend my own little grammar critic. As for big words, those rarely bother me. But, I like to sound pretentious :)

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    1. Big words can be fun! Who doesn't like to use them sometimes?

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  8. The author who wrote Angela's Ashes did the same kind of stuffz

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    1. Interesting. It was mentioned on my Facebook page that it might be the time period it was written. Will have to check out when Angela's Ashes and Ulysses were written.

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  9. I know another author who doesn't use quotation marks. Now, I tend to be really liberal about writing, meaning, my own rule is: if it works keep it, if it doesn't toss it. I hate all rules about writing. I even make up my own words and I'll admit that's not always well-taken by readers. But I'm stubborn and I stick to it. But ... grammar is different. Grammar is not about rules, grammar is about knowledge of the language. And of all things, punctuation is there to make our life easier. It's needed to decipher meaning. Not using punctuation is like trying to unlock a door without using a key. So yeah, I'm with you. Although come to think of it, I'll make an exception: The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Every chapter is one sentence. But hey, it's Marquez. He can do whatever he wants. :-)




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    1. Every chapter is one sentence? Color me intrigued! I do believe in using what works in writing. There are a lot of things I've adopted that aren't technically correct grammar. For instance, starting a sentence with "and," "but," or "or." Little things like that. There's a different flow that needs to be represented sometimes.

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