Even people who don’t read crime fiction have felt Leonard’s legacy, which can be detected in everything from the films of Quentin Tarantino to the novels of David Foster Wallace. He wrote bestsellers and got called a “literary genius” by that notoriously tough critic, Martin Amis. He was renowned for his dialogue, but even his exposition has the syncopated delivery of a bar-stool raconteur.
You’d think Leonard’s work would have had better luck in Hollywood; with his celebrated economy, he did most of the work for his screenwriters in advance. Only two movie adaptations of his books were much good: “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Get Shorty” (1995). But then again, once television, that writer’s medium, came into its own as a vehicle for grown-up entertainment, we got “Justified.” The loping rhythms of serialized drama turned out to be a better fit for Leonard’s fiction because some of its best moments come when his characters are just jawing. The interchange above sounds like a snippet of repartee from the marshal’s office in “Justified.”
But even those unfortunate enough to have never seen “Justified” and to have never read Leonard’s books will, if they write at all, have come across perhaps the single most circulated text he ever produced: “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” otherwise known as “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writers,” originally published in the New York Times in 2001. The world is full of readers (not to mention reviewers) who’d like to see this list distributed to every aspiring novelist on the planet.
Leonard wrote that his 10 rules can be summed up as a single dictum: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” (More specifically, he includes imprecations against opening a novel with descriptions of the weather, the use of the adverb “suddenly” and fancy variations on the word “said.”) My favorite on the list is Rule No. 10: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Leonard’s 10 rules are not quite a manifesto for the porch-steps strain of American prose, but they are a corrective to the pulpit crowd, to the speechifying and clotted lyricism that passes for “beautiful” writing in too much literary fiction. “If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you … you can skip the rules,” Leonard noted politely. “Still, you might look them over.” Yes, you might.
I did and I hope I learned from him. Rest in peace.