How Cormac McCarthy Became a Copy-Editor for Scientific Books and One of the Most Influential Articles in Economics

Creative Commons image via Wikimedia Commons

I first came to know the work of Cormac McCarthy through the 1973 novel Child of God, a portrait of a terrifyingly alienated loner who becomes a serial killer. The book so immerses readers in the dank, claustrophobic world of its protagonist, Lester Ballard, that one can almost smell the dirt and rotting flesh. Next, I read Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s psychedelically brutal epic about a mercenary band of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans in the mid-nineteenth century Southwest. In McCarthy’s avalanche of prose—which lacks commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, and most every other mark of punctuation—long passages of grim death and carnage become hallucinatory trance-inducing incantations.

It’s never a good idea to identify an author too closely with their fiction; the most disturbingly effective works of horror and madness have very often been designed by writers of the highest emotional sensitivity and critical intelligence. This is certainly the case with McCarthy, whose work plumbs the deepest existential abysses. Nevertheless, I harbored certain anxious expectations of him, unsure if he was a writer I’d ever actually want to meet. So like many others, I was more than a little puzzled by McCarthy’s decision to give his first and only TV interview in 2007 on Oprah Winfrey’s wildly popular platform.

But among the many things we learned from their pleasant conversation is that McCarthy doesn’t care much for literary society. He doesn’t like writers so much as he loves writing and thinking, of all kinds. He spends most of his time with scientists, keeping—as we noted in a post last week—an office at a think tank called the Santa Fe Institute and doing most of his writing there on a noisy old typewriter. While developing relationships with physicists, McCarthy took an interest in their writing, and volunteered to copy-edit several scientific books. He overhauled the prose in physicist Lawrence Krauss’s Quantum Man, a biography of Richard Feynman, promising, says Krauss, that he “could excise all the exclamation points and semicolons, both of which he said have no place in literature.”

In 2005, McCarthy read the manuscript of the Harvard physicist Lisa Randall’s first book, Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions. He “gave it a good copy-edit,” Randall said, and “really smoothed the prose.” Later he did the same for her second book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. During that experience, she notes, “we had some nice conversations about the material. In fact, I saw a quote where he used a physics example I had given in response to a question about truth and beauty.”

Perhaps McCarthy sees this avocation as a challenge and an opportunity to learn. Perhaps he’s also doing research for his own work. His latest project, The Passenger, includes a character who is a Los Alamos physicist. But what about another, surprisingly out-of-the-blue editorial job he took on in 1996? Before he applied his austerities to Krauss and Randall’s work, he received an article from theoretical economist and friend W. Brian Arthur. The piece, scheduled to be published in the Harvard Business Review, was titled “Increasing Returns and the New World of Business.”

After mailing McCarthy the article, Arthur called and asked him how he liked it. “There was a silence on the line,” he tells Rick Tetzeli in an interview for Fast Company, “and then he said, ‘Would you be interested in some editorial help on that?’” The two spent four hours going over the writing. “Let’s say the piece was better for all the hours Cormac and I spent poring over every sentence,” Arthur says, noting that his editor called in a “slight panic” after hearing about the collaboration. You can read the full article here. It’s “a lot punchier and more sharply worded than you might expect, given its subject matter,” writes The Onion’s A.V. Club. It also contains a lot more punctuation than we might expect, given its copy-editor’s philosophy.

“Increasing Returns and the New World of Business” became one of Harvard Business Review’s “most influential articles” Tetzeli writes. “Even now, the theory of increasing returns is as important as ever: it’s at the heart of the success of companies such as Google, Facebook, Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb.” Did McCarthy’s encounter with Arthur’s theory appear in his later fiction? Who knows. Perhaps where Arthur’s vision of economic growth predicted the massive tech giants to come, McCarthy’s keen mind saw the ever-increasing profits of business savvy drug cartels like those in No Country for Old Men and his Ridley Scott collaboration The Counselor.

via The A.V. Club

Related Content:

Cormac McCarthy Explains Why He Worked Hard at Not Working: How 9-to-5 Jobs Limit Your Creative Potential      

Cormac McCarthy’s Three Punctuation Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy Talk Science and Culture

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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