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The Road author Cormac McCarthy once removed all commas from a business paper

Screenshot: No Country For Old Men

Cormac McCarthy is the author behind The Road, All The Pretty Horses, No Country For Old Men, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, and a suite of other acclaimed novels. They’re frequently nightmarish works set in the Deep South and along the Mexico-Texas border, written in opaque, Old Testament furor and peopled by monsters, drifters, sentient wolves, and thieves. They’re remarkable for their galloping, lengthy sentences and almost complete lack of punctuation, aside from periods. He is one of the preeminent modern prose stylists.

Also, tucked into the oeuvre somewhere, is a business paper with the jazzy title of “Increasing Returns And The New World Of Business.” Originally appearing in the Harvard Business Review in 1996, the paper has gone on to the annals of business writing for its trenchant predictions about the world’s post-industrial economy. It’s the subject of a retrospective in Fast Company that unearths the detail that the paper’s author, W. Brian Arthur, reached out to his friend McCarthy for help. According to the article:

“I don’t know if you know the writer Cormac McCarthy,” [Arthur] begins, “but I was very good friends with him at the time. I mailed the draft down to Cormac, who was in El Paso or somewhere like that. When I didn’t hear from him, I called him up and said, ‘Did you like my increasing returns article? It’s for the Harvard Business Review.’ There was kind of a silence on the line. And then he said, ‘Would you be interested in some editing help on that?’ Next time he’s in Santa Fe we spent four days on that piece. He took apart every single sentence, deleted every comma he could find. I said, ‘You can add that piece to your Collected Works, it will be somewhere in between Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses.’

“Let’s say the piece was better for all the hours Cormac and I spent poring over every sentence. The word got back to my editor at Harvard Business Review. She called me up, in a slight panic, and says, ‘I heard your article’s getting completely rewritten.’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ She says, ‘By Cormac McCarthy? What did he do to it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, you know, pretty much what you’d expect. It now starts out with two guys on horseback in Texas, and they go off and discover increasing returns.’ And for a couple of seconds she was aghast.”


The full retrospective of the article can be read here, and the original thing—which is a lot punchier and more sharply worded than you might expect, given its subject matter—can be found here.

[via Andrew Batson’s Blog, via Metafilter]

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