September 14, 2007

Elmore's adverbs

Yesterday I objected to Terrence Rafferty's description of Elmore Leonard's writing style as "no gassy speeches, just behavior in all its unaccountable variety"; and I even did a tiny stylometric experiment to support my impression that his characters -- the heroes as well as the villains -- are in fact unusually talky ("The laconic hero: now 54.9% talk", 9/13/2007).

It turns out that I could instead have simply made an argument ad auctoritatem. Andrew Brown from Helmintholog sent in a link to his post "St. Elmore's Fire" (10/8/2005), in which he quoted this passage from B.R. Myers' review of The Hot Kid in the November 2005 Atlantic ("The Prisoner of Cool"):

Though pioneered a century ago by the English dandy Ronald Firbank, and then popularized by a man whose first name was Evelyn, the technique of letting conversation carry a story is regarded in America as the tough guy’s way to write a novel, and Leonard makes no secret of his pride in it. Unfortunately, it compels him (as it did Firbank and Waugh) to stick to talkative characters. This excludes the true professionals on both sides of the law, leaving us with small-time cops and ex-cons who rarely keep quiet long enough to seem cool. They’re street-smart for sure, but although the recurring interjection “The fuck’m I doing here?” certainly puts Sartre in a nutshell, no one seems to think about anything, at least not anything interesting.

Andrew wrote that "[Myers'] whole essay is an example of what book reviewing ought to be", and it is.

That doesn't mean that Myers is right, though. He thinks that Leonard's western novels are better than his crime novels because they're more morally serious ("Back then he was still immune to the silly idea that it's unrealistic to pit a very good person against a very bad one, so even in a short novel like Hombre (1961) the conflict seems thrillingly epic in scope") and more willing to probe below the surface ("addressing the reader directly, getting into his characters' heads, and engaging in other things he now dismisses as 'hooptedoodle'").

That's pretty much the opposite of Rafferty's claim that it's hard to make movies from the westerns because Leonard never gives us any clues about the characters' motivation. But my memory of the books suggests that Rafferty and Myers are both wrong -- Leonard's westerns and his crime novels seem pretty consistent to me in tone and style.

I think that Myers' impression of Leonard's writing may have been subtly warped by what he wrote about how to write. Myers observes that

Leonard has explained his craft as a matter of avoiding adverbs and imagery, using only the word "said" to carry dialogue, and doing everything else possible to make himself "invisible." [...]

In recent years Leonard has begun describing his style in the imperative. "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip," he wrote in a famous New York Times article in 2001, "[like] thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them … I'll bet you don't skip dialogue." Just thinking of the prigs who will squawk at this aesthetic makes one want to cheer it. A moment later one realizes that what Leonard is in effect advocating—and indeed, what he writes—are novels in which the characters spend most of the reader's time talking.

Myers' complaints about this aesthetic are partly a matter of taste, not fact:

The screenwriter Richard Price has said that a Leonard line "looks great on the page, but when somebody is saying it, you feel like you have to stand up and say, 'Author! Author! Perfect ear!'" This is because the dialogue often serves no other purpose than to show off that ear. Besides, people may talk like that in real life but they don't hear like that; "use to," for example, draws more attention to the aural surface of speech than anyone would normally give it. There is a reason why the best novelists worry no more about authentic dialogue than is necessary to avoid outright stiltedness.

But consider this:

One might also ask why Leonard can't get that damned smile out of his voice even when he's describing a frightened girl with nowhere to go but a brothel. The answer lies in the tough-guy aesthetic he has spent too long cooping up his talent in: it just isn't man enough to handle any real drama.

At one point in the novel we sense what we are missing.

Joe Young picked up his gun and went around to open the cash register. Taking out bills he said to the woman, "Where you keep the whiskey money?"

She said, "In there," despair in her voice.

There is still enough of the western writer in Leonard for him not to have struck that last line, though it violates his current style in letter and spirit. We aren't supposed to notice how it jars with that famously light-handed approach to violence; nor, I suppose, are we to notice that "despair in her voice" is hardly less of an adverb than "despairingly" would have been. But there is more of 1930s Oklahoma in those four words than in all the novel's historical detail. What good is an aesthetic, if it has to be cheated into accommodating the things that count?

In his western novel The Bounty Hunters, which I just re-read, the background is the genocide of Indians on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1870s. The "bounty" in question is paid by the Mexican government for Apache scalps -- men, women or children -- and part of the plot is that a gang of American outlaws has started killing Mexican villagers, blaming the killings on Indian raids, and selling the villagers' scalps for the bounty to a corrupt lieutenant of the Rurales. But all this is just as much backgrounded in The Bounty Hunters as Depression-era Oklahoma is in The Hot Kid.

And as for that phrase "despair in her voice", this syntactic pattern is typical of Leonard's style in all genres. I wrote about this small stylistic hypocrisy in an earlier post ("Avoiding rape and adverbs", 2/25/2004):

Honesty compels me to point out that Leonard uses lots of adverbs. The first few paragraphs of Cat Chaser have fast, neatly, freshly, once, half, already, almost, directly, there, and today, not counting the large number of adverbial PPs.

I should also point out that Leonard often uses appositives and adverbial PPs in quotative tags:

...Moran said, just as dry.
...Nolen Tyner said, smiling a little, ...
...the woman said, with an edge but only the hint of an accent.
...Virgil said, spacing the words.
...Mr. Perez said, with his soft accent.
...Ryan said, still wanting to be sure.
...Rafi said, his expression still grave.

"Blah blah, Rafi said, his expression still grave" is stylistically different from "blah blah, Rafi said gravely", but it doesn't seem to me that the writer is intruding any less in these quotative-tag appositives than in quotative-tag adverbs.

In that post, I pointed out that Leonard's rate of adjective use is actually on the high side, relative to general prose norms. I didn't count his quotative adverbials and appositives, but my guess would be that he uses them at a rate comparable to what you'd find in some romance novels.

Myers' point about Leonard's sidelong glances at big emotional and moral issues is a serious one. (If you don't like this kind of moral indirection, though, I think you need to blame its sources, which include Twain and Hemingway as well as Hammett and Bogart.) But when he supports this point with the implicit claim that Leonards western novels are richer in quotative adverbials than his crime novels are, I wish, not for the first time, that we lived in a culture where humanists were used to testing their empirical generalizations against ascertainable fact.

[Note: I originally followed Andrew Brown's assumption that B.R. Myers was female -- but a couple of readers have written in to inform me that he isn't, so I've adjusted the pronouns appropriately in the post above.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 14, 2007 06:10 AM