August 25, 2013

Reading Elmore Leonard.

I paid some attention when Elmore Leonard died, but the truth is that I'd never read any Elmore Leonard books. I toyed with the idea of ordering an Elmore Leonard book, but I hadn't pulled the trigger. But then I was tearing everything out of the bookcases in the room where we just redid the floors. My agenda is to get all our books onto the existing bookshelves, a process that's involved filling 8 shopping bags with books to be taken to Half Price Books for recycling.

And what the hell? I find an Elmore Leonard book. See:

Untitled

Of all the Elmore Leonard books that somebody — not me — might have left in the house, I find "Bandits." This solves the problem of which Elmore Leonard book to order. I start reading "Bandits." I get about 15 pages in and I'm onto his game. Not saying it's not a good game. It is. Not putting down people who enjoy reading this kind of thing. I'm just saying it's not my kind of thing to read. If I had to write a novel — and I'm always getting ideas about novels that could be written — I'd get a bang out of writing like this. It's an easy way to fill out a lot of pages, even as you make your target readers feel that it's all very fast moving. I am not one of those target readers. For me, it's slow going.

What he's doing is: He has a story. Something that happened in the past. We're hearing 2 guys talk about whatever 2 guys would be talking about while doing whatever it is they're doing. In this case — in the case of "Bandits" — what they're doing is preparing a corpse for burial. So there's this whole sideline routine, telling us about some area of human expertise, which you could find out about in a couple minutes reading Wikipedia or stumbling onto an episode of "How It's Made." And as these guys talk, it slips out, every half page or so, some little dribble of information about whatever that thing was that happened in the past. You're supposed to care. What the hell happened? Who was this dead guy and who was that lady he was with and so forth. I'm just not the kind of person who cares.

A writer who wanted to take the trouble to write out descriptions of this and that might show us some event unfolding so we picture it, seemingly as it happened. But here, the thing already happened, and 2 guys are talking, while they're doing this other thing, which is an ordinary thing that's somewhat interesting to hear details about, preparing a corpse for burial. That's a great formula for having fun writing, and I know many readers find that fun to read. But I'm thinking: There's some damned thing that already happened, that could be told in a few sentences, and I'm supposed to hang out in this blather and catch the bits of the story as they float by. What's my motivation?

44 comments:

David said...

Gatsby had already happened when Nick narrated the story. But Nick is a tease, so do not get to the corpses until near the end. Get to the point, Nick. Like Elmore Leonard.

Rex said...

Frequently the fun is in reading the words the author writes and the images they evoke. The Great Gatsby does nothing for me, while Neal Stephenson and Charlie Stross are simply fun to read--and their plots are good, too. I used to read 50% scifi and 50% other, with other being a mix of adventure, romance, and mystery. Now it's about 90% scifi and 10% other, because there are so many good scifi authors and books out there now.

So, for some people, reading Elmore Leonard is simply fun and enjoyable. Different strokes for different folks. So you don't enjoy Elmore Leonard--not a big deal.

Ann Althouse said...

It was fun to figure out the formula. It made me think it would be fun to write like that. I just don't need to read it. I really don't see the point.

The thing I like about "Gatsby" -- as my "Gatsby" project indicated -- was the quality of the individual sentences. If the story were blurted out in 10 sentences, you wouldn't care. The same is true, I presume, of whatever the story of "Bandits" is. In either case, what matters to the readers is enjoying the flow while you're in it.

I think writing like Leonard's is supposed to feel good because of the way it pulls you along, but I don't get pulled along. I don't care. In "Gatsby," you don't look for the pull. You can hang out anywhere you want, in any given sentence/paragraph. The onward rush doesn't matter.

rcocean said...

I was in the same boat. I've never read EL, but his death peaked my interest, and I've liked a lot of movies that were *based* on his writings:

-Hombre
-52 Pickup
-The Tall T
-Jackie Brown.

So, I went to bookstore and skimmed through some of his books. Dialogue heavy. Tough going. Decided maybe I should buy an Audiobook. Still deciding which one.

Lionheart said...

What you view as blather after all of 15 pages might not have been the heart and soul of Leonard's writing style in the other 44 novels?

Mike said...

A lot of people have pointed out that Leonard has a voice very much his own. I would say Leonard is esteemed not for his plots, which are fun enough, but for his language. The "point" is to savor the human comedy in all its richness through the medium of Leonard's language.

