Jul 29, 2014
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When Authors Become Predictable

When Authors Become Predictable

So the other night I watched The Counselor. It's the latest movie from famed director Ridley Scott and boasts an all star cast that includes Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Michael Fassbender. The reason I was so eager to see the film, however, was that it was written by literary giant Cormac McCarthy.

Sure, plenty of McCarthy's books have been made into films. Heck, No Country For Old Men even won best picture at the Oscars a few years back. This McCarthy project was different, however, in that it was written explicitly for the screen. For McCarthy, that's an unusual thing. He tends to keep in the realm of prose and lets Hollywood come to him when they want to use one of his projects.

Needless to say, I was excited. A great writer was taking a leap. And he wasn't working FOR Hollywood like so many other great writers had before him. He was working WITH Hollywood. Not only was his name a big reason the film got made, McCarthy was actually a producer on the picture.

Long story short – I thought the movie was good. It was slammed to death by critics, but it was good. Oh, there were flaws, to be sure, but it certainly wasn't bad. Of course there were moments of intense sleaziness, as well as insanely graphic violence, but the study of human depravity has long been a McCarthy hallmark.

What stuck out to me about the movie, however, was how strikingly similar it was to McCarthy's literary works. In the film, for example, one of the characters brings about nearly inhuman levels of destruction. McCarthy, in case you haven't read him, is obsessed with the allure of evil.

He's also written numerous memorable characters who are perfectly articulate in expressing why they decide to choose evil over good. In short, these characters generally believe that if one removes that pesky conscience from one's life, great things can be achieved. It's telling and frightening stuff.

But it's also been done over and over now in McCarthy's work. I'm not knocking the quality of the man's output. I'm simply pointing out that some of it's become, well, predictable. Yet McCarthy isn't alone. Numerous great writers have taken to repeating themselves over the years.

For instance, one can find the same pattern at work in numerous Flannery O'Connor tales. The same goes for Edith Wharton. Even Ernest Hemingway was open to the charge of repetition before he changed course and wrote The Old Man And The Sea.

Indeed, F. Scott Fitzgerald once claimed that authors pretty much tell the same two or three stories over and over again throughout their lives. And he may well have been right. It's hard to accuse authors like McCarthy, O'Connor and Wharton of repetition when their writing is worthy of the college classroom.

Perhaps we should just appreciate the level of artistry such writers have attained, while marveling at those like Tolstoy and Shakespeare who were somehow able to mix it up thematically. What's more, if an author like Cormac McCarthy is still writing quality stuff, all criticism instantly becomes blunted.

Repetition isn't necessarily a bad thing, after all. It's merely something that oftentimes becomes predictable.  

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