Cormac McCarthy’s contribution to the theory of increasing returns

I really enjoyed this anecdote about the writing of W. Brian Arthur’s classic article on increasing returns from 1996:

As we are wrapping up the interview, he [Arthur] tells me an anecdote about the creation of that Harvard Business Review article. “I don’t know if you know the writer Cormac McCarthy,” he 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 piece is from Fast Company, which has more on how the concept of increasing returns was used and abused by the technology industry in the years since its popularization. And indeed Arthur’s HBR article–it’s worth rereading–is extremely well-written, with many more simple, punchy sentences than are the norm for business or economics writing. It is hard to see any way to improve on the clarity of sentences like:

Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead, for that which loses advantage to lose further advantage.

My guess is that McCarthy probably doesn’t deserve all the credit for the virtues of the prose, as Arthur is himself a very clear thinker and good writer (his book on technology is still one of my favorites). But everyone benefits from a good editor.

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