Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Elmore Leonard's westerns

I first read Elmore Leonard's westerns only after becoming an unshakable fan of his later crime fiction, so maybe I didn't read the oaters with as sharp and critical eye as I might have levelled at a new and unfamilar writer. Leonard's westerns struck me as the same great writing merely removed to another place and time.

Stephen Abell, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, has applied much more critical rigor to these novels in his review of the newly released The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. Click here to read Abell's review. He writes:

Thick enough to stop a bullet from a Sharps rifle at ten metres, the volume contains thirty fine tales of the rough world of nineteenth-century Arizona and New Mexico. Leonard selected westerns as a genre, because he “liked the movies” and could sell stories to the ever-proliferating pulp magazines, while also developing his nascent writing style. It seemed the ideal situation for a young author: earning and learning at the same time.

The earliest stories of this chronological collection show that these two motivating forces can easily come into conflict. Earning two cents a word to help support his family, the author is caught between the twin demands of household and literary economy: a pressure to leave in what should be left out.

Abell notices what I did not:
In the early stories, we can see signs of mercenary haste overriding artistic judgement. There is the accidental jangle of near-rhyme: “de Both didn’t particularly give a damn. He knew he was a man”. Or the relentless description of weather and landscape that--as Leonard noted--merely means “the reader is apt to leaf ahead, looking for people”. In four pages, the featureless background features like this: "wild, rugged rock”; “steep, craggy mounds”; “steep, jagged rock”; “craggy peaks, sharp and jagged”; and “steep, jagged rock” again.
But that's about the sum of what the reviewer finds wrong with these early stories. His bottom line is high praise.
Fortunately, what Leonard comes to recognize--and what The Complete Western Stories predominantly proves--is that “being a good author is a disappearing act”. As each story passes, so the young author allows himself to recede from the text. This offers one model of successful genre-writing, in which the genre is more important than the writer: the development from the exceptionable to the unexceptional. However, this collection demonstrates that Leonard is, in fact, exceptional in his ability to evoke the romantically rancorous world of the American West and to do exactly what all writers are supposed to do: tell a story well.
"[T]he central virtue of The Complete Western Stories," Abell writes, "is its record of the emergence of a real readers’ writer."
As if to emphasize this, we have the publication of The Best American Mystery Stories, a collection of writerly writers – indeed of a writer’s writers: chosen by Joyce Carol Oates. It acts as something of an uncompanion volume to Leonard, demonstrating by contrast everything he does well. Oates is gloomily pompous about crime-writing; instead of welcoming its ability to arouse and involve the reader, she is po-faced: “There is no art in violence, only crude, cruel, raw and irredeemable harm, but there can be art in the strategies by which violence is endured, transcended and transformed by survivors”.

--Marshal Zeringue