Lowlife dialogue

Carl Hiaasen, interviewed in the NYT Book Review on June 3rd:

What book is on your night stand now?

“Raylan,” by Elmore Leonard, one of my writing heroes. There is nobody better at lowlife dialogue.

That is, at representing the speech of small-time crooks, con men, wiseguys, and the like. Well, white American lowlifes; there’s plenty of social and geographical variation in these things.

Even with this narrowing of focus, what’s characteristic of “lowlife dialogue”? In particular, what distinguishes it from mere working-class vernacular?

(Not that reproducing working-class vernacular accurately and convincingly isn’t a considerable accomplishment. Think of James T. Farrell and his portrayals of working-class Irish on the South Side of Chicago (and their speech), especially in his Studs Lonigan trilogy.)

Leonard is certainly good at writing dialogue in working-class vernacular English, and has been praised for his ability. From his Wikipedia entry:

Elmore Leonard has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” because of his intimate portraits of people from that city; however, Leonard has said, “If I lived in Buffalo, I’d write about Buffalo.” His ear for dialogue has been praised by writers such as Saul Bellow, Martin Amis, and Stephen King. “Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy,” Amis told Leonard at a Writers Guild event in Beverly Hills in 1998. Stephen King has called him “the great American writer.”

Wikipedia is less useful in characterizing the elements of his writing style:

Commended by critics for his gritty realism and strong dialogue, Leonard sometimes takes liberties with grammar in the interest of speeding along the story. In his essay “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing” he says: “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” He also hints: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Not very helpful.

Some aspects of the style in Leonard’s dialogue have gotten attention on Language Log: his inclination towards parataxis rather than hypotaxis (here) and, in fact, the sheer amount of dialogue in his writing (here). And Mark Liberman has posted a few times on Leonard’s stated dislike for adverbs modifying said (here and here). But none of this picks out lowlifes from the working class in general. There probably are some characteristic lexical items, but I haven’t seen them discussed.

Slang was certainly one aspect of the style of Damon Runyon’s characters:

He was best known for his short stories celebrating the world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. To New Yorkers of his generation, a “Damon Runyon character” evoked a distinctive social type from the Brooklyn or Midtown demi-monde. The adjective “Runyonesque” refers to this type of character as well as to the type of situations and dialog that Runyon depicted. He spun humorous tales of gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters, few of whom go by “square” names, preferring instead colorful monikers such as “Nathan Detroit,” “Benny Southstreet,” “Big Jule,” “Harry the Horse,” “Good Time Charley,” “Dave the Dude,” or “The Seldom Seen Kid.” His distinctive vernacular style is known as “Runyonese”: a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, almost always in present tense, and always devoid of contractions. (link)

Runyon’s characters stand out as “colorful” (in their speech as well as other ways), while Leonard’s characters (like Farrell’s) fit into their milieu without calling attention to themselves. It would be nice to see a scholar take Leonard’s writing seriously enough to explore the features of his style.

One Response to “Lowlife dialogue”

  1. davidborcherding Says:

    Reblogged this on Kicking the Pants and commented:
    For those of you who liked my post on dialogue, here’s a little more about Elmore Leonard.

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