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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