It is my very own lost cause.
Time after time I've taken to these pages to decry the idiocy of Elmore Leonard's inexplicably lauded 10 Rules of Writing, to absolutely no avail. No decent interval can pass before someone out there notes them approvingly, and I'm forced back to the keyboard to object.
The latest offender is Olen Steinhauer, who says the following in his recent review of Leonard's latest novel, Raylan:
In an essay that appeared in The New York Times in 2001, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,” Elmore Leonard listed his 10 rules of writing. The final one — No. 11, actually — the “most important rule . . . that sums up the 10,” is “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” It’s a terrific rule. In fact, I liked it so much that I passed it on to a creative-writing class I once taught.
It's actually a silly, empty rule. If I were to put that rule in front of my students, here's what I'd tell them: That it's one of those bits of seemingly clever writing that, upon actual closer examination, says nothing at all. First of all, what - exactly - is "writing that sounds like writing"? Does Shakespeare sound like writing? Does Ondaatje? Does Zadie Smith? Does Faulkner? Does Pynchon? It is a useless measure.
What one presumes Leonard is saying, given the other dumbed-down rules on his list, is that he eschews what we commonly refer to, for want of a better term, as lyrical prose. One imagines he would have John Banville, Joseph O'Neill and Teju Cole busily erasing their manuscripts. On the other hand, if he doesn't mean that, perhaps he means writing that, because it fails - because it is, essentially bad writing - feels "written". So, basically, fix bad writing. Thanks a whole heap, Elmo.
The point, of course, is that these kind of lists, while sometimes amusing, rarely have anything to do with the real work of writing. (I prefer to paraphrase Deborah Eisenberg to my students - you can do anything you want, provided you can do it.) And it's dispiriting to see people who should know better trot these rules out yet again as some touchstone of great writing. They aren't. As the TLS so wisely pointed out about this list when it first appeared:
The eleventh rule is: If you come across lists such as this, ignore them. The rules may sound sensible enough, but, with the exception of No 5, each could be replaced with its opposite, and still be reasonable advice. Leonard complains that, while reading a book by Mary McCarthy, he had to "stop and get the dictionary" - as if it were a form of pain (William Faulkner, who broke most of these rules whenever he wrote, complained of Hemingway that he "never used a word you had to look up in the dictionary"). And what is meant by "leave out the part that readers tend to skip"? If every writer tried to be as exciting as Leonard, there would be no Brothers Karamazov, no Anna Karenina (remember those exquisitely boring sections on agronomy?), and the shelf reserved for Dickens or Balzac would measure about a foot. Banish patois, and we lose a library of fiction stretching from Huckleberry Finn to Trainspotting. As for dialogue, if Leonard samples Henry James, he will find "remarked", "answered", "interposed", "almost groaned", "wonderingly asked", "said simply", "sagely risked" and many more colourful carriers (these from a page or two of Roderick Hudson). Should they all be ironed out into "said"?
So what do you say, gang? Let's give the rules a rest for the rest of 2012? Because I have, you know, shit to do. I can't be here schooling you every time out. Peace out.