Last month I commended the PEN American Center for awarding its Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction to E.L. Doctorow. Often it seems like that kind of recognition celebrates an author’s longevity, but not necessarily a consistent body of work. It’s not that writers don’t deserve props for sticking it out and keeping their standards up for decades at a time, and that in itself is certainly worth affirming. But I feel like that kind of prize, even if it’s just a mouthful of a title and a dinner with a speech, should celebrate a long-term, robust—for want of a better word—oeuvre. And I use that word not because it looks so nice in italics, but because it implies a whole with several acts. It comes from the Latin opera, plural of opus, and involves a lot more than simply staying upright longer than everyone else.
So I’m extra pleased to see that the National Book Foundation is bestowing its annual lifetime achievement award, better known as the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, to Elmore Leonard. Leonard, who turns 87 next month, sold his first short story to Argosy in 1951—and has been publishing with both regularity and panache ever since. He’s written Westerns, crime novels, short stories, pulp tales, and thrillers, 26 of which have been adapted for either film or television.
And while Leonard’s a good, solid writer, long on plot and short on frills, it’s not just about style and it’s not just about age. It’s his ubiquity—whether you like that sort of genre or not, his work is deeply woven into 20th century arts and letters, for one thing. And by ubiquity I also mean a certain physical presence. I have at least three or four Leonard books in the house—how I got them is anyone’s guess, but here they remain, and I’m fairly sure I’ve read them all (and I’m fairly sure I tossed them my son’s direction when he was a teenager). I’ve seen Jackie Brown, I’ve seen The 3:10 to Yuma (both versions, sadly), I’ve seen Get Shorty—I even have the Get Shorty soundtrack. And none of this consumption was particularly deliberate on my part. Elmore Leonard just IS. And I suspect he is for a lot of people in that same way.
Leonard received the PEN Center’s lifetime award in 2009, and I predict he has a few more due him over the next ten or twenty years. Fortunately, he doesn’t have any plans to retire:
“I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything — quit my life — because it’s all I know how to do,” he said. “And it’s fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago, I told myself, ‘You gotta have fun at this, or it’ll drive you nuts.’”