Essay

A virtuoso in soft covers

AMERICAN ENTERTAINMENT PAYS its tributes in dollars. It has award ceremonies but we know that Oscars lead to box office, Grammys move units and Tonies put bums on seats. Elmore Leonard has received the tributes of the industry, many times over, but other types of fame have eluded him. Personal wealth is his, and so is broad acclaim, but the respect of the academy is slow in coming forward for a man who has hidden some of the best point-of-view writing of the late 20th century between the covers of the popular crime novel. The varied attempts to sing his praises in the serious press make for pleasant reading.

There is no doubting the success that Elmore Leonard has achieved. There was a week in April 1985 when his face was on the cover of Newsweek.[i] Had it been me, I would have travelled that week. I would have taken a big fast rental and zoomed across the country and at every newsstand, in every airport, train and bus station, in every shopping mall, in every college town, in every newsagency by every factory, in every dusty town barbershop, everywhere, there would have been, just for me, a mirror, at least one, normally more, that told me not that I was the fairest in all the land but I was the one they were talking about. In that week, most of America, the ones who read Newsweek and the ones who only looked at it, and those who did the same all around the world, were thinking or just considering that Elmore Leonard was the hottest novelist on the planet. Now that's what a scribbler can call fame.

The moment has a parody in the 1995 Jersey Films production of Get Shorty. Danny DeVito is the diminutive and self-important movie star, the shorty, whom John Travolta's Chilli Palmer character is chasing. In an airport scene, Travolta passes DeVito's cherub mug made up as Napoleon on a pile of books at the magazine stall. The scene comes from the filmmakers rather than the book but the respect for the prose is clear in every scene of the movie. As well as achieving fame, Leonard has seemed to manage it with tongue in cheek.

But the light at the end of the tunnel did not always shine so brightly for Mr Leonard. As a novelist, he has had difficult times. As one having his work adapted to the screen, his words have not always commanded the respect that they do now. Take a look at Burt Reynolds's movie version of Stick. The novel has many fine features, including a democratic dispersal of the book's humour among the story's lead and support characters. In the movie, the humour has been translated into gag lines and they all go to Reynolds. It sort of misses the point.

The movies are important when it comes to fame. Notwithstanding the global exposure that the Newsweekcover gave, movies get further into the public mind. Novelists just don't get to be big-ticket items without major movie success. It's a matter of superlatives. While all sorts of books from The Godfather to JurassicPark might have been bestsellers, none was a blockbuster until it got onto the big screen. Think of it in terms of exposure. A book goes from hardcover, which no one reads, to paperback, which a lot might read. A movie goes to the big screen, then the tape and DVD, then the little screen, then the aeroplane, the coach, the waiting room, right on down to the lunch box, if you happen to be in the kids' market. And somewhere in that chain of diminishing meaning, the writer's words have a chance to enter the common parlance. It wasn't Mario Puzo's novel that put Puzo's "offer he can't refuse" into the language. It was Francis Ford Coppola's film and a few other films that tried to get on the bandwagon. A few television miniseries came next and then the parody of the genre. Through it all, Puzo's enduring phrase endured. And Mario Puzo wrote something that just about everyone in the Western world is aware of, even if they don't know the source, or Mario Puzo. Now that's what a scribbler can call fame.

 

WHETHER OR NOT the fame is in the name or the achievement is a no-brainer in the early millennium. Fame is in the name. One sweep of the newsstands shows that there is very little correlation between fame and achievement. It is pleasing to note that Elmore Leonard has scored on both counts. The respect with which top-gun screenwriters, such as Scott Frank, put Leonard's words on the screen, as opposed to the old Burt Reynolds days, is matched by the appearance on Oprah or in the magazine Christmas lists of what was cool in 2000-and-something. But serious fame, the fame of the pointy-head serious types, is still out there. There's still a space on the Leonard family mantelpiece where the "We love you Elmore Leonard, from the boffins at Yale" statuette might go.

The space on the Leonard mantelpiece is testament to the irony of literary studies in the late 20th century. As Leonard's star rose as a popular novelist, one might have thought that his star was ascending in the academy, too. The eighties were a time, after all, when popular literature was making its case in tertiary study. But the terms were wrong. It was popular literature, not popular novelists, that was popular. We were not so interested in the writers as in the language of the popular. The novels, the literature, the language, the écriture, these were the things that we were interested in. These were the things that wrote the novelists, and us, and the world. When you signed on to study popular literature in those days you were studying the langue, the parole, the ideology, the discourse and the dispositif of the literary production chain. A bunch of books on the bestseller lists was the last thing on your mind. It was quite a time.