By the way, if you haven't seen "Justified", check it out.

rcocean said...

Like many modern authors, I wonder how much EL was writing for the average reader - as opposed to the Hollywood producers.

cassandra lite said...

"It's an easy way to fill out a lot of pages..."

Sorry, Ann, but no one who's ever actually written a book would say that what Leonard did is "easy." It looks easy in the same way that Picasso, for ex, made painting look easy.

To prove it, I challenge you to go ahead and write 15 pages (the number you read before deciding this). In fact, you can write five pages--1500 words. You won't even have to post them before knowing yourself you were wrong.

You want to read something great from him? Read the first chapter of Freaky Deaky. If you had, you wouldn't have come to that conclusion.

rcommal said...

It's about catching the bits of the people as they float by.

Shane McHale said...

I also haven't read any book Elmore but I'm thinking of giving it a try. Any recommendations aside from Bandits?

Shane McHale, tampa corporate law

Kirk Parker said...

So much for Joseph Conrad, I guess...

FleetUSA said...

Maybe I missed it but what color was chosen?

Ann Althouse said...

@cassandra

What I said was "I'd get a bang out of writing like this." I think it is much easier to get characters talking to each other rather than to have to write narrative and descriptions. That assumes you can keep multiple characters distinct in your mind and make dialogue flow. If you have that facility, then you could do it.

And Picasso could do a painting in an hour, so obviously it was much easier (than other things that he could also do that would take at least days).

Whether one's ultimate work product is on a high enough level to interest others is another matter. But I do stand by my statement that some approaches are easier than others.

Rusty said...

Yeah, Ann. And if you get rid of the pedantic bits Moby Dick is a manual on how to kill a whale.
Coulda been a whole lot shorter book.
ya know what I'm sayin?

Ann Althouse said...

As to the challenge to me to write one or more of those fictional works I have the idea for, I'm afraid your challenge isn't the sort of encouragement that would get me going.

If 100 readers dropped in to say they would love to read my novels and begged me to crank that stuff out, I might be motivated.

This post ended with a question. That's fitting for this comment.

Ann Althouse said...

@FleetUSA

The second stripe: Swiss Coffee.

FleetUSA said...

Funny name for that color.

Ex-prosecutor said...

I don't recall you've ever mentioned your tv habits. As a previous responder pointed out, the FX channel show "Justified" is based upon Mr. Leonard's character Raylan Givens, a Deputy US Marshal in Harlan County, Kentucky. That county was the epicenter of moonshine and gambling. It's a legend in the south, and we've got so many to choose from, that means it's got to be good.

According to my wife, Timothy Olyphant, who plays the main character is a heart-throb, or bodice ripper, as we call it here.

I can't picture too many bodices having been ripped in Madison, so you might try the show, from Netflix or Amazon.

Wally Ballou said...

15 pages of one book and you are "onto his game"? A bit of hasty generalization, I would think. I'm no EJ expert, but I don't think the structure you describe is common to all his novels and stories. At any rate, I don't need to read any of the James Bond novels because I read the first 10 pages of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang".

Ann Althouse said...

"Yeah, Ann. And if you get rid of the pedantic bits Moby Dick is a manual on how to kill a whale.
Coulda been a whole lot shorter book.
ya know what I'm sayin?"

Yes, I know that you are saying that you haven't understood what I wrote, which is actually in an awfully simple style, and yet you are posing as if you are good at reading complex literature. You don't look as good in that pose as you think. Knowwhatahmsayin?

Ann Althouse said...

"At any rate, I don't need to read any of the James Bond novels because I read the first 10 pages of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"."

That is, of course, true. You don't need to read anything you don't want (unless it's required for school or work) and giving any author even 10 pages of your time in reading is giving a lot.

Life is short, and there are a million writers. I've picked up books in bookstores and read for less than 10 seconds before putting them down and rejecting that writer forever. That writer was lucky I gave him a shot.

Elmore Leonard got far more of my time that nearly every other writer who has ever lived. My judgment is subjective and only purports to be the story of how I read Elmore Leonard that one time when I was in pursuit of my own agenda of off-loading books that overspill the available shelving in my house.

