It is not uncommon to hear the work of American author Cormac McCarthy described as "sparse", "terse", "spartan" or some other similar descriptor.

Some examples:

An extensive body of criticism focuses on the sparse style, on what Donoghue calls the “neuter austerity” (267), characteristic of much of McCarthy's prose

  • Contractions in Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, Lindsey Banco, The Explicator, Volume 68, 2010 - Issue 4

McCarthy’s idiosyncratic prose style – characterized by esoteric diction, sparse punctuation and a fascination with the biblical and the grotesque – is unlike anything else in contemporary fiction

  • Madness and civilization, George Berridge, The Times Literary Supplement

When discussing McCarthy's work the other day, though, the critique came up that in fact, a lot of his prose is very heavy and crosses into what many readers would find "purple". For example this ...

When he crashed into the glade among the cottonwoods he fell headlong and lay there with his cheek to the earth. And as he lay there a far crack of lightning went bluely down the sky and bequeathed him in an embryonic bird’s first fissured vision of the world and transpiring instant and outrageous from dark to dark a final view of the grotto and the shapeless white plasm struggling upon the rich and incunabular moss like a lank swamp hare. He would have taken it for some boneless cognate of his heart’s dread had the child not cried.

  • from Outer Dark

... is essentially a someone witnessing a bolt of lightning.

Why, then, are adjectives relating to brevity and economy so often related to his work? And further, I'd be interested in any examination of why McCarthy's prose is so celebrated despite its extravagance breaking a commonly held rule of quality writing?

  • 1
    'Sparse' is a word I'd never expect to hear as a description of Cormac McCarthy's writing. If anything I often find his elaborate poetic style distracting from the plot. I don't know what's meant by 'neuter austerity' but your second example of 'sparse punctuation' actually means long sentences, so the opposite of sparse style.
    – Kevin Ryan
    Mar 3, 2020 at 18:58


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