Thursday, May 17, 2007

Cormac McCarthy redux ...

... A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece taking a contrarian view of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road. The book really rubbed me the wrong way and I expressed my feelings in no uncertain terms. But I also cited details of the text that prompted those feelings.
I am told - though I haven't bothered to check - that some in the blogosphere took great umbrage at my effrontery. There were objections here, too, though most were expressed civilly. In fact, Lee Lowe and I had a pretty informative exchange.
A surprising number of people emailed me to thank me for confirming their own reaction. A couple wrote to demur. One of those who agreed was Ian Abrams, a literature professor at Drexel University, who invited me visit the class he teaches on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature. I accepted and I have to say I was very impressed by the students. Their questions and obervations were well thought-out and engagingly put. Most liked the book, but all were open to discussion of it, without rancor. At one point, Ian reminded us all of something very important - that it isn't critics or reviewers or literary scholars who determine whether a book is great or not. It is readers.
And this has some bearing on why some people took my piece so personally. Reading is not an entirely passive undertaking. The reader only gets out of a book as much as the reader brings to it. The words set the reader's imagination going - or they do not. My imagination resisted McCarthy's words. Others' imaginations were engaged by them. So my - admittedly pointed - criticism of his book challenged a world those readers had helped bring into being. Perhaps the highest praise that can be conferred upon McCarthy's book is that neither admirers nor detractors react to it with indifference.


  1. I was surprised by THE ROAD. I'm not a McCarthy fan but I enjoyed this one far more than I expected.

  2. Anonymous12:34 PM

    I've encountered this "indignance of the blogosphere" quite a bit, Frank, and do not have any sympathy for it. It seems to me that there are some people who think that everyone should think like them, and get more and more shrill if they don't.

    On this occasion, it seems to me that a book reviewer reads a book and writes down his or her impressions of it. Whether or not those impressions are positive is not up for grabs, it is how you thought about the book. If you like a book that I didn't, or vice versa, I would not "mind", but would be only too happy to respect that your opinion is different from mine in this instance.

    In short, I'd ignore them!

  3. Ditto to everything Maxine says.

    Although I did in fact dislike "The Road" as intensely as you did, and for most of the same reasons. I also have a professional writer writer friend out in Santa Cruz whose assessment of it was, direct quote, "sadistic, misogynistic, nihilistic."

    So I think you're right: it succeeds if only by provoking a strong reaction.

  4. You friend, Art, thinks exactly as I do. I was more restrained in my public assessment than was apparent. McCarthy - and not just in this book - seems to revel in depictions of cruelty.

  5. Maxine, I don't entirely agree with you. Sometimes what you term indignance is genuine disagreement and merits serious consideration - without defensiveness - and a willingness to reconsider one's own point of view. Frank, for example, has made me re-evaluate my thinking about THE ROAD, and whilst he hasn't convinced me in every regard, my reading of the novel is much richer for our differences.