But don't judge me by one post. I have over 35,000 posts. You should read at least... how many before deciding whether or not this post is the first 10 pages of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

Saint Croix said...

I also haven't read any book Elmore but I'm thinking of giving it a try. Any recommendations aside from Bandits?

Elmore Leonard is uneven, but when he catches, he is on fire. Amazing stuff. His dialog is fantastic and his characters are unforgettable. You can see why his books are so often adapted into movies.

Out of Sight
Freaky Deaky
Raylan

It's funny how we can't read some people. I can't read Jane Austen. And I know she's great, because the movies based on her books are amazing.

Can't read her, though.

Some authors are easier to adapt to another medium. P.G. Wodehouse, who I think is the #1 master of the English language, was a horrible screenwriter. And his books adopted for the screen aren't good either. They're okay. The performers are really good (imagine House playing Bertie Wooster!) and yet that's not the point. What makes Wodehouse the master is his use of the English language. He often talks directly to the reader, in an aside. That doesn't translate at all! But it's fantastic to read. The pleasure of Wodehouse is the pure pleasure of reading the written word.

You might say that truly great artists can't be adopted to other mediums, because their art is perfectly suited for the medium they are in. Or we might say that truly great artists are so amazing that when you adopt them in other mediums, their work is still amazing.

Some artists (Austen, Stout, Hammett, Dick, Leonard) inspire amazing visual representations of their work. Other artists (Wodehouse, Twain, Hemingway, Melville) not so much.

cassandra lite said...

Ann says, "I think it is much easier to get characters talking to each other rather than to have to write narrative and descriptions."

Again, I suggest that you're missing the genius of getting characters to talk in a way that's interesting while advancing the plot. Go ahead and try it. Seriously. One page.

Writers for 30 years have been trying to emulate Leonard's style.

In any event, Leonard does write narrative descriptions. Your interpretation of the style applies more to Carl Hiaasen.

CT-ref said...

I'm not a critic of writing, but found this from EL in case you missed it. http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/125106-elmore-leonard-s-ten-rules-of-writing-1-never-open-a

Personally, I prefer his movie "Get Shorty", almost the equal of "Pulp Fiction." I doubt any studio would make "Get Shorty" today, but that's a topic for another day.

Christopher said...

It is so true--and interesting that it's true--how some people can't read popular or accomplished authors. I tried the same thing with Austen and had the same results. Some people on Twitter today are batting around how awful they think The Catcher in the Rye is. In fact I think Althouse has blogged along these lines, not necessarily about Catcher in particular.

However, it's kind of a rookie error to pronounce how easy it is to write in a certain way--at least if you're talking about writing well in a specific way. It's usually an error to talk about how easy it is to do anything well if you haven't done it at a high level yourself. My own favorite example is talking-head TV. All that banter and easy back-and-forth -- actually, not so easy. I was a reporter for most of my career and used to appear fairly often on radio and sometimes TV for brief commentary, and man that is hard to do well.

You get to say "I'm onto your game" if you're Mozart listening to the first few bars of random Salieri.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Ehn, Ann, you didn't just read 15 pages of one book and think you've got the "trick" down of a writer who wrote several dozen of them, did you? I can see doing that with the Nora Roberts sort of romance writer -- you simply cannot produce that sort of volume as a single writer without recourse to very crude formula, very sketchily repeated.

Of course, "Nora Roberts" might be as many people as "Carolyn Keene" was. Elmore Leonard was not. You can't do dialogue like that. I can't do it. Nora Roberts (whoever she is/are) couldn't do it. If dialogue bores you, fine; but don't try to tell us that it's an easy formula, and you could do it yourself, only it doesn't "pull you in." "It's an easy way to fill out a lot of pages"? Sheesh.

Robert Cook said...

"Dialogue heavy. Tough going."

??!!

You find dialogue tough going?

Rusty said...

You don't look as good in that pose as you think.

You can see me from your computer!!





Cmon Ann. I'm taken a piss.

Robert Cook said...

"Timothy Olyphant, who plays the main character is a heart-throb, or bodice ripper, as we call it here."

Two different things. A handsome leading man can be a "heart-throb," yes, but not a "bodice-ripper." A bodice-ripper is a description of or label for a story, meaning it is a passionate romance (containing much implied or overt passionate coupling). A character can never be referred to as a bodice ripper.

JackOfVA said...

