'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."
That, says Elmore Leonard, is the rule that sums up his famous "Ten Rules of Writing," a sort of manifesto in miniature on behalf of the plain style (sample: "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip").
Leonard has written 45 novels, starting with The Bounty Hunters in 1953. About half of them have made it to the New York Times' best-seller list, including his latest, Raylan. Seventeen have been made into films, sometimes more than once, most notably 3:10 to Yuma (two versions), Hombre, 52 Pick-up (two versions), and Get Shorty. Quentin Tarantino's third film, Jackie Brown, was based on Leonard's Rum Punch. Then there's the TV series Justified.
So even people who don't read much are likely to be familiar with Leonard's work.
Commercial success as a writer only rarely translates into literary respect, and usually only too late for the writer to enjoy it. But Leonard has garnered some highfalutin fans over the years. Saul Bellow was one. And so is Martin Amis, who calls Leonard's prose "far more stylish" than Raymond Chandler's and says that Leonard is "incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence." In fact, Amis will be the presenter on Wednesday night when Leonard receives the National Book Foundation's 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The Library of America is also planning to put out a volume of Leonard's early crime fiction in 2014. That makes him one of only six authors so honored in their lifetime. Four of the others - Eudora Welty, Bellow, John Ashbery, and Philip Roth - also were recipients of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
In an interview with the Associated Press after the National Book Foundation award was announced, Leonard said, "I didn't ever count on winning this kind of an award. I've won a lot of awards, but not like this one." Not that he feels he's unworthy. Reminded that Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Toni Morrison were also among the award's previous recipients, Leonard said that "I think I'm a good writer. I don't see any objection to my being on this list."
Elmore John Leonard was born in New Orleans in 1925; he turned 87 on Oct. 11. His family moved to Detroit in 1934, and he still lives in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Village. His friends all call him "Dutch," a nickname he got in high school (at the time, the Washington Senators had a pitcher named Emil "Dutch" Leonard). During the '50s, Leonard worked at an advertising agency as a copywriter and wrote fiction on the side. He got his first break as a writer in 1951, when he sold a story called "Trail of the Apaches" to Argosy magazine. He quit the ad agency in 1961, the same year he published Hombre (though, to make ends meet, he continued doing freelance copywriting). In 1969, two years after the film version of Hombre, starring Paul Newman, became a box-office hit, he published his first crime novel, The Big Bounce.
Leonard makes no bones about being a commercial writer. He started out writing westerns because that was where the money was. When television westerns pretty much shut down that market, he switched to crime. There is, of course, a distinct advantage to being a commercial writer: It forces you to regard writing as a craft and to learn how to write what the people who pay you want you to write.
Leonard acknowledges Hemingway's spare style as a formative influence (though he says that he lost interest in Hemingway when he realized the older writer had no sense of humor). The influence is immediately evident in the story "Three-Ten to Yuma":
Entering Stockman Street, Paul Scallen glanced back at the open country with the wet haze blanketing its flatness, thinking of the long night ride from Huachuca, relieved that this much was over. When his body turned again, his hand moved over the sawed-off shotgun that was across his lap and he kept his eyes on the man ahead of him until they were near the end of the second block, opposite the side entrance of the Republic Hotel.
The sentences may not be as terse as Hemingway's, but the attention to detail and nothing but detail is as Hemingwayesque as it gets.
"Three-Ten to Yuma" was written in 1953. In The Big Bounce, 16 years later, the attention to detail is still there, but there is an ever-so-slight change of tone, evident right at the start: "They were watching Ryan beat up the Mexican crew leader on 16mm Commercial Ektachrome. Three of them in the basement of the Holden County Courthouse. . . ."
With 1990's Get Shorty, we have the mature and inimitable Elmore Leonard style:
When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here.
Compare this with a swatch of dialogue from the same book:
"He's telling me an idea for a movie," Harry said. "It's not bad, so far." He motioned with his glass. "Tell Karen, let's see what she thinks."
"You want me to start over?"
"Yeah, start over." Harry looked at Karen again. "Why don't you sit down, have a drink?"
Chili watched her shake her head.
"I'm fine, Harry."
He liked her voice, the quiet way she spoke. She was looking at him again, curious, doing a read.
Usually, dialogue is set off pretty sharply from narrative. The characters converse, then the author resumes telling the story. Leonard draws no such sharp distinction between the two. Plenty of crime authors write well, some very well. But no one matches the tale and its telling the way Leonard does. He has said, "I'm very much aware in the writing of dialogue, or even in the narrative, too, of a rhythm. There has to be a rhythm with it."
John Stuart Mill once wrote that the difference between eloquence and poetry is that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. By that standard, Leonard's best work is pure poetry from start to finish. It is the language that drives the story and illuminates the characters. You keep reading because you've caught the beat and love the tune. You feel like you're at the next table in a restaurant, or in a nearby seat on a train, overhearing the whole thing.
But what about the world Leonard depicts, with its lowlifes and violence? Well, the world is full of such, and you can learn as much from looking at that side of it as you can from smiling over Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy.
Among American writers these days, the usual suspects for the Nobel Prize are Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, and Cormac McCarthy. But the guys and gals in the Swedish Academy ought to curl up some night with Rum Punch or Maximum Bob. They might just discover what genuine literary innovation looks like.