My memories of the early nineties place the most serious discussion of literary excellence in a taxi. Here in Brisbane there was a young Indian cabbie with a Gene Vincent haircut who was kind enough to ferry me to work on occasion and showed an enormous interest in ranking literary greats. The only time that we strayed from the literary was when he wanted to discuss the relative merits of different filmed versions of Hamlet. At work, all talk of literary excellence was over.

A good old study of virtuosoship would have corrected the irony of the cross-directional stars. That, after all, is what Leonard is, a virtuoso in soft covers. And it is not as though we weren't aware of that. That's just what his contemporaries were telling us. We just weren't reading that way then. The claims were manifold. They were just coming from the wrong quarter. British novelists and higher journalists were not what we were listening to. We were reading translations of French philosophy to give us an angle on English language prose and all the time Leonard was getting more and more popular. But not with us, not for what we wanted to say about literature at that time. He was always popular for pleasure but we wouldn't take him home to meet our pointy-headed boffin mother.

 

THOSE WHO DID find things to say about Elmore Leonard were his contemporaries in the higher press. In The New York Times Magazine, back in 1984, Ben Yagoda quotes Don Fine, Leonard's publisher at Arbor House and the man who had bought his first two novels for Dell paperbacks in the 1950s, as saying, "We'll create a whole Elmore Leonard legend."[ii] And they did. Much of what is known of Leonard today has been filtered through this character created for the sake of publicising the man behind the books. There is no reason to suspect that whatever is said is not true but, at the same time, there are very few that get beyond the Leonard that is revealed for public consumption.

There were two advantages to the creation of the Elmore Leonard legend. The first was to get him out of the mire of the genre writer's stable. He had for years been writing terrific novels that were getting reviewed as genre novels and the cycle became self-fulfilling. The second might have been more fortuitous. He had, by the mid-eighties, an impressive backlist that could be resold each time his audience grew. The creation of a legend does more than just bring fame and fame is not just its own reward.

As the reputation grew, Leonard developed a much more public face. GQ named him as one of 10 "Michiganians of the Year" in 1984.[iii] There were moves made to claim him as a South Florida writer: "Let's claim him while we can."[iv] And there was the Newsweek cover and story in 1985. The moves to attribute more than merely popular status to Leonard began around this time with author J.D. Reed bestowing the title of "A Dickens from Detroit" on Leonard in Time.[v] From this point on, Leonard was continually discussed in the more significant metropolitan press with an eye on not only his increasing success and fame but also on his literary achievement.

By early the next year, Leonard was being lifted from the ranks of even well-respected crime writers, such as John D. MacDonald and George V. Higgins, and placed alongside contemporary literary authors such as Bobby Ann Mason and John Updike. Jefferson Morley, in The New Republic, ranked him higher than Mason in the literary stakes.[vi]

With an historical allusion and a contemporary ranking, it was clearly time to become part of an American tradition. That came in the same week as the New Republic article when Luc Sante passed him "the mantle of John O'Hara as a taxonomist of society" in The New York Times Review of Books.[vii] From then on Leonard was a regular in all the important press. From the same time, his reviews began to come from more and more serious literary figures: Walker Percy on Bandits, "There's a Contra in my Gumbo", Nora Ephron onGet Shorty, "The Shylock is the Good Guy" and Barry Gifford on Maximum Bob, "The Alligator Rings Twice".[viii] These were great times for the Leonard fan. The reviews were almost as entertaining as the books.

By far, Leonard's most prominent literary advocate has been Martin Amis. He has sung Leonard's praises far and wide and particularly in an article in The New Yorker in 1994.[ix] Amis has spoken from the podium and written in print of his delight and amazement at Leonard's facility in issues of point-of-view and perspective control. More than that, he's clearly a big fan.

In that period from the mid-eighties, which brought bestseller status, to the mid-nineties, when the literary world had come out on his side, Leonard had become firmly entrenched as a celebrity in American life. His timing was perfect. Not only was he a hot property with the reading public, he filled the role at the time when television was keen to show him off on talk shows and breakfast shows. The consolidation effect was keen. It was a great time to be a bestselling author. Daisy Maryles had already noted that those at the top of the writing game were not relinquishing their spots so easily. Her Publishers Weekly analysis of book industry statistics for 1990 showed that not one of the books with sales over 100,000 was by a new novelist.[x] Each of the first 15 fiction bestsellers was by an author who had already appeared on the bestseller list. Leonard was there and he was staying there.