As to whether I would read an Althouse novel, the answer is "it depends." Does it tell a story worth reading, and tell it in an interesting fashion? Is your envisioned audience the reviewers writing for the NYT or New York Review of Books?

Keep in mind that I occasionally tell my wife - a major Jane Austen fan - that Austen should have written science fiction, but she didn't have sufficient imagination.

Big Mike said...

Swiss Coffee has too much yellow in it for my taste, but to each her own.

Some Elmore Leonard I like and like a lot. Others I can walk off and leave. I don't recollect reading Bandits but I really enjoyed Riding the Rap. I remember buying it in an airport to read on a cross-country flight and then staying uplate after I got hom to finish it.

Inga said...

Good choice of the Swiss Coffee, warm yet pale. It will look great with the wood tones.

Ex-prosecutor said...

Mr. Robert Cook:

You are correct that, while a heart-throb can cause a southern woman to be overcome with the vapors and fall onto a fainting couch, only a story can be a bodice ripper. Although, presumably, a heart throb could rip a bodice and get away with it - such an act might even be welcomed.

Unknown said...

"It's an easy way to fill out a lot of pages...."

So you think it's easy? Write 10 pages or so of the stuff for us and we'll compare it to Leonard's work.

Let us know when you're done.

Unknown said...

"It's an easy way to fill out a lot of pages...."

So you think it's easy? Write 10 pages or so of the stuff for us and we'll compare it to Leonard's work.

Let us know when you're done.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Christopher,

However, it's kind of a rookie error to pronounce how easy it is to write in a certain way--at least if you're talking about writing well in a specific way.

And especially if you've never written that way yourself, and have read, oh, 1/8th (generously) of one of 44 or so books in the style you think would be so easy to take up.

rcocean said...

"You find dialogue tough going?"

I find page after page of dialogue, boring - which makes it tough going.

Do you like READING screenplays? 'cause I don't.

Broomhandle said...

There's a world of difference between being a good writer and being a good storyteller. In 15 pages just about anyone could tell that John Edward Williams is a great writer and Stephen King is, at best, a pedestrian one. To determine who is the better storyteller would require a little more reading.

Ann Althouse said...

"You find dialogue tough going?"

For me it's all about caring.

I can read on a high or low level. But why should I? I have to care.

What makes the reader care?

jr565 said...

Althouse wrote:
I can read on a high or low level. But why should I? I have to care.

What makes the reader care?


If the reader cares about the conversation or finds it interesting.
The movie My Dinner with Andre was nothing but. Long conversation, but some people found it fascinating. And some found it interminably boring.
In the case of Leonard he does also have interesting plots and when it works the dialogue helps fill out the plots quite nicely.

jr565 said...

I think the best word to describe EL is breezy. His stories
move along with a light touch, and often through dialog.
Its pulp, but pulp but quick moving, rather than plodding.
If you want books that read like movies, with a lot of dialog moving the action forward rather than internal monologues and excessive description then he's your guy.
Some people aren't a fan of that type of
Writing.
Different strokes for different folks, as they say.

jr565 said...

Here's the condensed version of EL's story that althouse might get behind.
This guy died. Two guys are burying him.
The End.

rcommal said...

I don't recall you've ever mentioned your tv habits.

Recent vintage or short memory. (Or, I suppose is possible, both.)

Ann Althouse said...

"I don't recall you've ever mentioned your tv habits. As a previous responder pointed out, the FX channel show "Justified" is based upon Mr. Leonard's character Raylan Givens, a Deputy US Marshal in Harlan County, Kentucky. That county was the epicenter of moonshine and gambling. It's a legend in the south, and we've got so many to choose from, that means it's got to be good."

I don't watch any TV dramas. I did watch "The Sopranos" over the years and "6 Feet Under," but since then, nothing has called to me.

In my whole life have I ever watched any of these crime investigation shows? I haven't watched a police-based show since "Hill Street Blues" and I don't think I've watched a lawyer/judge type show since "The Defenders" (in the 1960s). I've never watched any of those CSI shows either. And I don't read mysteries.

I just don't want to spend my time looking at made-up problems that need to be solved, even if the sleuths have quirky traits and snappy dialogue.

If you paid me, I could watch these things and write about them, but it's not how I choose to spend my free time. It's just not what interests me.