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April 18, 2007

Crime Writing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Bruce Grossman raves about novels by Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Elmore Leonard. All three are among my own crime-writing favorites. Folks who casually assume that genre writing doesn't offer a lot of brilliance or much writin'-writing pleasure are in for some surprises if they try these guys.

Between you and me, in my personal art-cosmos all three rate as entertainer/artists on a par with Duke Ellington, Ruth Brown, Count Basie, the Cord automobile, Robert Siodmak, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Cary Grant, Margaret Sullavan, and the Chrysler Building. Ie., they're among the very best that American culture has to offer. But let's keep that between us, OK? I wouldn't want the wrath of the Official Lit Set descending on me.



UPDATE: Thanks to jult52 for linking to this great Elmore Leonard 10 Rules of Writing. Read; memorize. You can now skip creative-writing school.

posted by Michael at April 18, 2007


You know, Michael, you Blowhards keep whispering to my dark side...till my dark side magnifies that populist whisper and wants to proclaim boldly that there is no literature after fifty, just READS. There is no art after fifty, just ENTERTAINMENT. Art and literature are ok if time's on your side. The two parts of Henry IV (minus the comic bits) make for a great READ...but I can no longer endure Paul Scofield running about in bad weather commenting on, er, universal themes or whatever. Age was supposed to bring me closer to Lear; instead, I'm closer to Jules Maigret.

People were surprised when Andre Gide suggested that Simenon was the best author of his time. Maybe Gide was over fifty...and actually like to READ.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on April 18, 2007 8:25 PM

Robert -- That's really perceptive. It really is all reading, isn't it. And I hadn't noticed that age-50 thing, but you're right it certainly seems to hold water. I wonder what shifts at 50. People at 30 often go thru something similar. They kind of wake up to the fact that they aren't at school any longer, and that they get to read to please themselves. Something similar kicks in around 50 -- but what is it? A similar kind of "what the hell, why not?" feeling?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2007 11:52 AM

I love all three of these guys, but Leonard doesn't seem to quite fit in with the other two. Ever since he was "discovered" around twenty years ago, Leonard has been about as well known as a crime novelist can be, and a fixture on the bestseller lists. Not only that, he has been awarded the seal of approval of the Official Lit Set. Willeford and Goodis never achieved that recognition, and probably wouldn't have even if they'd lived longer. It's pretty tough for a genre writer to achieve OLS recognition, and the only other contemporary example I can think of offhand is Stephen King. Any thoughts on why these two got it and so many other deserving writers didn't?

Posted by: Michael P on April 19, 2007 12:34 PM

MichaelP -- It's a really good question, isn't it? Well, set of questions. Stephen King has kind of muscled his way into lit-world acceptance. At a certain point he just seemed to decide he'd go get it, and went and did it, and good for him. Not easy. I can't really remember when the NYTBR set took up Elmore. Was there a film that put him over? Or an intellectual who took him up? Occasionally these spasms occur ... A Times editor will write an essay about how he really enjoys watching TV, and suddently "everyone" will discover that, hey, some TV isn't so bad. I should really trace down the story of how Elmore acquired lit-world cred. Goodis and Willeford do show up in this Library of America volume, and god bless Robert Polito for standing up for their kind of writing. But you're right, they certainly haven't become required reading for the respectable set. Again, hard to explain. Got any hunches? My own guess is that the lit world has a very limited number of seats for genre writers, and that who gets to sit in 'em is pretty much a matter of luck. A Times editor announces that he reads you and, bang, a year or two later you're in.

Hmmm, I'm always drawn to the image of the lit world as a snobbish and exclusive country club, I wonder why ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 19, 2007 12:45 PM

I think Leonard is an uneven writer. Some books I greatly enjoyed ("Get Shorty", "52 Pick-up") and a lot of forgettable stuff ("Gold Coast", "Glitz", "Tishomingo Blues"). But check out his 10 Rules of Writing, which I think qualifies him for immortality just on its own merits:

Posted by: jult52 on April 20, 2007 9:22 AM

JT -- That is a great set of writing rules, tks. Have you tried Elmore's early Westerns? I caught up with a couple of volumes recently -- a novel and a collection of stories. They were both just great, and in a different way than his more recent books. Much more tight, suspenseful, and propulsive, and not at all shaggy-dog. It took him a long time to evolve into his current incarnation, I suspect. But I haven't read much Elmore from the '70s, say. I wonder what that stuff is like.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 20, 2007 11:54 AM

MvB: No I haven't, but thanks for the suggestion.

I recently read Ruth Rendell's psychological thriller "The Bridesmaid" and if that isn't exciting genre writing that rises to the level of art, I don't know what is. Highly recommended.

Posted by: jult52 on April 23, 2007 8:52 AM

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