I care (& if you don’t care, Mr Carney, why do you claim you could probably jump into this debate with some serious analysis? It’s clear you’ve given the matter some thought; so come on, let’s have it).
Let me remind you that it was Mr Sutter that initiated this debate (which has spilled over from the ‘Backlist’ thread) & that it has been Mr McFetridge who has been blithely claiming for two days, without substantiating his claim in any way, that Elmore is a “literary” writer. I (it’s spelled ‘djones’; the D is silent as in Djibouti) haven’t made any general claim whatsoever.
So let’s get back to the questions: Are Elmore’s stories plot- or character-driven or both?; what does this imply about “literaryness”?; what does it mean to claim that Elmore’s a “literary” writer; what does one mean when one says I don’t give a shit?
I’ll say, provisionally, why I care: I don’t like the idea of Elmore’s stories being laid claim to by some kind of “literary” élite, by literary snobs (am I alowed to say that, Gregg?) like Mr McFetridge who haven’t even tried to read Tom Clancy. I stress that this is a provisional, not definitive, position.
John McFetridge has has sent me a private communication by e-mail. It seems he is going to cease & desist from calling Elmore a literary author. A politician would call this ‘a victory for common-sense.’ I remain uneasy. Firstly because no other members of the forum took the subject seriously; and secondly because there is no doubt in my mind that in 50 years EL will be picked apart in seats of learning. You’ll be able to do a master’s in Elmore Leonard Studies at U of M, complete with guided tour of what was Cass Corridor. Thank God I’ll be dead. They already study Dashiell Hammett, though, but nothing would ever make me believe that Hammett was a “literary” author…
Back to the plots. One way of looking at the question would be to review the matter of why most (IMO all) of the EL-based movies are such crap: because there isn’t enough character development. On the other hand, the stories would never make it onto the screen (or even be optioned) if someone didn’t see the value of their plots; and this would still be a long way from saying that the plots are just glue for the characters. Coming to think of it, I wonder just what Gregg Sutter was thinking when he framed the question in this way…
Since the d is silent, can we just call you ‘mr. jones’?
When I asked ‘who cares?’ I thought the meaning was clear, that I don’t care where I find Mr. Leonards books, just that I find them. I don’t care if they’re in one particular part of the store or antother. I care that the books are in print and that I can get my hands on them. I leave it to the folks in the business, you folks, to offer up the serious analysis on plot versus character development. I’m not in the business and therefore can only offer a layman’s opinion, and on this particular topic, I have none. I simply enjoy reading these books and enjoy reading the insights on literature and pop fiction offered up by the more qualified members here.
I’ll jump in with my own opinions and observations when I can, but don’t expect critical literary analysis from a radar engineer. ;-D
Your position is exactly the frame of mind that needs to be defended or stood up for. Nobody should ever feel disqualified from discussing or analysing stories like Elmore’s. Every member of this forum must have his/her intuitions about the books, else they wouldn’t be members. This post of yours, Carney, should qualify you immediately for an advance copy of Honey’sRoom. Being into radar, you must know what a bullshit detector is.
My intuition is that if EL is branded a “literary” writer, he will be acquired by the literati & reading him will become a kind of elitist activity. Sort of how Hemingway, Fitzgerald & Steinbeck are viewed now; whilst in their own days these guys just wanted to write stories to entertain as many people as possible (well, maybe not Hemingway…).
As I’ve said, this is inevitable over time. In 50 years there are going to be kids studying Elmore & teachers teaching him. And when writers get into the “curriculum” they get buried all over again - under the shit the litterateurs write about them. But we’re lucky to be alive while the Man is still working, is still an honest working stiff, and we can come up with whatever our sponteneity (& Sutter) allows. Let’s not be pretentious, that’s all.
Let’s not be taken in by Elmore’s ingenuity, either. Whatever he says about just thinking up a character & letting him do his own thing (or her own thing), it’s the stories that have driven his career. Things happening, yes, with the kind of guys & chicks they happen to.
The real question is should Elmore Leonard’s books be sitting next to Ernest Hemingway’s books?
Of course, the answer is yes.
No debate here, you’re right. Look at a Hemingway story like “Fifty Grand,” or “The Killers.”
Man, I sure don’t want to get into again, but the only good thing about Elmore Leonard’s books being recognized by literary snobs (and my friends find it hilarious that I’ve been called one, the amount of times I’ve been on the other side of this back when I thought it mattered) is that it keeps the books in print. The fact that we can still so easily find Hemingway’s writing but so many others have fallen away is a shame. Richard Bissell, Gregg mentioned him a while back as an influence on Elmore Leonard is pretty hard to find these days.
To be honest, I wish there was a better way to keep the books easily availaable besides a bunch of academics yapping about them. Maybe forums like this will help.
