Consider James Joyce’s classic book Finnegan’s Wake for a second. There’s a book that continues to get every form of accolade, kudos, and dosh by an elitist literati for…. Let’s see, shall we, according to our favorite all-encompassing Wiki: Linguistic experiments, literary allusions, free dream associations, and abandonment of the constrains of character and plot constructions. It’s considered one of the greatest books ever written. I myself consider it one of the prime examples of the fact that the literati is a snobbish group which decides classics based on how much they hate books. After all, would you want to read a book for months only to end up believing it was a waste of your time? Yeah, they hate Finnegan’s Wake, therefore it must be a classic because they didn’t want to admit they spent ten years hacking through something this meaningless.
Now, I’ve tried to read Finnegan’s Wake in the past. My experimental shot at Finnegan’s Wake was even shorter than my go at a Jane Austen novel and the pretentious wealthy Victorian-era characters and threads in it, and that’s saying something. Finnegan’s Wake has to be read like one of those Magic Eye pictures that became hot in the 90’s. I constantly found myself moving the book closer and further from my eyes, rotating it in every direction to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. After finally throwing the book into the wall, something about it hit me: Finnegan’s Wake is the kind of thing that might come out of a third-grader’s imagination. If a third-grader had written it and turned it in as a class assignment, Teach would have slammed it with an F, with a skull and crossbones in place of the smiley face, saying it didn’t make any goddamn sense. I have half a mind to believe Joyce wrote it as a Fuck You to a teacher who failed him.
I also never understood the idea of trash books, and I always bristled whenever I heard someone refer to a book or genre I’m fond of as trash. First of all, that makes me wonder just how many of the books we consider classics now were considered trash when they were first written. Frankenstein, yeah, I know that for sure. Frankenstein, however, started out on the literary disability list by virtue of the fact that it was written by a, you know, woman, and therefore it has to be trash because women are too fair to be writers, doncha know. (It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the literati began giving Frankenstein its props.) What makes people the defining guardians of what’s trash and what’s good? My philosophy toward reading has always been the story over writing kind. Prose is nice, but if it comes at the expense of the story (Mr. Joyce and Ms. Austen, I’m still looking at the two of you), the book automatically sucks.
I was a high school student when I was introduced to Dutch books. I’m sure the literati reading this are now off to google great Dutch authors, but when I write of Dutch books, I think of one man: Elmore Leonard, the legendary crime author nicknamed “Dutch.” Compared to a lot of the books I had read by that point, the way Leonard wrote was shockingly minimal. My first Leonard novel was Glitz, a revenge story, and Leonard was writing blunt through the entire thing. He was writing as a storyteller, stripping his prose of all the unnecessary fat, letting his characters carry the book through their dialogue, and damn if it wasn’t an effective way to do things. To tell the truth, I thought Glitz was merely average, but I was interested enough to take a look at another book he wrote.
That book was Out of Sight. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Out of Sight remains one of Leonard’s most acclaimed books, and it was turned into a Steven Soderbergh flick is fondly remembered for some reason. Yeah, maybe I was disadvantaged by reading the book before seeing the movie, but I dismissed the movie about five seconds after I saw it. The book turned out to be a turning point in my literary interest list. I loved the main character, Jack Foley, and the smoothness and swagger he displayed in making his first bank robbery in a long time…. The day after he escaped from jail. I adored Karen Sisco, her take-no-shit attitude, and her willingness to employ violence against people who got a little too fresh with her. (I was pleasantly surprised that Jennifer Lopez didn’t end up ruining Karen Sisco in the movie.)
I kept reading through a handful of Leonard’s works. Out of Sight remains a personal favorite, though I took a deep liking to Touch and Cuba Libre as well. Somehow, I kept missing a lot of the better known books. I have yet to read Get Shorty, though I loved the movie. Hombre, Last Stand at Sabre River, The Moonshine War, LaBrava, and several others which any other Dutch fan worth his salt would have read years ago. As I write this, Pagan Babies is sitting on my nightstand. It’s brilliant so far, but not among his most discussed work.
This was all before I started writing myself, though, and a good while before I began trying to experiment with fiction. It wasn’t until I started writing up my own fiction that I began to see the effect Elmore Leonard had on me. I try to write dialogue as realistically as I can. Leonard was also a firm believer in – his words – cutting out the stuff people don’t read. That’s often taken as a fancy statement for not prettying up the prose. I try not to do that, and I’m a much better writer when I don’t. My head, however, hasn’t quite figured that out yet. In the late 80’s, Leonard typed up a quick list of ten rules he always applied to his writing, and I like to believe I apply several of them to my writing. One of his rules is to never start with weather. That’s a law I took to heart – I don’t think it’s an accident that “It was a dark and stormy night” is mocked as a cliche. Don’t overuse the exclamation points is another one. The word “suddenly” might as well have four letters. Tagging dialogue with any word other than “said?” Don’t try that. Qualifying adverbs? Forget them.
Some of those rules, I live and die by. Others, I always keep in mind but can’t help breaking them sometimes. Yeah, “suddenly” is a terrible word to use at the beginning of a sentence if you’re trying to keep a tense atmosphere, but I do sometimes use it in the middle of a sentence. Also, I have occasional adverb problems; I fear readers won’t get a feeling I’m trying to convey unless I use them at certain times.
When I started acquainting myself with other authors and forms of literature, I put Leonard on the backburner, but never completely forgot him. He was always there, and my periodic looks in the library archives almost always include a stop in the L section, where they would scream “Read me!” You better believe I wanted to. Hell, I even intended to, but I have a very broad range of reading interests. I’m embarrassed that it took his death for me to come crawling back.
It was only recently that I started to feel comfortable shopping my fiction around, and I’m not enough of a dope to try to offer any writer’s advice. Here’s a little nugget of wisdom that I’m willing to fight to the death on: Read Elmore Leonard. I don’t care how haughty the tone in which you lecture me about how Dickens or Twain changed your life. I don’t care if you’re a Harvard English Professor the university is giving Alex Rodriguez cash to. You’re not too good for Elmore Leonard and if you think you are, then I’m too good for any of your literary opinions.