I can’t get the death of Elmore Leonard out of my mind. So please bear with me.
As you know, I had a highfalutin education in the English novel at Lafayette and Stanford, an education I love and cherish. I was taught only A-list writers: Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Henry James, etc. I also was taught a particular way to read them: What are they saying? What does such-and-such mean?
As I became a writer — a humble writer with a limited repertoire — I gave up using the “what does this mean” question when I read books. Instead, I asked, “How does this writer do this?” “How does this writer write dialog and create character and use metaphor and paint a scene?” Stuff like that, craft stuff.
And I found, after much experimenting, that writers of what I’m calling the second rank, taught me more than the “great” ones. I learned so much about dialog and writing a scene from Elmore Leonard. I also learned from P.G. Wodehouse, the funniest writer I’ve ever read. And from John Mortimer who wrote Rumpole of the Bailey. I never asked what their books and stories mean. I asked how they did it. And, wow, did I learn.
I want to point out I never studied Leonard or Wodehouse or Mortimer in a class. There were no classes about them. Maybe students study them now. But I found them on my own and they gave me pleasure, as much or more pleasure than the writers they teach in graduate seminars. And they helped me be a better reader and writer.
I’m just saying.