 

BUT THE LITERARY acclaim from the academy still eluded him. Perhaps the ultimate accolade in contemporary American letters came from Theresa Carpenter, again in The New York Times Book Review.[xi] In reviewing Pronto, she noted that Leonard had begun to be compared to Flaubert. Living US novelist compared to dead continental novelist, does praise get any higher? But the academic ink was still not flowing.

We might go back to the movies to find out why. By far Leonard's strongest connection, in recent times, has been with Quentin Tarentino, as advocate of Leonard's books and director of Jackie Brown (an adaptation ofRum Punch), and Jersey Films (Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher) as producers of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, perhaps the two most successful Leonard adaptations (but maybe not for those of us who still like the westerns). Tarentino was still recalling Elmore Leonard anecdotes for a profile in The New Yorker last year.[xii]

In both cases, what has been promoted in the interviews and promotional material circulating around the films is the sound. They all talk about the sound as the ineffable quality of Leonard. No one does it quite like him and this is what they are trying to get onto the screen. They didn't always make it. Jackie Brown became a Tarentino film, Get Shorty consolidated John Travolta's latest comeback in Tarentino's Pulp Fiction (also Jersey Films) and Out of Sight became a marvellous career accelerator for both George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Leonard got some glory but, in real terms, he got lost in the shuffle. But that isn't surprising because praising the sound of the source novelist does not sell a movie.

But there's still a clue in the films. If you can locate a print of Out of Sight, you might see it in the scene where the two bank robbers, Jack Foley (George Clooney) and Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), are driving. Don't look at the video, the scene was cut when they moved it over. Buddy is taking Jack around Detroit's sad assemblies of the slowed down and the closed down. He used to work at Chrysler Jefferson. As Buddy looks out at the industrial wasteland that once held his future, Jack looks out at reveries of Karen, the federal marshal he loves. The film seems to pause while two improbable bank robbers think on things. It is a very touching scene.

In the book, Leonard intercuts Buddy's account with Jack's daydreaming. The effect is to lose control of the characters' identities for a moment but not for long enough to be confused. Who we are mingles with what we would like to be or have been. It is one of the real high points of all of Leonard's 30-plus novels. It might have been a target for a long time, where the point-of-view control creates an interior out of the detail of the exterior. It's Elmore Leonard as Stendhal. Now that's what a scribbler can call fame.



[i] This issue was for April 22, 1985, and the article by Peter S. Prescott, "Making A Killing", Newsweek, (April 22, 1985), pp. 62-7, accompanied the cover.

[ii] Ben Yagoda, "Elmore Leonard's Rogue Gallery", The New York Times Magazine, (December 30, 1984), pp. 20-9.

[iii] J. Anthony Lukas, "Elmore Leonard under the boardwalk", GQ, (December 1984), p. 259.

[iv] Phil Stafford, "Elmore Leonard's South Beach Realism", Marquee, (May 1984), p. 32.

[v] J.D. Reed, "A Dickens from Detroit", Time, (May 28, 1984), pp. 84-6.

[vi] Jefferson Morley, "Middle-Class Hustlers", The New Republic, (March 25, 1985), pp. 38-40.

[vii] Luc Sante, "The Gentrification of Crime", The New York Times Review of Books, 32, S (March 28, 1985), p. 20.

[viii] Walker Percy, "There's a Contra in my Gumbo", The New York Times Review of Books, (January 4, 1987), p.7; Nora Ephron, "The Shylock is the Good Guy", The New York Times Review of Books, (July 29, 1990), pp. 1 & 28; Barry Gifford, "The Alligator Rings Twice", The New York Times Review of Books, (July 28, 1991), pp. 8-9.

[ix] Martin Amis, "Blown Away", The New Yorker, (May 30, 1994), pp. 47-9.

[x] Daisy Maryles, "Fiction Sales Outpace Nonfiction", Publishers Weekly, (March 8, 1991), p.17.

[xi] Theresa Carpenter, "On the Lam in Rapallo', The New York Times Review of Books, (October 17, 1993), p. 39.

[xii] See Larissa MacFarquhar, "The Movie Lover", The New Yorker, (October 20, 2003), 79, 31, p. 147.

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