To Robb: I wouldn’t. I hate that big fat fraud. I don’t even think it’s worth starting a new thread. (By the way, oughtn’t this post be over in the ‘Backlist’ thread? We don’t want to upset Gregg.)
The only thing is, you have to be grateful for some of the advice on writing he handed out; cut down on adjectives & never use adverbs; always know more about what you’re writing about than you’re going to reveal in the text; the beauty of the simple declarative sentence - this one is interesting in connection with Elmore: if you’ve read the Martin Amis essay about him you’ll remember the “new tense” that he thinks Elmore has invented, the striking statements that dangle from present participles with no main verb. Well, when you think about it you see that these statements are The Simple Declarative Sentence. Easy: just remove the declarative mood.
Shame “Papa” never learned much from his own advice.
To John: good point about the ‘literary’ label keeping the stories in print. Shit, I wish I’d a thought of that.
I see Elmore as better than Hemingway. The prose of both is terse yet vivid, but Elmore adds dimensions—humor, attitude—not found in Hemingway. Elmore has said many times that initially he copied Hemingway, then discovered Bissell and realized Hemingway was humorless, added humor, moved on, then read George V. Higgins and found the last missing ingredient, carrying the story with dialogue. I suppose that’s the short version of how Elmore Leonard, writer, became Elmore Leonard, genius, and the best fiction writer in America.
A parallel evolution can be seen in the Beatles. Before the Beatles recorded, they listened to Chuck Berry’s straight three chord rock ‘n roll, Carl Perkins’ rockabilly, Little Richard’s rock ‘n roll falsetto wild man music, Elvis’ black/gospel influenced rock, and all the Motown artists with the three part harmonies, the background harmonies and the call and response songs. The Beatles combined all that 125 times or so with unique melodies and a panoply of instruments and we all know what happened.
My point is that geniuses steal from the genuises who preceded them and add in what they see as lacking. They’re geniuses because they see what’s needed and add it in; the rest of us get it only after we’ve seen the finished product.
Were the Beatles better than Elvis? Absolutely, for the same reason Elmore’s better than Hemingway. But that’s not to say that those who went before weren’t geniuses in their own right. And after all, without Hemingway, would Elmore be who he is? Would he write as well? Same with the Beatles.
What I’d like to know is where is the next guy in this evolution? Where’s the writer who transcends Elmore, just as Elmore transcended Hemingway? I’m not optimistic there’ll ever be such a guy. I can’t imagine what writing that transcends Elmore’s would read like. (I guess if I could do that, I’d be the new guy).
I wonder if the better comparison might be John Steinbeck ... for a few reasons.
Social conscience. Show me a book by either of those guys that isn’t built on (or around) some social injustice. Not true for Big Ernie.
Supporting characters. Steinbeck and Leonard love to mix up a stew of colorful background characters. Hemingway puts most of his effort into the one or two leads.
Regional storytelling. Steinbeck and Leonard focus more on Americana and they both devote portions of their careers to particular regions. Hemingway’s an international writer.
Self-importance. The narrative voice in Steinbeck and Leonard is usually populist and rarely self-important; not true for Hemingway.
Not dissing Hemingway here ... he was what he was and changed American writing. But to get back to the thread—‘plots and characters,’ I think what that really means to me is “storyteller” vs. “novelist.” Steinbeck and Leonard tell great stories. I don’t think that was enough for Hemingway. And maybe that’s why the movies of his books don’t stand up as well as the movies based on Leonard and Steinbeck.
What I’d like to know is where is the next guy in this evolution?
We should just be grateful for what we have. It’s not like there’s been a new Beatles.
Elmore Leonard has said it took him a million words to find his voice. Is there a point you think, when all these things you mentioned - the humour, the dialogue, the minor characters being so fully fleshed out - all came together?
Is this question for anyone to answer? I think it’s Swag. Let’s say that 52Pick-Up was the point that EL turned definitively to writing contemporary crime thrillers; & that 52 Pick-Up itself was slightly flawed: well, the next work, if I’ve got it right, was Swag ( or Ryan’s Rules). And Swag definitely has all the qualities mentioned, & without the slightest flaw (unless, like me, you don’t like the unhappy ending. In fact, whenever I re-read the book I always stop before the airport scene, & imagine to myself that they get away with it).
As to who might transcend Elmore, I’ve often wondered about this. Maybe it would be someone who borrowed The EL Method but wrote stories that weren’t about crime (think Touch). However, I think we need to go into other threads to discuss these matters. There’s one that’s a few months old that Mr Stutter started about Rules & Methods that needs reviving - I’m surprised that this thread didn’t go very far. And I wonder if anybody’d be interested in discussing how & why crime became the foremost form of entertainment of the 20th century…