Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How the Nothing Ate the Western and is Coming for Your Genre Next


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.

The reasons for this are many.  Some of it has to do with writers.  Some to do with publishers.  Some to do with simple trends in taste.  But I think the Western has also been attacked by Bastien's Scourge, Atreyu's Bane, the Mocker of the Princess: The Nothing.

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.



  1. Oh I loved The NeverEnding Story. I hope as with all other trends that the western will make a comeback. Keep crossing your fingers. I'll yell Moon Child to the skies for you.

  2. This is a brilliant analysis. You are absolutely right, and I'd never thought of it before, but the classic Western has a lot in common with the classic quest saga. Its epic themes may simply not appeal to our shallow contemporary culture. I keep hearing that epic fantasy isn't being published much either, except in MG.

    But what is coming, if we are to have no more epics? And no more cozies either (you're right there, too.) Or romantic comedies? More and more gore, rape and torture porn? Zombies? Grand Theft Auto between covers? I'm hoping not.

  3. As a die-hard Louis L'amour and J T Edson fan (my Dad and I fight over who gets to read our precious copies first!), this post was fascinating!

    And I'm answering the call to keep myth and the celebration of the human spirit alive! I will say her name out loud...FANTASIA!!

    Good luck with your Western short!

    Judy Croome, South Africa

  4. It is great to hear from someone who is willing to stand up for a genre they believe instead of writing what they think all publisher want. I believe that all readers know what they would like to read and sometimes it isn't what publishers want to publish. Quite often I've stood in a bookshop looking around for something different and not found it. Good luck with your writing.

  5. I've also freely admitted that the Western is, as a genre, a bit of a no-go in the publishing world these days.

    The only place I see the Western really thriving today is in speculative fiction and horror. Laird Barron's "Bulldozer" mixed Lovecraft with the spaghetti western, and Saladin Ahmed's "Mister Hadj’s Sunset Ride" combines Muslim mysticism with outlaw bounty hunting.

  6. I wrote a Western as a novella for an independent press dedicated to pulp novels. It remains to see if it'll be picked up, but I do worry about the perceived unpopularity of Westerns in mainstream fiction. That said, could it be that people are not reading them as they are simply not being published? I don't know, but I was conscious of maintaining factual accuracy as much as I could, so that no one could say "I didn't enjoy that, the details were all wrong." I write historical fiction anyway but sometimes...just sometimes the details get in the way of a story.

  7. Wow, I've never heard a more compelling reason to write Westerns. I, personally, know nothing about them but I would be a willing reader. Keep the Fantasia alive!

  8. @LA - Thanks! I loved the movie and my wife is a huge fan of the original book. I'll admit the only book I've ever read was one that was adapted for kids to follow the movie.

    @Anne - Thanks, and you're right. I am concerned about the future of all kinds of fiction. It seems like there's a strong move across all genres to replace the fantastic with the speculative, the wonderous with the interesting, and the realistic with the real. Honestly, no knock on vampires or werewolves or angels or zombies -- but I sometimes think the trend toward emphasizing the more human-like of the fantasy taxonomy.

    @Jamara - I wish I were as brave as all that. I am pressing forward with the writing, but I'm thinking about using a pen name to protect my psychological suspense (which seems more immediately marketable) from my Western fic. So, pretty much a chicken.

    @Loren - Yeah, I think that's about right. The classic genre is pretty much dead, in terms of new materials. My local library has what it calls a western section. It's all stuff written before 1970 and then contemporary cowboy romances.

    @Icy - Exactly. I think it can be a matter of picking your details. In my short story, the forensic details are all very careful and precise, but I've deliberated created a place that sounds like it exists but doesn't, and make no reference to time period. I think increasingly, though, readers are fact-junkies and care more and more about the details.

    @Clarissa - I'm trying to do my part! And I'll be sure you get a chance to read my Western writing. :)

  9. When I think about stuff like this, I always wonder if preferences change because writers don't write as well as they used to. None of this is founded on anything at all, but I wonder if maybe writers become too formulaic, and so readers demand a change. I like literary fiction, and I want people to like what I write. But, hardly ever do I think that what I've written is as good as the writers I admire.

  10. I think every genre has its heyday, and it hiatus. Trends; they inundate the masses. Everyone wants to be popular.

    Hang on to that western Nevets; its time will cycle back again. I think you're right about the analytical nature of readers; but then they decide there's not enough wonder in something they can't possibly get a solid, factual answer from, and then its ALL fantasy.

    Just my opinion that no idea dies, it just changes enough to meet the needs of the audience.


  11. I'd like to see the western style novel comeback. Sometimes imaginary history can be sorta fun to read about.

  12. Very well done piece!!!! And I love The NeverEnding Story :)

    I grew up watching Bonanza and there are several movies I like that are westerns. I also like the comical ones like Texas Across the River.

    I do remember reaching an age where I thought it was wrong how Indians and Chinese were treated.

    Then came Tombstone. Wow! And...Shanghai Noon, which blew away all the stereotypes, and was funny!

    I have to believe there is hope for us all.

    Brilliant, brilliant post! Gonna link it to my facebook....

  13. I'm back because I just had the thought that no genre was deader than the English boarding school kids book. The genre thrived from the days of Tom Brown's School Days through the fifties. But after that--for nearly 4 decades--they were totally over. Then along came J. K. Rowling...

    I predict the Western will come back in a new form. But it the frontier quest-for-justice saga will never die.

  14. *looks around*

    *cough* "No one's mentioned Firefly?" *cough*

    *skedaddles before the FOX monster re-appears*

  15. @Domey - Yes, the writing definitely plays into it. I try to take a more positive outlook and not blame the quality of the writing per se, but instead to suggest that any genre becomes increasingly formulaic over time, and it's very easy for both marketters and writers to ride that formula until readers are bored with it. And then, typically, the genre is blamed rather than the formula and the tired application thereof.

    @Donna - I hope you're right! I'd like to have a small part to play in the reboot of the western genre.

    @Austin - I couldn't agree more!

    @TWC - Yeah, that sounds about like my arc, too. What I eventually realized was that there were places within the genre in which the racist stuff was being fought. It just wasn't quite as obvious as the glaringly in-your-face offensive material sometimes.

    @Anne - That is a fantastic example actually! Thanks for sharing that.

    @B - I know a lot of people in my circles love Firefly. I personally nearly wept when I saw it for the first time about a year and a half ago. Space opera. Western. Chinese language. It was like, "Hey, bro, we made this show with your favorite things in it; hope that's okay."


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