I've made no secret of the fact that among my projects is a Western short story, hopefully the first of a series featuring circuit-riding lawyer Solomon Matthews, called by some the Death Reader because of his ability to interpret the facts of a person's demise from close inspection of the remains. I've also freely admitted that the Western is, as a genre, a bit of a no-go in the publishing world these days.
At its core, Western fiction is myth. It is the American equivalent of wu xia fiction or medieval European ballads: larger than life tales of adventure in a romantic past, told in part to stir and inspire the human spirit and in part to cause general reflection. They are part fairy tale, part parable, part diversion.
Unfortunately, as such, the Western has suffered greatly from the development of a readership that knows better. By and large, the American people have traded in their sense of wonder for their sense of guilt -- their imagination for their intellect. The Western doesn't take place in American history; it takes people in Fantasia. And Fantasia is dying.
One of the first knocks on the Western was a generalized sense of guilt over the treatment of non-whites in American history. To be sure, many dime store Westerns reflected stereotypes of cowboys versus Indians and relegated Asians to the laundry and African Americans to ... well, nowhere. To be equally sure, many Westerns have risen above those stereotypes to portray a much more diverse West.
Unfortunately, the second knock on the Western attacked both the stereotypical portrayals and many of those which showed alternatives. It attacked with a resounding, "That wasn't what it was like." Many readers rejected the very idea of showing anything other than "The West the way it really was." Unfortunately, none of the readers in the late 20th century were particularly active during the Civil War or reconstruction era, and so they were inclined to reject any portrayal.
And this has led into the third knock on the Western: in order to satisfy readers, they should be specifically and factually accurate. In order to navigate general frustrations with the genre, it's easiest to find simply demand historical accuracy. If the facts are accurate, the idea goes, then the story will feel more true.
And so the Western has largely split into two streams: that which includes contemporary cowboy romance stories, and that which has merged with historical fiction. Unfortunately, neither of those strands really allows the Western to function as myth. By being anchored to real places, real times, and real people, the story has lost its transcendence.
I don't mean to make the Western sound lofty by speaking of its transcendence, but one of the important qualities of mythic literature is often that it rises above and exists outside of a particular time and place. Fable and fairy tales, wu xia and Western -- they cannot tell timeless stories of the human spirit if the most important thing about them is their factual content. They may still be good stories, but their not the same stories.
And if you're the writer or reader of another genre, don't feel safe. Science Fiction is criticized if its science smacks of magic or techno-babble. The police procedural, the forensic detective, and the legal thriller have largely supplanted the traditional mystery, and the contemporary cozy is gritty and real. Fantasy editors beg for fantasy that doesn't include dragons, talking animals, or questing elves.
I'm as guilty as anyone of this.
And I mourn the loss of my sense of wonder every day.
But I can do things about it. I can write psychological suspense that communicates realistic human experience within a surreal context. I can write Western fiction that, while perhaps still darker and more fact-driven than I would like, is not concerned with time or place or history. I can try to kick myself in the teeth every time I cringe at the science on Star Trek or goofy design of the BBC Narnia miniseries.
The Nothing has eaten the Western.
But Fantasia can still be saved.
If anyone really wants to.
If you want to protect your genre. If you want to protect fiction and stop the march from story-telling to ripped-from-the-headlines. If you want to protect wonder. If you want to protect imagination itself.
All you have to do is say her name.