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December 6, 2013

TT: Is that all there is?

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I reflect on the novels of Elmore Leonard and the limitations of pop culture. Here's an excerpt.

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When Elmore Leonard died in August, the papers were full of obituaries that described him as "a novelist who made crime an art." So, at any rate, declared a headline writer for the New York Times. A year earlier, the National Book Foundation had presented Mr. Leonard with its annual medal for "distinguished contribution to American letters," calling him a "great American author," and the Library of America announced that it would be bringing out a three-volume edition of his work in 2014. I didn't want to rain on his cortege, so I didn't say what I thought, which was that he was one of the most overpraised writers of our time. A very good one, mind you--I'm a passionate fan of Mr. Leonard's brisk, funny crime novels--but overpraised all the same.

detroit-author-elmore-leonard.jpgWhat's wrong with his books? For one thing, they're repetitious to a fault. I can't count the number of Mr. Leonard's novels that revolve around a divorced man of a certain age who falls hard for a wised-up younger woman. On the other hand, a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger. No matter how many you've eaten, you can usually make room for another one if it's good, and Mr. Leonard wrote a lot of good books, "LaBrava," "Maximum Bob" and "Tishomingo Blues" in particular.

So why grump about his obituaries? Because they exemplify a trend that has gotten out of hand. It used to be that we didn't take popular culture seriously, but now we don't take anything else seriously....

The problem is not that pop culture doesn't deserve to be taken seriously. It's that a culture totally dominated by popular art is by definition limited. Let's go back to Elmore Leonard's novels for a moment. Sure, they're superbly crafted, but they're all pure melodramas whose subject is crime, with a little romance thrown in for seasoning. So, almost without exception, are the TV series that have come of late to be widely regarded as the best that America's storytellers have to offer. From "Hill Street Blues" to "The Sopranos" to "Breaking Bad," these series are all thrillers of one kind or another. To be sure, they use the time-honored conventions of genre fiction to explore many other aspects of American life--but in the end, somebody always gets shot, just as a pop song, no matter how good it may be, is almost always three minutes long....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted December 6, 2013 12:00 AM

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