One of the head scratchers about English literature is the number of famous books around that nobody reads.
Did you read last year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize? Neither did I. Do you even remember who it was? Same here.
A lot of people, myself included, bought a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Did you ever try to read it?
My begrudging compliments to the psychopathic mullahs who laid a death threat on Rushdie for writing it. Whatever their sins they managed to read enough of the book to be outraged.
James Joyce is lauded as a prose master but if you threw a party for everyone who honestly made it past page 14 of Finnegan’s Wake, two large pizzas would probably cover your food requirements.
Most writers appeal to a narrow slice of the audience. Ezra Pound’s Cantos are great fun for literati who savour a Greek pun leavened by a medieval Italian aphorism while Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) satisfies readers who move their lips when they read.
Very few writers are good enough to please everyone — book snobs and bellhops; genius and jerk. Dickens comes close but he wore too much purple and never met an adjective he didn’t like.
In the end, I can think of only two. One of them died nearly four hundred years ago; the other died last month.
William Shakespeare hardly needs an introduction. Sixteen tragedies, 10 histories, 12 comedies plus a raft of poems, all culled from his teeming brain with a quill pen on parchment.
Though the English language has since morphed and evolved, his works are still performed in his original words every year all around the world, from the London stage to Australian Outback music halls; on a beach in Vancouver and under the white lights of Broadway.
The other master writer? Elmore Leonard, a Detroit boy, dead of a stroke last month at 87.
He wrote more than 40 novels, most of them about crooks, but it would be a mistake to dismiss him as a ‘crime writer’. He was as the New Yorker said, “one of the best writers who happened to write about crime”.
It took the world a while to catch on. He didn’t make the best seller list until he was 60 and his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, was rejected 84 times.
But he was world famous long before he died — and largely unmoved by it.
Critics raved about his ‘ear for dialogue’. Leonard shrugged. “People always say, ‘Where do you get your characters’ words?’ And I say ‘Can’t you remember people talking or think up people talking in your head?’ That’s all it is. I don’t know why that seems such a wonderment to people.”
But wonderment it was in Elmore’s hands. His fans are legion.
One of them wrote of the novel Glitz: “This is the kind of book that if you get up to see if there are any chocolate chip cookies left, you take it with you so you won’t miss anything.”
Chap named Steven King said that.
As for writerly advice, Leonard kept that sweet and simple too. “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things” he advised.
And my favourite:
“Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
Writers, there you have it. Now go and write a classic.
Arthur Black is a regular columnist.