September 13, 2007

The laconic hero: now 54.9% talk

In Terrence Rafferty's review of the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma ("Elmore Leonard's Men of Few Words, in a Few Words", NYT 9/2/2007), he echoes the stereotypical idea that real men -- or at least real male heros -- don't talk much:

[I]t's next to impossible for screenwriters, directors and actors to feel entirely comfortable with motivation as sparse as Mr. Leonard supplies, especially for his most heroic characters, and especially in his super-laconic, man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do westerns.

Rafferty admits that the villains in Leonard's crime novels might be a little gabbier:

Mr. Leonard tends to like it chilly, though: no warming sentiment, no gassy speeches, just behavior in all its unaccountable variety. When the market for western fiction dried up in the early '60s, and he began to write the eccentric contemporary crime novels that have since enlarged his reputation, the characters got chattier, but it's mostly the villains.

It's true that Elmore Leonard once wrote westerns and now writes crime novels, but my memory and intuition tell me that all the other assertions and implications of these passages are false.

In particular, it's dialogue more than anything else that carries Leonard's narratives along. I'd guess that his books -- both westerns and crime novels -- contain a larger fraction of reported talk than the books of most other writers do. (A lot of this talk is about motivation, too, but more of that another time.) I also believe that his good guys talk at least as much as his bad guys do, and often more -- though of course individual heros and villains have their own individual styles.

Being a positivistic kind of guy, at least in small things, I decided to do a Breakfast Experiment™ in order to see whether my beliefs about the role of talk in Leonard's works are likely to be right.

Unfortunately, my Elmore Leonard collection is all in paper rather than digital form, so I need to count things by hand. In order to be able to finish the experiment during my breakfast hour, I decided to count printed lines in (my copies of) a few chapters of a couple of books, comparing the total line count to the number of lines that contain some directly-quoted dialogue.

As a baseline, I checked out the first two chapters of P.D. James' Devices and Desires. No one could accuse Ms. James of neglecting sentiment and motivation, or of featuring low-verbal leading characters: her detective Adam Dalgleish is a (fictionally) published poet. The two chapters that I scanned contain 315 lines, of which 56 are direct quotation in whole or in part. By this crude measure, these two chapters are 17.8% talk.

The first two chapters of Elmore Leonard's The Bounty Hunters (a western) contain 731 lines, of which 401 are direct quotation in whole or in part. Thus these two chapters are 54.9% talk

The first two chapters of Elmore Leonard's City Primeval (a crime novel) contain 605 lines, of which 283 are direct quotation in whole or in part. That's 46.8% talk. I won't claim that this is a significantly smaller proportion than in the western novel, but it's surely not more. If Leonard's crime-novel characters are chattier than his western-novel characters, it's not evident in this case.

What about the claim that it's especially the crime-novel bad guys that get talky? Well, the first chapter of City Primeval features a bad guy, Clement Mansell, whose utterances supply 11.1% of the chapter's lines. The second chapter features a good guy, Raymond Cruz, whose utterance supply 35% of the chapter's lines. (The rest of the quoted material in those two chapters comes from victims and other incidental characters.) Again, this is not a large enough sample to allow us to be confident that Leonard's heros are chattier than his villains, but that's the direction of the effect.

This is confirms my impressions strongly enough that I'm willing to offer Mr. Rafferty -- or anyone else -- a modest wager. I claim that the characters in Elmore Leonard's crime novels are not significantly chattier than the characters in his western novels, and that in both genres, the heroes are at least as chatty as the villains. I also claim that the proportion of dialogue in Leonard's novels, taken as a whole, is on the high end of the distribution for recent popular writers. I bet that if we counted up the amounts and proportions of talk in a larger sample of books, the numbers would continue to confirm this. The stakes? Up to you; but at least, if you can show me that I'm wrong, I'll buy you breakfast.

OK, what about Elmore Leonard's allegedly sparse man's-gotta-do-what-a-man's-gotta-do approach to motivation? This is harder to quantify, and I've come to the end of my breakfast hour. For now I'll limit myself to noting that in the four chapters that I scanned, just about everything -- all the dialogue and all the action -- is directly relevant to the characters' motivation in the conflicts that will follow. And a surprisingly large amount of the talk is explicitly about motivation.

Here's a bit of dialogue from City Primeval. A reporter is interviewing the hero, detective Raymond Cruz:

"That's it -- you're trying to look older, aren't you? The big mustache, conservative navy-blue suit -- but know how you come off?"


"Like someone posing in an old tintype photo, old-timey."

Raymond leaned on the table, interested. "No kidding, that's what you see?"

"Like you're trying to look like young Wyatt Earp," the girl from the News said, watching him closely. "You relate to that, don't you? The no-bullshit Old West lawman."

"Well," Raymond said, "you know where Holy Trinity is? South of here, not far from Tiger Stadium? That's where I grew up. We played cowboys and Indians over on Belle Isle, shot at each other with B-B guns. I was born in McAllen, Texas, but I don't remember much about living there."

This stuff about laconic male heros is the other side of the stubborn stereotype about gabby women. And curiously, it seem that both ideas are just as false in fiction as in fact.

[Update -- an anonymous educator writes:

I love the language log, even if I can only understand 2/3 of it. And I remain a fan of David Foster Wallace - in fact, you guys made him more likeable by humanizing his brilliance to some extent.

Anyhow, I'm writing about Elmore Leonard. Anyone familiar with his work knows that it is driven by dialogue. That's what makes him Elmore Leonard. It's strange that the NYT editors would let those claims stand, assuming they had even a passing knowledge of Mr. Leonard's work.

It's a puzzle. I've speculated that journalists are more concerned about whether "facts" are morally instructive than whether they've true, but I have no evidence for this hypothesis beyond its power to account for journalists' behavior in all its unaccountable variety. The author of Heads Up: The Blog, who seems to be a sort of social scientist working undercover as a newspaper editor, put it more charitably in an email to me last year: "For better or worse, that's a function of journalism; it transmits cultural norms and empirical data in roughly equal proportions."

Of course, I agree with Anonymous Educator that the role of dialogue in Elmore Leonard's writing ought to be a cultural commonplace. But as with our fellow citizens' inadequate knowledge of the Simpsons, this is apparently an area where we teachers need to work harder. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 13, 2007 06:53 AM