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
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 18:58

1 Answer 1


The lack of conventional punctuation, in particular clear attribution of dialog so that in long exchanges, you have to carefully trace to figure out who is say what is an example of sparseness -- other writers tend to provide more information; with CM you have to dig. The info is there sometimes when you think it is not.

There is much more to his approach of making the reader dig than just omission of punctuation of course. The following spoiler from Blood Meridian I think is a good example:

After his fight in the bar before he joins the first group of Indian fighters, he enters the same town again where a funeral is occurring. We are never told explicitly that it is for the bartender (it is never even stated that the fight resulted in the man's death) but I think CM means for the reader to suspect that this is the bartender's funeral and it is his wife who is crying. Another writer might have the Kid wonder if he had killed the man, but CM does not tell us any characters thoughts, even the main character's.

Basically, information that other writers might convey via an omniscient narrator or by letting us hear the thoughts of a character tends not to be conveyed in Blood Meridian -- I have read his other stuff, not sure how, for example, in All the Pretty Horses, CM deals with information because I have forgotten but certainly Blood Meridian is indeed sparse.

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