Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writers Face Backlash
In the wake of Elmore Leonard's death, nearly every eulogy of the famed crime writer has cited his ten rules for writers, published in The New York Times in 2001. But some critics think the rules simply don't hold up to scrutiny.
In the wake of Elmore Leonard's death, nearly every eulogy of the famed crime writer has cited his ten rules for writers, published in The New York Times in 2001, which are meant to translate into a plain, unpretentious style that, while perhaps not exactly Joycean, is easy on the reader, keeping the story moving without too many novelistic flourish.
Many love the rules — but some do not, and have expressed their skepticism about Leonard's writing guidelines even while proclaiming general reverence for the man who came to be known as "the Dickens of Detroit."
David Haglund of Slate has spearheaded this backlash with a much-cited and much-shared piece titled "Elmore Leonard's Rules for Writing Are Full of Exceptions." His was, essentially, a gentle admonition to not take Leonard's rules too seriously, especially if you have that tricky quality called talent:
Leonard’s rules are not so much rules for writing well as they are pointers for how you might avoid writing badly. That certainly describes some of the entries that appear without any exceptions, such as “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said,’ ” and “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.” All of these things can be done with skill, but they can also go very wrong very easily. So most of us should probably avoid them altogether.
Meanwhile, "queen of the sexy thriller" Jackie Collins writes in The Guardian that while the rules make sense, she has never been able to abide by them and that, in fact, she follows not a single one. She proceeds to take the rules apart one-by-one:
1) Never open a book with weather.
Why not? It creates a mood.
2) Avoid prologues.
I love prologues!
3) Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.
Hmmm … failed again.
Some on Twitter — like prominent media reporter Jack Shafer — agreed with this assessment in no ambiguous terms:
Agreed. Wolcott got there yesterday. MT @oliverburkeman: Elmore Leonard's "rules for writers" are complete rubbish. http://t.co/Kp4Divmuda— Jack Shafer (@jackshafer) August 21, 2013
Shafer is referring to this tweet from James Wolcott of Vanity Fair:
Everybody keeps quoting/citing Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for Writing but can't see any evidence anybody actually heeds them. #leonardRIP— James Wolcott (@JamesWolcott) August 20, 2013
Others yet tested the rules against the classics:
@jonnygeller Love Elmore Leonard's rules but has anyone ever tested his "Never open a book with weather" against the classics? Bleak House?— Simon O'Hagan (@SimonOHagan) January 15, 2013
Meanwhile, plenty of tweeters defended the rules:
Elmore Leonard died today. Novelist of HOMBRE, OUT OF SIGHT, JACKIE BROWN, etc. I love his 10 rules of writing... http://t.co/QgGfgyLftb— Joseph Gordon-Levitt (@hitRECordJoe) August 20, 2013
In honor of his passing, ‘Elmore Leonard’s Rules For Writing’ - http://t.co/kTtUejp2jd #RIP— Chuck Palahniuk (@chuckpalahniuk) August 21, 2013
Satirical newspaper The Onion, however, may have had the best response of all to the debate over Leonard's rules with this headline: