- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

At the University of Kansas in the early '70s, there was a small dinner party in honor of the two authors then visiting the campus, Mary McCarthy and myself. Mary McCarthy was not at all pleasant that evening; she wasn't positively unpleasant, living up to her role as "our leading bitch intellectual"; she simply wasn't pleasant. She sat in a cocoon of silence, presumably wrapped up in her own thoughts.
It was easy to interpret her remoteness as arrogance, but of course she could have simply been dyspeptic or preoccupied. And yet, since she was so celebrated a writer, it was easy to give the nod to arrogance, for celebrities and scapegoats are two versions of the same social dynamics their individualities, as tokens, have been usurped by their symbolic function as types.
Then not long ago, all these years later, I began to read a copy of McCarthy's "Occasional Prose" and made a surprising discovery: Mary McCarthy was simply not a good writer. From the sampling in this book, she was not only not good, as she was simply not pleasant that evening in Kansasher writing was clumsy, plodding, insensitive to nuancein a word, awful.
Simply reading a sentence at random was enough to show that she had little grasp of the precisions of language. I found this surprising because of her reputation, along with the fact that many years before meeting her I had read her novel, "The Groves of Academe," enjoying its wit and bitchery as only a cynical young college teacher could. I relished the novel's sophistication and irony, its sharp perceptions and vivid stereotypes. I was impressed by its authorial authority.
But now, I was surprised to find McCarthy's prose blundering and tainted with confusions. Had I outgrown the reader who appreciated Groves? Had I become more critical of "style," so that writing that had once been impressive was now found wanting? Or when I'd read Groves, had I assumed that it had to be good because it was so admired by the cognoscenti? Whatever the reasons, and whatever their proportions, a writer whose work I had once admired now proved to be anything but admirable.
I had not gone looking for faults; I had been looking for information, insights, even wisdomthings readers naturally crave. My memory of Mary McCarthy's marmoreal silence had not prejudiced me against her. Even at that long-ago dinner, while she was regarding all of us with boredom or icy disapproval, I was aware that her remoteness could have been condonable.
The writing in "Occasional Prose," however, was astonishingly inept. Here are two samples, taken from two different essays, neither of which I finished reading, because they are ill-written and their arguments vaporous. The first is from "The 'Place' of Nicola Chiaromonte"; speaking of Chiaromonte's love of theatre, she wrote: "If he was 'stage-struck' at any period of his life, collected theatre programs, pored over photos of stars, this cannot have come about through a process of identification with objects of fame and applause." Now that is a bad sentence knotty and unfocused; and the two final prepositional phrases are an embarrassment.
But it is no worse than this sentence in her essay, "Language and Politics, " in which she targets James R. Green and quotes his defense of his company's granting loans to the Chilean government, after the overthrow of the Allende regime. What she quotes is inept, but it is more-or-less typical bureaucratese hardly the stuff to arouse one's indignation, because political double-talk has been around a long time, going back as far as the pronouncements of the Delphic Oracle.
McCarthy wrote: "This is Green talking: 'The work spirit that I have seen in Chile leads me to fully trust that the international press will correct the negative image that is being spread about this country abroad.'" Then, in her gloss upon that admittedly inelegant sentence, she wrote: "You will note one split infinitive, two superfluous 'That's, and two cliche phrases, 'work spirit' and 'negative image,' that also seem to be circumlocutions. Aside from the question of whether an image can be spread, like butter or a disease or a rumor, one asks what the speaker can be alluding to by the blanket word 'negative."'
Here, the confusions are compounded. First, about the split-infinitive.
Like that against ending a sentence with a preposition, the taboo against splitting infinitives has neither basis nor justification in the real world of English usage. Why? Because like several of our grammatical strictures, this was borrowed from Latin, where it's as difficult to end a sentence with a word that is in a "pre-position" as it is to split those single words that function as infinitives. In English, however, a split infinitive can enhance a verb, just as a preposition can be the perfect word to gracefully end a sentence with.
And why should McCarthy puzzle over how an image can be "spread"? There's no mystery there: images are constantly, relentlessly, spread by the media; by word and by picture; they're broadcast, like grains of wheat and oats cast into the air. To find that problematical is muddled and gratuitously antagonistic. While this is not a stylish writing, its essential clarity is manifest.
As for her statement that the "two cliche phrases, 'work spirit' and 'negative image' … also seem to be circumlocutions": well, the expressions are threadbare, but hardly clichs, for cliches are punch-drunk metaphors, and these haven't arrived yet. And how is it they "seem to be circumlocutions"? Why seem? Are they or aren't they? Circumlocutions are easily detectedthey're all over the place. And yet, a close look at the sentence under her attack reveals how judicious it was of Mary McCarthy to insert "seems" in the sentence, for the circumlocutions don't really exist outside her own confused, though rancorous, sense of things.
Mary McCarthy considered herself, and was generally considered, a sophisticated writer. She accepted the role of an arbitrix elegantiarum, not just of the niceties of style, but of the logical intricacies in writing well. Praise for her writing continues to accumulate, long after her death. Everyone marvels at her intellectual acuity, and everyone is wrong.
Judith Shulevitz belongs to this army of admirers, and in her "The Close Reader's" [sic] piece in The New York Times Book Review, there is hardly a temperate or logical statement.
What is Ms. Shulevitz so ga-ga about? "This sense of authorial exhilaration a murderous delight in the telling detail makes her writing irresistible, regardless of whether it coheres in her novels (and perhaps McCarthy-level corrosiveness shouldn't be expected to) or functions straightforwardly as criticism." (Question: What exactly, in this context, is her writing doing cohering?)
"Authorial exhilaration" and "murderous delight" are allowable; but many of Mary McCarthy's details don't "tell" at all which is to say, they don't count for there is an awful disproportion of heat to light in her fulminations, and it is foolish to be so mesmerized by the bitchery that clearheadedness is sacrificed.
In short, all of this canting praise is nonsense, for a close reading of Mary McCarthy's prose reveals that she could be as confused and inept as her most vulnerable targets. On the one hand, this is a pity; on the other hand, of course, not.

Jack Matthews is Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.


"The Lost Word" appears on the second Sunday of each month. In it, distinguished commentators remind us of interesting but often forgotten writers and books from years past.


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