Who's your pick for the best living American novelist? Wait, just to be fair let me amend that to the best practicing livingnovelist. Don Delillo? Bret Easton Ellis? Tom Wolfe? Let me weigh in with my own pick. So far as I'm able to tell, the best novels being written now are genre novels, and the best genre novelists are crime writers Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.
It's confusing because these guys write alike, look alike, and their names even sound alike. Both believe in lean, dialogue driven prose with minimal third person narrative.
I remember when books that were mostly dialogue began to make big sales. Everybody thought it was the end of civilization because we took it as a sign that modern audiences were too dumb to appreciate good narrative. I used to think that too, but I've since changed my mind. The fact is that only a few writers of the 20th Century were ever any good at narrative. The ones that weren't plodded along in that vein, because they thought it was expected of them, and that produced some pretty bad books. Like Taylor Caldwell's, for example. Try reading a couple of random lines from "Ceremony of the Innocent" (1976), reproduced below (click to enlarge)........
Do you see what I mean? Professional but boring is how I'd describe it (above). A real sleeping pill. Now sample (below) the leaner, more effective style used in Elmore Leonard's "Get Shorty" (1990).........
Nice, huh? Dialogue carries the scene, and it works beautifully. Leonard's a good practitioner of the new style. Shakespeare told his stories with dialogue, and so can we, provided the dialogue is good.
My only criticism of this lean style is that in our time it's worked best in genre novels with flamboyant, over-the-top characters. Will it work for other types? Only time will tell.
Leonard's a terrific stylist and amazingly he's willing to share how he does it. Here, from the internet, is an abridged version of Leonard's top ten tips for writers. It starts with an admonition to avoid adverbs, then goes on to.........
1 Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his bookArctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2 Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."
3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".
5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.
9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
BTW: I added something important to the Bette Davis post immediately below, to the part about Mankiewicz. Take a look!