Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

February 15, 2012 | No Comments

Is Elmore Leonard a genius or a hack? His list of fans include Stephen King, Saul Bellow, and Philip Hensher of the Guardian, who recently named him “the great American novelist,” all of whom cite his particular strengths with character, pacing, and dialogue. He has his detractors though, scorning his 2010 guide, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writers, a summary of which is here, (that spawned a more helpful spin-off here), with the charge being led by Mark Sarvas at The Elegant Variation. I agree that some of his rules are silly, while others are common sense and, maybe, more appropriate for beginners rather than advanced writers, and also apply more to genre writing than “literary” writing – though suggesting that it’s impossible for a book to be both stinks of elitism. 
Swift plotting, wise-cracking characters, and lightly-sketched landscapes and scenes are the reasons behind Get Shorty‘s success – it’s a satire on screenplays, and works for readers familiar with this form, and may not work for those who are not. With Get Shorty Leonard’s rules (sort of) make sense. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that when he attempted to articulate the reason behind his success in 10 Rules, he missed the mark entirely; his success has nothing to do with him rarely using an adverb, or cutting out all the parts that, he says, readers skip, it’s a direct consequence of his voice and tone, and voice and tone are unique to each individual writer, you are born with them, they cannot be ‘made’ or ‘learned,’ or parsed into rules  – they are each writer’s intrinsic ‘music’, of which our diction, dialect, pacing, sentence structures, and grammar are the individual notes. Therefore, it is ironic that he concludes his rules by adding an eleventh: “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Of course it will sound like writing, Dutch! It will sound like Elmore Leonard’s writing, the same as a sentence written by Henry James will sound like Henry James’s writing, and so on. Readers either like a writer’s ‘music’ or they don’t, it is the most subjective of responses to a book, and dangerous to use as a basis of literary criticism. Leonard describing the weather in detail would be as weird to me as William Trevor or John Banville failing to do so. I’m too uninformed to be able to pick a side on this debate over his literary stature, but I do know, having read Get Shorty, that I like the sound his voice, and I can add it to my ever-growing list of vastly different voices I like, the wonder of literature being that every good writer sounds unlike any other…